Why You Shouldn’t Believe Me

Years ago while in journalism school, I was bothered by how frequently journalists would say that they’re bad at math. Professors would start the self-deprecating jokes, and students nodded along.

To be sure, I struggle to do arithmetic in my head. To this day, calculating tips at restaurants is a challenge.

But I don’t believe I’m bad at math (or maths, as it’s called in the Commonwealth).

I know how to use a fancy graphics calculator. I passed calculus and statistics in high school. And more recently, I passed my accounting college class. I’m no math wizard but I’m proficient at spreadsheets and data analysis.

So where did journalists adopt this self-limiting belief about numbers? And why didn’t I fall into the trap?

Why you shouldn't believe me? How your brain forms beliefs and why it's sabotaging you.Pin

Self-limiting beliefs

The first time I saw the term “self-limiting belief” was on a forum where some users routinely comment on someone’s post by writing, “Dude, that’s a self-limiting belief! Of course, you’ll never be successful.”

The next time I stumbled upon “self-limiting beliefs” was on Tim Urban’s Wait But Why essay on career advice. Though he never uses the term, he advises his readers to search for “imposters” and go to the “denial prison” to uncover their own values instead of following what others tell them is important in life.

Are self-limiting beliefs something everybody carries around?

Recently, I listened to a blogger discuss his mindset and combatting limiting beliefs. He mentioned that he rarely discusses mindset because he finds it “fluffy.” He would rather discuss tactics and strategies for success. That he mentioned it at all surprised me.

Not long after, another I encountered self-limiting beliefs on a newly discovered podcast, Being Boss. The hosts discuss self-limiting beliefs, and Emily Thompson makes a “ding ding” sound like she’s striking an imaginary bell whenever she hears a self-limiting belief.

Aha moment

When talking about “self-limiting beliefs”, I feel like a new-agey, yoga mat-carrying, soy latte drinker who is discussing “chakras”. (Self-limiting belief there?) Yet, I felt like there’s something to this, and I wasn’t done digging to uncover my own self-limiting beliefs.

That’s when I connected the dots.

I have Annie Duke to thank for my “aha” moment when I discovered there’s psychological research underpinning the idea of self-limiting beliefs.

Annie Duke combines her highly successful professional poker career with her education in cognitive psychology to discuss how the brain processes information, in her book Thinking in Bets.

In particular, she cited research from Dan Gilbert, before he became famous for positive psychology research (the study of happiness) and the guy on the Prudential insurance commercials who pushes over dominoes.

In a series of studies published in 1993, Dan Gilbert pits two philosophers’ ideas about belief creation against each other. On one side is René Descartes who postures that humans first understand, then believe. In his view, people can choose the best from the marketplace of ideas to believe.

On the opposing side, Baruch Spinoza posits that understanding and believing are the same mental operation. To understand something, humans believe it as true. Later, they may evaluate whether the belief is false.

Why you shouldn't believe me? How your brain forms beliefs and why it's sabotaging you.Pin

Based on Gilbert’s studies, he concludes that Spinoza’s take is more accurate. The brain’s natural method to process information is to believe first and ask questions later.

Seeking truth is a “retroactive” process. In Gilbert’s words, “belief is first, easy, and inexorable and that doubt is retroactive, difficult, and only occasionally successful.” This effect is more pronounced when our brain is under load, such as when we’re distracted or multi-tasking.

Why does this happen?

It’s an evolutionary advantage.

Humans evolved in a world when perception was the basis of learning. What your 5 senses (sound, taste, touch, sight, and smell) experienced used to describe the world well.

If you hear a tiger’s roar behind you, would you stop to ask yourself, “should I believe the hypothesis that there’s a tiger behind is true?” Or would you immediately run to save your life?

Our natural tendency to understand and believe simultaneously probably saved our lives. It is also the foundation for culture and religion. When was the last time people saw a ghost or the Yeti with their own eyes? And yet, how many people believe they exist?

How many self-limiting beliefs do you hold?

Let’s do a quick test.

How do you tell how old a dog is in human years?

In an article by Annie Duke, she writes that if said you take the dog’s age and multiply by 7, then you’d be perpetuating a myth “that’s been circulating since the 13th century.”

Have you heard these beliefs before?

“Kids are expensive.”

“You gains 2 pounds a year well into your middle age.”

“Retirement starts at 65.”

“Fat is bad for your heart.”

“Fat is good for your heart.”

“Veganism is unhealthy.”

“Skipping breakfast is bad for you.”

“You have to spend money to make money.”

So what?

In today’s marketplace of ideas, you and I are likely to believe what is thrown at you and me, both the optimistic beliefs as well as the self-limiting beliefs. Later, you may question these beliefs. But probably not.

Why you shouldn't believe me? How your brain forms beliefs and why it's sabotaging you.Pin

Annie Duke mentions that it’s tough for the brain to correct itself. It’s easier for others to point out our fallacies.

Emily Thompson suggested mindfulness meditation to foster the self-awareness required to catch yourself in the act.

I opted for both ladies’ advice. For Christmas this year, I asked Alex to “ding” me every time he hears me persist a self-limiting belief.

“Great!” he said with enthusiasm, “I love doing obnoxious stuff like that.”

Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on GarlicDelight.com with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

4 thoughts on “Why You Shouldn’t Believe Me”

  1. anna on your site you tell people to lay a toaster on it’s side to toast the bread .this is a very bad idea.if anything falls or drips from the top slot down to the bottom lower element in the slot wall or the lower slot it can ignite and cause a fire.toasters are not designed to be used this way and if one does catch the manufacturer will have no responsibility.if you look at the owners manual it states that their product should not be used that way.

    • Hi Robert,
      Thanks for your feedback. This is a good point and I should be careful to tell people to use the toaster on the side while they are supervising the toasting with a vigilant eye. And ideally a fire extinguisher in their hands. By the way, are you putting butter on your bread before toasting it? I would just put the bread in without any fat in case the bad thing you mentioned happens.

      P.S. Did you try the garlic bread recipe? If so, what did you think of it?

      • no wish i could!because of my current living arrangement i have easy access to a toaster and a microwave but not an oven ,just thought you should know how dangerous your advise could be ,many people will not be ready for what could happen.

        • Hi Robert,
          Thanks. I appreciate your advice. Where would you recommend I put the caution about the toaster? Probably it doesn’t make sense in this post. Do you have a recipe or post in mind where it would be most appropriate?
          By the way, how do you cook with a toaster and microwave? Are there specific dishes you like to make with these appliance constraints?


Leave a Comment