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The Bristol Psychotherapy

& Hypnotherapy Clinic

who knows what to believe?

 

 

Like many of my blog posts I quickly find that I have enough to ramble on about to fill the pages of a book and this post is by no means an exception. That said I’m certain that the topic of knowing what to believe and what not to believe is one that everyone could talk at great length on simply because it is something that affects us all.

 

 

Our beliefs shape the way we see the world. They affect the way in which we interact with other people. Not only that but they affect our physical and mental health, our ability to cope with difficult situations, and our ability to make the most of life in the present. At the extreme end of the scale our beliefs can justify shocking acts of violence and brutality and drive wedges between people where none need exist. However many of our beliefs are not concrete realities that we can prove beyond all reasonable doubt, they are largely formed of opinions that we have adopted for various psychological and social reasons.

 

 

Beliefs are tricky because they often change. It’s likely that many people over the age of thirty will have changed their beliefs about general life-stuff several times throughout the course of their lives already, ranging from fairly innocuous beliefs about how to dress oneself, what music is ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and what sort of food or people they like, to the biggies like religion, politics, and morality.

 

 

Unfortunately some of our beliefs about things can limit our experience of life. Partly where we go wrong when developing some of our beliefs is that we easily succumb to black and white thinking in which such ideas as ‘breakfast being the most important meal of the day’ become a global fascist mantra when the truth is that your personal dietary requirements are largely dependent on your unique metabolism and various other personal factors. This is why we often get mixed reports about what foods are good for you and what foods are bad; quite often the truth is just specific to you and your individual make up; there is no global one-size-fits-all even though we wish it were that simple.

 

 

Likewise we tend to hold wholly irrational beliefs simply because they’ve been passed on through the generations. Studies have shown that being inculcated in youth to believe, for example, that black cats are a sign of good luck (or bad luck depending on whose beliefs you’ve been exposed to) can actually have far reaching effects on such things as your ability to cope with stressful situations in adulthood. In a similar way racism, sexism, and any other beliefs that have no clear reasonable or rational thinking behind them get passed on to the coming generations who then have to shoulder the burden of the consequences of such beliefs.

 

 

Then there’s misinformation. The Internet has made this problem both better and worse. For example research shows a dangerous trend today in which people self-diagnose through Google. Sadly individuals who do this often have the propensity to believe what they read on Google more than a person who has spent several years at medical school. From a psychological perspective such people are termed obsessional neurotics. Obsessional neurotics have been a thorn in doctor’s sides for years in the form of hypochondriacs (now informally termed cyberchondriacs), now sadly sufferers of this obscure condition are armed with gigabytes of misinformation and mass hysteria, ironically most of which is posted on-line by other obsessional neurotics! ('Sufferer' is not technically that right term because the obsessional neurotic often doesn't realise that they are obsessional, it is their family who usually suffer as a consequence of their obsessive demands and worries.) On the flip side the Internet has given us the power to quickly compare and contrast information in order to gain clarity over a particular subject matter. Nowadays, when presented with a situation in which I’m uncertain of what to believe I take it upon myself to dig out the evidence and compare both sides of the argument, this way I can circumvent the problem of confirmation bias.

 

 

Confirmation bias is a phenomenon in which we are inclined to seek out information that confirms and validates our pre-existing beliefs, and deny, even reject altogether, any information which is to the contrary. This is significant when you understand that we have two main kinds of belief. These are outlined in the book Thrive: How to Change Limiting Beliefs by my colleague Rob Kelly. The first type is “formed out of repetition or ‘common sense’”; the other type of belief is “formed out of a NEED to either protect you emotionally or psychologically from some perceived threat or fear”. It is this second order of beliefs that are likely to succumb to confirmation bias. It is also this second kind of belief that causes the most damage socially, even globally.

 

 

So, aside from being aware of confirmation bias and the fact that your beliefs may be serving some sort of protective function, what else can we do to know what to believe? Science says that we should start with the null hypothesis.

 

 

In science the null hypothesis is the default position. What this means is that an experimenter commences with the notion that there is no relationship between two phenomenon, they then seek to reject or disprove this hypothesis by carrying out various experiments. Following that the experimental process can then be reviewed, refined and replicated. After several studies the larger group of data can then be analysed and meaning can thus be extrapolated.

 

 

But is science always right? In short, no. The beauty of science however is that it is self-correcting. Science accepts the inevitable fallibility of its method but seeks, over time, to provide an increasingly accurate picture of how thing are. Ultimately it provides a universal methodology from which to commence exploring the world around us – in other words, in a world of uncertainty it gives you somewhere to hang your hat.

 

 

For this reason science and scepticism go hand in hand. Sceptics are often decried as people who don’t believe in anything. In reality though a sceptic is someone who seeks to shape their own personal beliefs on the presence of evidence rather than hearsay. While we may have an incalculable number of beliefs in our heads, when it comes to the conscious investigation of a particular topic it makes logical sense to reserve judgement for the evidence. People often have a great difficulty with this largely because we are not accustomed to this way of thinking. For instance I have an interest in philosophy, I also have quite an intuitive way of working, still I recognise why scepticism is a sound and rational basis on which to secure any intellectual foundation.

 

 

Naturally we have to be willing to challenge the scientific data due to the fact that it is capable of creating a distorted picture of a problem. For instance the most scientifically proven treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder is exposure and response prevention. I would contest that the results garnered from the studies into exposure/response prevention paint an inaccurate picture of what is happening. For anyone interested in reading about exposure/response treatment for OCD there is an interesting book by James Bailey called Man, Interrupted that describes a biographical account of exposure/response at a treatment facility in California. For those without the time, exposure/response basically means getting the OCD sufferer to repeatedly face their fears until they lose potency. It sounds fairly logical but this is where I put my therapists hat on and begin to question whether the data surrounding the effectiveness of exposure/response could be somewhat misleading.

 

 

What the conscientious observer has to understand is that OCD symptoms are the outward expression of an internal anxiety or emotional conflict within the individual. As such the form that those symptoms take is relatively inconsequential. The symptom is in fact an intellectualisation – the sufferer attributes the cause of their anxiety to an external agent, and they do this for two key reasons: Firstly in attributing their anxiety to an external source they effectively deny - and thereby avoid - the originating causal conflict which, due to its stressful and personally challenging nature they are highly motivated to do. Secondly by attributing their anxiety to an external object or circumstance they intellectually create the conditions in which they can have an element of control over their anxiety by avoiding those particular objects and circumstances to which they have ascribed significance. For example in the classic OCD symptom of hand-washing the sufferer has a fear of germs, in essence they have attributed their inner anxiety to the presence of germs and a fear of contamination, they then unconsciously seek to get control and rid themselves of this anxiety by ritualistically washing their hands. It is easy to see now how exposure/response treatments are deemed effective. The sufferer’s ‘object of fear’ is an irrational association, it has no meaningful reality; it is purely psychogenic. The OCD sufferer isn’t actually scared of whatever they believe they are scared of, they are scared of what that object represents to them unconsciously. Given that the object of fear isn’t the true source of the problem it is going to be relatively malleable and open to change.

 

 

You often come across this kind of ‘results illusion’ in the world of hypnotherapy when a hypnotherapist uses classical suggestion therapy to treat conditions like OCD. The symptom is affected by the hypnosis session and both therapist and client feel that the job was a success. Sadly what invariably follows is that the anxiety emanating from the as yet unresolved causal aspect of the problem seeks an alternative outlet, perhaps in the form of a new phobia or skin condition. Another highly likely outcome is that the OCD symptoms will creep back in over time and will eventually surpass their original intensity. This is because the sufferer at this stage doesn’t blame the therapist for not curing his symptoms but instead blame’s himself for having such a devastating and incurable condition. Consequentially the deeper he believes in the validity of his OCD the worse it becomes.

 

 

From this minute exploration of OCD we can see that scientific data can create an inaccurate but highly convincing picture of what is happening. This does not imply that the scientific method is wrong or should be abandoned. It is simply to state that we have to apply the same rigor of scepticism to science as we do to anything else – fortunately this approach is most welcomed by science.

 

 

In a world in which truth is elusive, science and scepticism are some of the best tools for establishing common ground. The only caveat being that the sceptic must be sceptical of his own scepticism and be prepared to shift his/her beliefs in light of new information and evidence.

 

 

As I said at the start there’s too much to write about in one blog post. However for practical reasons we could conclude by saying that in a world of perpetual uncertainty the most suitable method of knowing what to believe is firstly to accept the inevitability of change and secondly to be prepared not to hold too tightly to your beliefs. I'm sure I'll return to this challenging topic again sometime, for now though perhaps we should end with the immortal words of the Socratic paradox, “I know that I know nothing”.

 

 

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Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

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© SEBASTIAN T. EASTWOOD-BLOOM 2018

The Bristol Psychotherapy

& Hypnotherapy Clinic

Home          Symptoms         Treatments         Reviews          About Seb          Fees          Location          Contact 

Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

The Bristol Psychotherapy

& Hypnotherapy Clinic

Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

© SEBASTIAN T. EASTWOOD-BLOOM 2018

Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

Who knows what to believe?

 

 

Like many of my blog posts I quickly find that I have enough to ramble on about to fill the pages of a book and this post is by no means an exception. That said I’m certain that the topic of knowing what to believe and what not to believe is one that everyone could talk at great length on simply because it is something that affects us all.

 

 

Our beliefs shape the way we see the world. They affect the way in which we interact with other people. Not only that but they affect our physical and mental health, our ability to cope with difficult situations, and our ability to make the most of life in the present. At the extreme end of the scale our beliefs can justify shocking acts of violence and brutality and drive wedges between people where none need exist. However many of our beliefs are not concrete realities that we can prove beyond all reasonable doubt, they are largely formed of opinions that we have adopted for various psychological and social reasons.

 

 

Beliefs are tricky because they often change. It’s likely that many people over the age of thirty will have changed their beliefs about general life-stuff several times throughout the course of their lives already, ranging from fairly innocuous beliefs about how to dress oneself, what music is ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and what sort of food or people they like, to the biggies like religion, politics, and morality.

 

 

Unfortunately some of our beliefs about things can limit our experience of life. Partly where we go wrong when developing some of our beliefs is that we easily succumb to black and white thinking in which such ideas as ‘breakfast being the most important meal of the day’ become a global fascist mantra when the truth is that your personal dietary requirements are largely dependent on your unique metabolism and various other personal factors. This is why we often get mixed reports about what foods are good for you and what foods are bad; quite often the truth is just specific to you and your individual make up; there is no global one-size-fits-all even though we wish it were that simple.

 

 

Likewise we tend to hold wholly irrational beliefs simply because they’ve been passed on through the generations. Studies have shown that being inculcated in youth to believe, for example, that black cats are a sign of good luck (or bad luck depending on whose beliefs you’ve been exposed to) can actually have far reaching effects on such things as your ability to cope with stressful situations in adulthood. In a similar way racism, sexism, and any other beliefs that have no clear reasonable or rational thinking behind them get passed on to the coming generations who then have to shoulder the burden of the consequences of such beliefs.

 

 

Then there’s misinformation. The Internet has made this problem both better and worse. For example research shows a dangerous trend today in which people self-diagnose through Google. Sadly individuals who do this often have the propensity to believe what they read on Google more than a person who has spent several years at medical school. From a psychological perspective such people are termed obsessional neurotics. Obsessional neurotics have been a thorn in doctor’s sides for years in the form of hypochondriacs (now informally termed cyberchondriacs), now sadly sufferers of this obscure condition are armed with gigabytes of misinformation and mass hysteria, ironically most of which is posted on-line by other obsessional neurotics! ('Sufferer' is not technically that right term because the obsessional neurotic often doesn't realise that they are obsessional, it is their family who usually suffer as a consequence of their obsessive demands and worries.) On the flip side the Internet has given us the power to quickly compare and contrast information in order to gain clarity over a particular subject matter. Nowadays, when presented with a situation in which I’m uncertain of what to believe I take it upon myself to dig out the evidence and compare both sides of the argument, this way I can circumvent the problem of confirmation bias.

 

 

Confirmation bias is a phenomenon in which we are inclined to seek out information that confirms and validates our pre-existing beliefs, and deny, even reject altogether, any information which is to the contrary. This is significant when you understand that we have two main kinds of belief. These are outlined in the book Thrive: How to Change Limiting Beliefs by my colleague Rob Kelly. The first type is “formed out of repetition or ‘common sense’”; the other type of belief is “formed out of a NEED to either protect you emotionally or psychologically from some perceived threat or fear”. It is this second order of beliefs that are likely to succumb to confirmation bias. It is also this second kind of belief that causes the most damage socially, even globally.

 

 

So, aside from being aware of confirmation bias and the fact that your beliefs may be serving some sort of protective function, what else can we do to know what to believe? Science says that we should start with the null hypothesis.

 

 

In science the null hypothesis is the default position. What this means is that an experimenter commences with the notion that there is no relationship between two phenomenon, they then seek to reject or disprove this hypothesis by carrying out various experiments. Following that the experimental process can then be reviewed, refined and replicated. After several studies the larger group of data can then be analysed and meaning can thus be extrapolated.

 

 

But is science always right? In short, no. The beauty of science however is that it is self-correcting. Science accepts the inevitable fallibility of its method but seeks, over time, to provide an increasingly accurate picture of how thing are. Ultimately it provides a universal methodology from which to commence exploring the world around us – in other words, in a world of uncertainty it gives you somewhere to hang your hat.

 

 

For this reason science and scepticism go hand in hand. Sceptics are often decried as people who don’t believe in anything. In reality though a sceptic is someone who seeks to shape their own personal beliefs on the presence of evidence rather than hearsay. While we may have an incalculable number of beliefs in our heads, when it comes to the conscious investigation of a particular topic it makes logical sense to reserve judgement for the evidence. People often have a great difficulty with this largely because we are not accustomed to this way of thinking. For instance I have an interest in philosophy, I also have quite an intuitive way of working, still I recognise why scepticism is a sound and rational basis on which to secure any intellectual foundation.

 

 

Naturally we have to be willing to challenge the scientific data due to the fact that it is capable of creating a distorted picture of a problem. For instance the most scientifically proven treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder is exposure and response prevention. I would contest that the results garnered from the studies into exposure/response prevention paint an inaccurate picture of what is happening. For anyone interested in reading about exposure/response treatment for OCD there is an interesting book by James Bailey called Man, Interrupted that describes a biographical account of exposure/response at a treatment facility in California. For those without the time, exposure/response basically means getting the OCD sufferer to repeatedly face their fears until they lose potency. It sounds fairly logical but this is where I put my therapists hat on and begin to question whether the data surrounding the effectiveness of exposure/response could be somewhat misleading.

 

 

What the conscientious observer has to understand is that OCD symptoms are the outward expression of an internal anxiety or emotional conflict within the individual. As such the form that those symptoms take is relatively inconsequential. The symptom is in fact an intellectualisation – the sufferer attributes the cause of their anxiety to an external agent, and they do this for two key reasons: Firstly in attributing their anxiety to an external source they effectively deny - and thereby avoid - the originating causal conflict which, due to its stressful and personally challenging nature they are highly motivated to do. Secondly by attributing their anxiety to an external object or circumstance they intellectually create the conditions in which they can have an element of control over their anxiety by avoiding those particular objects and circumstances to which they have ascribed significance. For example in the classic OCD symptom of hand-washing the sufferer has a fear of germs, in essence they have attributed their inner anxiety to the presence of germs and a fear of contamination, they then unconsciously seek to get control and rid themselves of this anxiety by ritualistically washing their hands. It is easy to see now how exposure/response treatments are deemed effective. The sufferer’s ‘object of fear’ is an irrational association, it has no meaningful reality; it is purely psychogenic. The OCD sufferer isn’t actually scared of whatever they believe they are scared of, they are scared of what that object represents to them unconsciously. Given that the object of fear isn’t the true source of the problem it is going to be relatively malleable and open to change.

 

 

You often come across this kind of ‘results illusion’ in the world of hypnotherapy when a hypnotherapist uses classical suggestion therapy to treat conditions like OCD. The symptom is affected by the hypnosis session and both therapist and client feel that the job was a success. Sadly what invariably follows is that the anxiety emanating from the as yet unresolved causal aspect of the problem seeks an alternative outlet, perhaps in the form of a new phobia or skin condition. Another highly likely outcome is that the OCD symptoms will creep back in over time and will eventually surpass their original intensity. This is because the sufferer at this stage doesn’t blame the therapist for not curing his symptoms but instead blame’s himself for having such a devastating and incurable condition. Consequentially the deeper he believes in the validity of his OCD the worse it becomes.

 

 

From this minute exploration of OCD we can see that scientific data can create an inaccurate but highly convincing picture of what is happening. This does not imply that the scientific method is wrong or should be abandoned. It is simply to state that we have to apply the same rigor of scepticism to science as we do to anything else – fortunately this approach is most welcomed by science.

 

 

In a world in which truth is elusive, science and scepticism are some of the best tools for establishing common ground. The only caveat being that the sceptic must be sceptical of his own scepticism and be prepared to shift his/her beliefs in light of new information and evidence.

 

 

As I said at the start there’s too much to write about in one blog post. However for practical reasons we could conclude by saying that in a world of perpetual uncertainty the most suitable method of knowing what to believe is firstly to accept the inevitability of change and secondly to be prepared not to hold too tightly to your beliefs. I'm sure I'll return to this challenging topic again sometime, for now though perhaps we should end with the immortal words of the Socratic paradox, “I know that I know nothing”.

 

 

Back to Blog Contents