Can I Believe This? vs. Must I Believe This?

by | Feb 9, 2020

This pic of a glacier in the Himalayas has nothing to do with this IFOD – I just thought it was cool

Do you ever wonder how people can believe something so different than what you believe? Especially when you are sure that all the facts are on your side – how can people believe the opposite?

Part of the answer lies in how we humans view the world. According to social psychologist Thomas Gilovich, we view what we are pre-disposed to believe differently than those things we are biased against believing. Specifically, Gilovich explains:

For desired conclusions, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe this?”, but for unpalatable conclusions, we ask, “Must I believe this?”

― Thomas Gilovich, How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life

Here’s how this works. When we want to believe something we ask “can I believe this?” We can pretty easily find support for whatever we want to believe (especially with all the crazy stuff in the internet). Even if we only find one questionable piece of supporting evidence we now have justification for believing what we want.

On the other hand, when we don’t want to believe something we ask “must I believe this?” We then look for contradictory evidence. As summarized by Jonathan Haidt in his outstanding book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion: “If we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it . . . you only need one key to unlock the handcuffs of must.”

Here’s an example. Assume that Roy is predisposed to NOT believe that global warming is caused by humans. With respect to man-made global warming, Roy will be in the “must I believe this” camp. So, must he believe it? No. Even though there is scientific consensus that human activity is the primary cause of global warming, it is easy to find support that climate change isn’t caused by humans. Roy can easily find information to support his position that he mustn’t necessarily believe the scientific consensus. Same goes for fears of GMO foods and the anti-vaxxer movement; they can find support for their views not to believe the scientific consensus with a “must I believe this” mindset.

There is little in the world that is completely, undeniably true. And even when something is verifiably true, you can still dig up some argument that it’s not true. Case in point: some people believe the Earth is Flat and others believe it’s shaped like a donut.

Again from Jonathan Haidt:

The difference between a mind asking “Must I believe it?” versus “Can I believe it” is so profound that it even influences visual perception. Subjects who thought they’d get something good if a computer flashed up a letter rather than a number were likely to see the ambiguous figure [shown below] as the letter B, rather than as the number 13. If people can literally see what they want to see–given a bit of ambiguity–is it any wonder that scientific studies often fail to persuade the general public?

Is this a “B” or a “13”?

What can be done?

First and foremost, we should try to recognize our beliefs. What are our biases? When we approach an issue realize what question we asking and try to switch it. In other words, if its something you want to believe try to substitute “must I believe this?” and if its something you are against, try to substitute “can I believe this?”

This is really, really hard! I am horrible at this and I really try.

Related to this is what Charlie Munger has to say about ideology (see related IFOD, Charlie Munger on how to Battle Ideology):

“I’m not entitled to have an opinion on this subject unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people do who are supporting it. I think only when I reach that stage am I qualified to speak.”

1 Comment

  1. There is a book i just came across entitled “The Scout Mindset.” (Julia Galef). it makes some interesting points about the difference between a scout and a soldier. One strives to defend the positions one believes in and to fight the ones he doesn’t. the scout makes it a point to “survey the territory and determine what is true.” Not to defend, not to fight, but to observe rationally and evaluate. It is quite a change from the theme of “is this something I can believe, vs is this something i must believe” and hence discarding things that don’t fit your own personal narrative (often the narrative of the particular missionary you have been following). I sent my brother in law a couple of articles recently regarding the pandemic and the tradeoffs involved between deaths from COVID vs deaths from delayed diagnosis of cancer, increased suicide rates, the latter two from published estimates from medical authorities (not merely my own personal observation, which full disclosure, i had suspected in the beginning- as everything is a tradeoff). His response was some of that what must i believe gobbledygook, and he said he did not have to believe those articles, hence would not believe them. And this from a likely genius IQ doctor. My wife often asks me why i believe “these things” and then asks if i am so right, how come this one or that one doesn’t believe them? (usually mentioning some very smart people in my family). I do not then point out to her, in order to avoid divorce or recriminations from the rest of my family,the quote regarding “useful idiots” nor do i mention Orwell’s essay about ignoring facts easily available “in front of one’s nose.”
    It is very sad the state of where we are now. I also like to point out to those that are so convinced that they are absolutely positively right, based on the 97% consensus among scientists that make it settled, that Galileo died under house arrest because he challenged the Pope’s assertion that the sun revolved around the earth, the settled science of its time.
    I think the Scout Mindset should become mandatory reading among anyone wishing to debate political or scientific issues. Also, i think the quote from Charlie Munger mentioned in your post (thanks so much for that, i have it copied a dozen different ways now, including his entire address to USC Law) should be mandatory reading for anyone preparing to work in the business of political advocacy. I plan to use this for my own organization’s effort in this regards, as they all have exploded their heads due to Trump, etc. and have gone off the rails.


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