Beliefs about Ourselves

In the previous post we looked at a number of scenarios where there is a link between having correct beliefs and a successful outcome. Success in these context meant reacting reasonably to a perceived threat, or it meant achieving a simple goal like catching a train in order to get to work. In any case the interactions with the world and the beliefs involved were relatively simple and immediate. The number of objects and beliefs in play were small.

It appears to me though that the relationship between correct beliefs and successful outcomes is also true for more complex projects, say learning a language or climbing a mountain. In order to learn French, I need to be correct in my beliefs that the vocabulary and grammar I am learning is French. If I am learning Italian words instead, believing that they are French, my project to learn French is doomed. To climb a mountain, I need correct beliefs about geography, weather conditions, the required climbing gear and many other factors, in order to succeed.

Then there is also a question of luck. Luck – good or bad – can mess up the relationship between beliefs and outcomes. Let’s assume that I incorrectly believe that there is a train at 8.20am and therefore go to the station exactly for that time. Actually, I’m wrong. There is a train at 8.15am. On any other day, I would have missed it. But today, as luck would have it, the train is delayed by five minutes so I catch it. The successful outcome can’t be said to have related to any correct belief of mine. Or say I’ve prepared and trained conscientiously to climb a mountain, studied the different routes and ensured that I have the right levels of fitness and the required equipment, but on the day a freak change in weather, totally unpredicted by the forecasters, forces me to turn around before reaching the summit. Despite my correct beliefs, bad luck has prevented a successful outcome.

So far the examples we’ve looked at related to beliefs about things and the way the world is organised. But there is a class of beliefs that is said to be particularly relevant to achieving successful outcomes from our own activities. That’s the class of beliefs about ourselves and our place in the world. That makes sense: successful outcomes are ultimately about how a number of variables turn out to be arranged. And one or more of those variables are bound to concern the people interacting with the world. In the mountaineering example, success may depend on my assessment of my mountaineering skills and what I (correctly or incorrectly) believe about my ability to get to the peak in inclement weather conditions.

The psychologist Carol Dweck talks about this as a “tradition in psychology that shows the power of people’s beliefs.” The beliefs she is interested in are people’s beliefs about their own abilities and their own potential to extend these abilities. She distinguishes between the “fixed mindset” in which people believe that traits such as intelligence are given and static and that challenges are points at which their qualities are  assessed and proven on the one hand, and the “growth mindset” in which people believe that challenges are there to be overcome, that failures are opportunities to learn and that, of course, intelligence and ability can be acquired and extended on the other hand. Dweck isn’t particularly interested in which of these mindsets is true but in the effects of believing in the components of the one or the other.

And the pay-offs in having a growth mindset – that is to say a certain set of beliefs about oneself – are great. People with a growth mindset are more likely to stay on difficult tasks for longer, more likely to succeed at tasks, but also generally more likely to have better outcomes on a range of things such as health and relationships.

Another area where beliefs about ourselves matter is the area of so-called “learned helplessness” and its counterpart “learned optimism.” Psychologists distinguish three areas of belief that are relevant: permanence, pervasiveness and hope.

In the words of Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, the permanence belief looks like this:

“People who give up easily believe the causes of the bad events that happen to them are permanent – the bad events will persist, are always going to affect their lives. People who resist helplessness believe the causes of bad events are temporary.”

So people with a permanent (pessimistic) belief system might think “I’m all washed up,” while someone with a temporary (optimistic) outlook might say “Right now I’m exhausted.”

Pervasiveness is about whether we have universal or specific beliefs and the extent to which we believe the causes of good or bad events affect all areas of our lives, or are specific.

Having hope is about finding permanent and universal causes for good events and temporary as well as specific ones for bad events. So for example to think “I’m talented” rather than “I was lucky this time” if something goes well. Or “I was a bit distracted that morning” rather than “I’m just stupid.”

Seligman, like Dweck, is more interested in the effects of holding those kinds of beliefs, than their relation to the truth. He writes:

“Sometimes the consequences of holding a belief matter more than its truth. When you break your diet, the response ‘I’m a total glutton’ is a recipe for letting go of your diet completely. Some people get very upset when the world shows itself not to be fair. We can sympathise with the sentiment, but the belief itself may cause more grief than its worth. What good will it do me to dwell on the belief that the world should be fair?”

But I’m wondering whether the relationship between beliefs and outcomes that we observed in the previous post isn’t somehow relevant here too. That would mean that the beliefs at the core of a “growth mindset,” that intelligence and capability can be expanded, or the beliefs at the centre of “learned optimism,” that the causes of personal failure are temporary and specific, are correct beliefs and therefore more conducive to positive outcomes due to an interaction between the belief and what is out there in the world.

I’ll want to look at this more in the next post.