The First Principles of Belief Leadership: How to think about beliefs
Reading time: 15 minutes 48 seconds
On a recent podcast, I heard Steven Bartlett, host of the Diary of a CEO Podcast, being asked where he developed his self-belief. Bartlett is an extremely successful entrepreneur and thought leader. The conversation turned to the nature of belief.
Bartlett explained that he didn’t believe you could choose your beliefs. The example he gave was that if someone was holding a loved one of yours hostage and said they would be killed if you didn’t believe that the captor was God, could you have that belief on purpose to save your loved one? Since the answer would most certainly be ‘no’, the argument was that you can’t change beliefs.
I believe that you can change beliefs. It isn’t necessarily easy or quick. Nor would you necessarily be able to believe something like that to achieve another result. But I very much believe that you can believe better. To understand how we can do this, we need to understand several things. We should explore how beliefs develop and why and how they change.
For more than thirty years, I have been obsessed with what people believe. My journey in psychology started from my own struggle with depression while I was a teenager. I found myself trapped in a world of pain, desperately trying to escape. When I first stumbled across psychology, hypnosis, and NLP, it gave me hope. I could learn how to run my brain and control my mind.
At thirteen years old, I found myself walking a mile away to the nearest library and devouring everything I could about how change works. It was then that I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I grappled with my mind for the next few years, doing what I could to practically apply the lessons I got from my studies.
Now, decades later, as I reflect on the incredible adventures I’ve had to date, I have worked with thousands of people across the world helping them to change their beliefs through therapy, training, speaking, and coaching. My job involves trying to get people to believe in an idea that will make their lives better. But to do this we need to understand what beliefs are and where they come from.
The Birth of Beliefs
When you first appear on Earth, it is chaos. From the safety and comfort of the womb, you find yourself thrust out into a room of strange aliens. You are carried and passed around. Over the first few months, things go into you and come out of you.
Patterns emerge. You start to find the faces familiar. These ‘aliens’ are fixing your problems. You learn that giggling makes the aliens turn the corner of their mouths up. You learn that crying gets you what you want. A causes B. This is, perhaps, one of the earliest beliefs born inside you.
You continue to form an understanding of the world from that moment on. You learn meanings. It’s getting dark and quiet. It’s time to sleep. A means B.
Soon, you begin to learn about ‘concepts’ and ‘things’. The world of abstractions comes to life. Reality is now both conceptual and perceptual. It is our beliefs that dictate how to live our lives.
Over thousands of years, what has stayed a constant in human evolution is our incredible ability to believe in extraordinary things.
Once upon a time, we believed in Zeus and Thor and Apollo and Athena. Now, we believe in Jesus or Allah or the Buddha. The stories of the holy books have stood the test of time and become the bedrock for how many people think about their world.
We also believe in stories suggested by scientific interpretations and plausible possibilities. We believe in the big bang and gravity, and while we might not understand it fully, we believe that’s what led to the universe as it is now.
Money is another example. Author Yuval Noah Harari explains that our collective belief in the value of money essentially holds society together. People who despise America would still not say no to the US dollar. What once was silver, then paper, and now simple numbers written on a screen, determines what we can do with our lives. We all believe and trust in money, and therefore, we partake in society. Shared belief keeps things functioning. This shared belief comes from the agreed-upon stories that we tell ourselves.
What we believe matters. A lot. It can determine how we live our lives, how our future turns out, and how the world works. We believe in all sorts of ideas. Some of them are helpful. Some of them are not. We are happy to call some of them facts. Sometimes, our opinions masquerade as facts. Sometimes, we confuse knowledge with belief.
There can be better ways to achieve what we want than believing in the most reasonable idea. Sometimes, believing what we want to believe can be catastrophic for our lives. To live better, indeed to do better, we need to believe better. Believing better does not necessarily mean being right all the time. It means believing whatever allows you to get better results in your life or business.
I developed the field of ‘Belief Leadership’ to empower you to cultivate belief in ideas worth believing in. It examines how we build beliefs in the first place and explores how to leverage the power of belief to transform reality. Of course, we must be mindful to not just focus on HOW we believe what we do but WHAT beliefs are worth believing in. We must understand the ‘better’ in believing better.
Like any field of study, there are several first principles that we base our understanding on. I want to walk you through several of the first principles I have discovered.
1. The Principle of Belief Growth
The growth mindset, as coined by Dr Carol Dweck, suggests that some people believe that they can improve their intelligence and become better at a particular ability. It indicates that some people relish challenges and find themselves more motivated at the opportunity of triumphing at something difficult.
This is contrary to the fixed mindset which suggests that some people believe that they are either good or bad at something and there is little they can do about it.
When I talk about the ‘belief growth mindset’, I am not talking about intelligence or ability. I am referring to the idea that we can grow, improve, and update our beliefs or ‘priors’. We can change what we believe. Indeed, we already have many times.
Since so many of the problems that we experience in reality come from the beliefs that we have, the most effective therapy and coaching interventions work by helping people change the way they interpret the world and therefore updating their beliefs or ‘priors’.
We can’t do it on demand just like we can’t always force ourselves to find something funny. We need to expose ourselves to the experiences that will help us to change our minds.
Our brain is constantly changing as we get more information and tell ourselves new stories about what this information means. This changes some of the connections between neurons in a process known as neuroplasticity. Your brain can learn and therefore as knowledge changes and emotions change, so too beliefs change.
In a nutshell, your beliefs can and do change and when you realize this, it makes you more likely to be able to do so.
2. The Principle of Deep Conviction
Imagine you come across an influencer online that gives you a 30-day challenge and promises you that, by day 30, you will be a billionaire. Would you do it? More than likely the answer is no. Why? Because we don’t trust them.
We understand that society is full of chance artists and hucksters who master the art of over-promising and under-delivering. Their goal is not your success and their success is contingent upon them tricking you.
We don’t take action on ideas when we don’t believe in them. But when we do, we can move mountains. Soldiers fight in wars. Suicide bombers kill themselves on purpose. Cult members allow one figure to dictate how they live their lives.
Conspiracy theorists will sometimes cut ties with their families because they don’t believe in the same things. The population of a country can rise and overthrow a regime. Incredible inventions can be created to save millions of lives. It’s incredible what belief can do.
Ideas don’t lead to change. Your belief in ideas leads to change. Compliance isn’t enough to transform. Conviction is needed for transformation.
So often we listen to thought leaders and we think that by doing what they do, we’ll achieve what they have achieved. But the real trick to it is the belief that you have in the ideas that you learn. When you really believe something, you are more likely to take strong, deliberate, and consistent action in it and feel confident in your success.
3. The Principle of ‘It Depends’
If you want to fight with somebody, give your opinion on the internet. For instance, what is the secret to healthy eating? Eat less. Eat more meat. Eat less meat. Stop eating meat. Eat more fruit. Eat less fruit. Fast for a day. Fast for two days. Eat every three hours. Carbs are bad. Bad fats are bad.
For every opinion on the internet, there will be an equal and opposite opinion. And in many cases, they will BOTH be right. This is what I call the principle of ‘It Depends’ or the ‘Contextual Paradox’.
So often, we crave certainty so much that we love to get one universal principle that we can use to guide our behavior all the time. The problem is, that context really does matter.
So much of the social psychology research demonstrates this principle. We don’t always like the idea, however. Context means we have to work harder than we would like to figure out what is going on in that specific situation as opposed to relying on tried-and-tested fundamentals that work every time. While we love to generalize and find habitual practices that are reliable, success means understanding what works and when it works.
The best answer is very often: IT DEPENDS. When we search for the most useful beliefs to have, we need to understand this first principle.
4. The Principle of Fake Facts
One of the clever catchphrases that sounds clever but lacks meaning is ‘My facts don’t care about your feelings’. This smug and condescending sentence in one fell swoop positions the speaker as the ‘smartest person in the room’. They alone have access to all of the relevant facts and all you have to show for your pathetic self is blind emotions and feelings.
The phrase aims to make your arguments redundant by reframing the conversation. Sadly, it works. Many people make the fundamental error of assuming that everything the speaker then says after their catchphrase is a ‘fact’ which leaves room for them to pretty much go down any rabbit hole they like and successfully win the argument.
Generally, when people are putting forward their perspective and supporting it with facts, there are several different types of ideas that are presented as facts. They can be checked on or not. (we have done the research) They can be agreed on or not. (most people would agree with us)
- Checked and agreed on (The world is round)
- Unchecked and agreed on (Sitting close to the TV is bad for your eyes)
- Checked but not agreed (Climate Change or Vaccines)
- Unchecked and not agreed (The existence of extraterrestrials)
Indeed, most of those ‘facts’ aren’t actually facts. Without falling into an epistemological hole where we endlessly ponder the question “What is a fact?”, it is important to make the distinction between having evidence to prove we are correct and basing our conclusions on intuitions or guesswork.
The following statements also cloud the conversations we have:
Exaggerated facts where someone takes what’s generally true and makes it overwhelmingly true (‘We swallow eight spiders a year in our sleep’ – I mean we probably can but I want to see this research study!)
Kinda factual ideas where someone takes something that is sort of true but not exactly and acts as if it is true. (‘Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb.’ – technically while he contributed, the concept of a lightbulb had been around years before he came along.)
Made-up ideas where someone would like something to be true and therefore act as if it is (‘Astrology dictates the future.’ – I’m only using this example because Mercury is in retrograde.)
Opinions-as-facts The big issue is that most opinions are presented as if they are facts. (‘Organic food is always healthier than non-organic food.’ – maybe overall but still more of an opinion than fact.)
The problem is that we believe in facts. We also believe in ideas that masquerade as facts. We often can’t tell the difference. We must learn to do so. That starts by identifying how factual the idea actually is.
5. The Principle of Probability
One of my favorite questions to ask somebody is ‘How sure are you?’ This is not the same as asking ‘Are you sure?’
The latter provides you with a ‘YES/NO’ answer whereas the former implies that there are levels of certainty at play.
I’ve found that, often, the more convinced someone is, the more likely they are to be wrong. As a result, whenever I listen to experts who show more nuance in their way of thinking, I believe them more.
Since modern society and platforms such as social media and the media reward strong opinions and conviction with attention, more and more people believe that to be listened to, they need to declare certainty on every and all subjects they discuss.
Instead, it is much more useful to think in terms of probability. Believing 100% in something is not often helpful. Instead, we need to focus on how probable this idea is to be correct.
It provides us with a more accurate appraisal of what is going on and it makes it easier for us to adjust and update our beliefs. While this might seem contradictory to believing deeply in it (Principle 2), the key is to factor in the fact that it depends (Principle 3). 😉
6. The Principle of False Authority
Perhaps one of the most problematic consequences of the social media world that we live in today is the ‘trust crisis’. We don’t know who to trust anymore.
During COVID, for instance, there was the conventional, mainstream perspective and there were those that deviated from it. Like so many other issues, both sides weaponized their differences of opinion.
The danger of COVID. Masks. Vaccinations. It didn’t matter what the topic was, people found a way to fight and vilify the other side.
Those who believed in the mainstream point of view were seen as ‘asleep sheep’ and told to ‘wake up’. Those who believed differently were labeled ‘conspiracy theorist nutjobs’. While excessive polarization is a big factor in causing this, another critically important element was who we found ourselves believing.
The problem is not just WHAT we believe but WHO we believe.
For instance, in the COVID case, believing that the authorities could be wrong and maybe even that they have a vested interest in some of the things they were communicating makes sense. But then not ascribing the same rules of engagement to the opinionists that we believe instead is where we make a mistake. So, suggesting most mainstream doctors are wrong and this one random doctor is right is problematic.
At the same time, failing to challenge the mainstream medical narrative whatsoever is also not the best way to go. Just because someone doesn’t drink the Kool-Aid* doesn’t mean that they aren’t drinking some other poison that is equally deadly.
The issue is that once we pick a side, that authority becomes 100% correct. Instead, we need to focus on the actual strength of the argument or idea each time.
We often believe an idea because of who says it just because we have ‘faith’ in whatever they say. We need to recognize this tendency and stop it.
How to start becoming a Belief Leader
So, with this in mind, how can you leverage the first principles of Belief Leadership in your life? Start with these six strategies:
1. Constantly look to be wrong and update your beliefs.
Changing your mind is a good thing. You can believe better and it will help you live better and do better. Understand that your understanding of the world will constantly update.
2. When trying to get someone to do something, always prioritize getting them to believe in it (and not just comply).
Conviction will lead to a lot more action that is better executed than compliance ever will. Cultivate belief. Avoid assuming because a person said ‘yes’ that they will always take the appropriate action.
3. Always consider context in understanding any event.
Get into a habit of identifying what is going on and avoid generalizing as much as you might have done. Think of the specific situation you find yourself dealing with.
4. Look out for opinions masquerading as facts.
Pay closer attention to what people say and how they say it. Notice when they present opinions as facts or if they try and convince you to stop listening and just believe them.
5. Ask yourself ‘How sure am I?’ regularly and evaluate the probability of any conclusions you draw.
Start giving your level of certainty a percentage and remember that you are rarely 100% convinced about anything. Make this a habit.
6. Evaluate the issue and stop believing the same person all the time.
Focus on what the person is saying and less on whether or not you have believed them before or want to believe them now.
By practicing these six strategies, you will leverage the power of belief leadership and start the process of believing better.
The Work of Building New Beliefs
Of course, there is a lot more to it than this. This is where we begin. It’s also not easy to do. Our brains are hardwired for certainty. They crave being right. They like to generalize. They like to think in black and white. They like to summarize things and jump to conclusions.
This is because our brains prefer to ‘think fast’ as Nobel Prize winner Danny Kahneman puts it. They work based on the principle of efficiency. They like to get the best possible results with the least amount of energy. The very same mechanisms that allow us to cultivate beliefs and learn so rapidly as we grow up cause us to rapidly develop beliefs that we haven’t considered as much as we might.
When we first arrived on planet Earth, we needed to make sense of the world so that we could function effectively in it. Our brain’s job was to predict what was going to happen next so it could keep us alive.
It did this by figuring out what was happening. It perceived the world through the senses and perceiving what our body was experiencing through a process known as interoception. It figured out what was going on and then it searched for memories and concepts we had experienced before to make sense of what was happening.
These memories and concepts are the product of patterns we noticed. They were effectively our beliefs about what our experience meant. As we grew up, we adjusted these beliefs and built better models of how the world worked.
True versus Useful
Unfortunately, many beliefs that we have formed are easy to prove true even though they aren’t useful. The power of self-fulfilling prophecies is that we can make what we believe true by acting or not acting in a certain way. So it is not just that we notice patterns from the world and update our beliefs. Our actions cause these patterns which in turn can update our beliefs.
For instance, if you believe you will be rejected, this will cause you not to ask someone out which, in turn, could make you even more likely to feel alone. You might become more convinced that nobody likes you which will make you more convinced that you will be rejected.
As we interact with the world, it is critical to start from what we believe and become better at noticing how it serves us or hurts us.
Steven Bartlett suggested that beliefs cannot be changed on purpose but in the example he gave, the context mattered. The mere fact that somebody told you to believe something to achieve something else suggests that the belief was wrong. You would know that you are just believing this so you would get the result you want. There would be no story you tell yourself as to why it is wrong. It would be a made-up idea but one that you try and force yourself to believe.
Instead, you can change beliefs by reminding yourself that you change your mind all the time. Your beliefs are constantly updating with experience and how you interpret and reflect on the experience. The stories you tell yourself play a big part in this process as do the people you surround yourself with as well as the actions you take.
The point is that believing better is not just a case of making a rational argument as to what the evidence suggests. It is not enough to fact-check someone if you want them to believe something different. We must realize how and why people believe what they do and search to help them understand how all of this works.
It is only then that we will stand a chance at making the world a better place. Our beliefs provide us with the foundation of the future. We must become belief leaders so that we can help more people to believe in ideas worth believing in.
*Actually ‘Flavor Aid’ not ‘Kool-Aid’ was what they drank at the Jonestown tragedy.
P.S. ‘The Language of Persuasion part two – Sales and Relationships’ is my latest Changing Minds podcast episode – you can watch and listen to it here.