Building a Belief System Part 2 – What holds us back?

Updated May 11, 2008: Archana Raghuram joined the conversation with a nice book review of Phantoms in the Brain.


Last week we covered what the ultimate belief system would look like using Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit. Thank you all for the stimulating discussion. As i said in my previous post, i want to keep God and belief in a religion outside the scope of this discussion. Ganesh’s comment captures the essential difference between Faith and Belief extremely well. We all liked the quote from Buddha that Arun gave us. NK Sreedhar captures the approach of a sceptic (i am one as well) beautifully in his comment. Scpeticism is a great quality to cultivate for a better belief system. I will talk about another idea in that regard that may be helpful to all. The main purpose of this post is to look at the neuroscientific view to understand what challenges our brain poses.

Left Brain Vs. Right Brain

Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, one of the world’s foremost neuroscience experts discovers, through a series of experiments on patients suffering from a brain disorder called Anosognosia , that the left brain essentially forces us into keeping our current beliefs intact, whereas the right brain plays the role of the devil’s advocate. If you are passionate about Neuroscience, and want to understand how he reached the conclusions that he reached, you may want to read Chapter 7 in Dr. Ramachandran’s brilliant book – Phantoms in the Brain.

To illustrate this, Dr. Ramachandran gives a beautiful example:

Imagine, for example, a military general about to wage war on the enemy. It is late at night and he is in the war room planning strategies for the next day. Scouts keep coming into the room to give him information about the lay of the land, terrain, light level and so forth. They also tell him that the enemy has five hundred tanks and that he has six hundred tanks, a fact that prompts the general to decide to wage war. He positions all his troops in strategic locations and decides to launch battle exactly at sunrise at 600AM.

Imagine further at 5.55AM, one little scout comes running into the war room and says, “General, I have bad news.” With minutes to go until battle, the general asks, “What is that?” and the scout replies, “I just looked through binoculars and saw that the enemy has seven hundred tanks, not five hundred”.

At this point a typical General would like to ignore/rationalize/deny this new bit of information and proceed with his battle plans. Dr. Ramachandran says this is typically what the left brain does – protects us from lots of divergent information creating chaos in our mind by allowing us to delude ourselves. Now, Dr. Ramachandran, asks – what if a scout comes in and says that the enemy has nuclear weapons. That would call for a complete reevaluation of the battle plan obviously. At this point the right brain kicks in and calls for a paradigm shift to handle this new information. Dr. Ramachandran says (it is only a hypothesis now but it makes a lot of sense), the right brain keeps looking at anomalies that come our way and when a threshold level is breached, it kicks in to call for a complete revision of the belief.

Taking time for forming beliefs

Let us say, we formed a belief in our mind, without first considering many points of view (the first step in Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit), we risk forming an incorrect belief. But then even more troublingly for us, the left brain will keep making us believe in the incorrect belief by ignoring/denying counter examples. This is called Confirmation Bias – we only look at data that confirms our beliefs because of the left brain’s need to preserve our beliefs.

For example, instead of trying to find data with a starting position – All XYZ = ABC, you should collect all points of view about XYZ and then form a belief. Even after you do that, when you come across completely contradictory information, you need to revisit the belief again to reevaluate. This is a better strategy and one that sceptics practice. The reason your starting point is important because, given the amount of information we have on the Internet, it will be fairly easy to find supporting data for any belief you may have. Therefore it is important to start with collecting data and then form the belief instead of the other way around.

Strong Opinions Weakly Held

Having strong opinions is a leadership trait and is essential to make decisions about moving foreward. But these strong opinions should be weakly held – that is whenever contradictory information is presented, we order a revamp. I came across this from Bob Sutton’s blog – I am a big fan of his writings. This powerful idea of strong opinions weakly held and a strategy to avoid confirmation bias are 2 big cornerstones of a sound belief system. As we have seen, thanks to the brain, this type of belief system is hard to practice.


It must be pretty clear from the above, that our brain forces us to have confirmation bias, what do you all do to avoid it?


  1. Quote

    Excellent post sukumar..

    However, i need a clarification..
    the example given here is related to decision making or lets say, prediction.. whereas belief system is something that we form over months or years..

    For example, let’s consider this phrase.. “I believed, he would keep his promise” ..
    This kind of belief is formulated over years of the person’s conduct..

    I would like to quote another phrase.. “The army chief predicted, pakistan would not initiate the war” .. this is based on data, and an anticipated decision that army chief expects.. clearly, no one attempts to believe something in case of war or threat..

    Next, i am giving another quote.. “Everyone believed NDA will come to power in last election”..
    The above phrase can also be phrased as “Every one hoped/predicted, that NDA will come to power in last election”.. or, “Everyone was confident that NDA will come to power”

    I feel, there is difference b/w the three sentences..

    So my understanding is that normally, we mostly believe on persons, god, and other abstract things like love, philosophy (eg, advaitam, dvaitam) etc .. whereas, we chose other form of expressions in areas like business, etc.

    In one or other way, belief is dependant on the trust.. Because we trust a newspaper, we believe in the news it prints.. and because the army general trusts his scouts, he believed in the data he brought about..

    Now the question arises.. what if we believed in something, but later on lost the trust on the source of the belief?

  2. Quote

    Hi Sukumar,
    Isn’t it a coincidence that I was thinking of quoting the same excerpt from VSR on your last post. Infact he concludes there is an evolutionary advantage in having a stable belief system. He says it gives a better sense of purpose and better abilty to take decisions.

    “Such everyday defence mechanisms prevent the brain from being hounded into directionless indecision by the combinatorial explosion of possible stories that might be written from the material available to the senses. The penalty of course is that you are lying to yourself, but it is a small price to pay for the coherence and stability conferred on the system as a whole”

    Isn’t it funny that both of us picked up two different passages from the same page 🙂

  3. Quote
    Saraswathi said May 5, 2008, 12:27 am:

    Hi Sukumar,

    Great follow up to the previous post. I indeed loved this chapter of the book “Phantoms in the brain”. Isn’t the confirmation bias something very similar to having a “Cognitive Dissonance”?

    /*It must be pretty clear from the above, that our brain forces us to have confirmation bias, what do you all do to avoid it?*/
    Probably in my case, I have no ego attached to my belief system, so even if somebody says something contradictory to my belief(which happens to be the truth) I might be willing to accept that I was wrong and adapt accordingly.

  4. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 5, 2008, 7:31 am:

    Thanks. It appears you need a definition of belief. Ganesh’s definition is worth looking at – “Faith is the trust you have in something in the absence of proof or fact.Belief is the trust you have in something only when you DO have proof or fact of its existence.”

    I already said i am excluding religious beliefs – so dvaitam, advaitam etc are outside the scope of this discussion.

    The NDA statement you make is not belief. You are taking the word “believed” literally whereas in that context it is being used more like hoped or accepted.

    Our Beliefs are underlying everything we do. When you trust a newspaper, you tend to Believe what the newspaper says. This is also the reason why confirmation bias creeps in. Because of our existing beliefs, we tend to goto sources of information that are ideologically aligned with our pre-existing beliefs. This prevents new ideas contradicting our beliefs taking root in our mind. This is how we deceive ourselves. This is the main subject matter of my post.

    Hope that helps.

  5. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 5, 2008, 7:40 am:

    Indeed a great coincidence. You are right, as i point out in my post, the very same brain facet that protects our mental stability, affects our ability to get at the truth. The only reason i pointed to neuroscience is so that we are aware of how our brain operates and we make conscious decisions about how we collect evidence for our beliefs. This is something we can all easily do.

    For instance, a case could be made quickly using neuroscience that our limbic system is at the core of our emotional behavior. And since the limbic system comes to us through our animal ancestors long time in the past, we can all behave like animals, and then blame the brain’s structure. However, this case would get laughed out of court quickly because, evolution has also given us the frontal cortex using which we can control our behaviors that are of limbic origin.

    In sum, our brain’s functioning pre-disposes us to building incorrect beliefs about ourselves and our world, but it can easily be overcome by thinking carefully and forming beliefs using more data and evidence.

    Hope that helps.

  6. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 5, 2008, 7:46 am:

    Not attaching your ego to your belief system! – That is wonderful. It is actually quite a hard thing to do for most people. If you are able to do it, then you have a key foundation for a sound belief system already in place. Way to go. Have you always been that way or did you make this decision to detach your ego from your beliefs based on your life’s experiences?

    Cognitive Dissonance. That is a great connection you have brought out Saraswathi. I hadn’t thought of this connection. Wikipedia’s definition is here

    Cognitive Dissonance is the first indicator that there maybe something wrong with your beliefs. However, what you do after you experience Cognitive Dissonance is what determines the soundness of your belief system. The typical uncontrolled left brained reaction would be to go looking for sources of data to support your original belief and to ignore the new evidence that caused the Cognitive Dissonance as an anomaly. This in essence is Confirmation Bias.

    In sum, Cognitive Dissonance is related but not the same.

    Hope that helps.

  7. Quote


    Yes, now Cognitive Dissonance makes sense. Thanks for sharing the insights!

    Oh I learnt to detach my ego from the belief systems from my mother. She never hesitates to change her belief if she is found wrong. Also during the course of interaction with many people I realised having rigid views/beliefs only puts us in a “shell” that we unknowingly create for ourselves. Being open to others beliefs/views and adapting ourselves definitely helps.

  8. Quote
    Subba Muthurangan said May 6, 2008, 5:57 pm:

    Great post. I always form strong opinion with weakly held. So that helps me to “roll back” or “commit” my opinion based on more concreate evidence or information. Personally I enjoyed lot of success because of that model, I consider myself a wise man(from Bob Sutton post). But what I’m feeling is, when ever I used to tell my opinions to others, and later on changed based on more information, some people judge me as “weak person” or “unstable” . Is it because I shouldn’t tell others my opinions that weakly held, should I keep that as a secret? or should I explain eveything to others why I held that opinion as weak and later on I changed.


  9. Quote
    Saraswathi said May 6, 2008, 8:46 pm:


    I had the same doubt as Subba. I changed my beliefs based on new facts and was termed as being “indecisive”. Can we avoid such a situation?

  10. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 7, 2008, 9:42 am:

    Thanks Saraswathi. Your mom has been a great role model for you. Excellent. As i said this is hard for many people to do.

  11. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 7, 2008, 9:52 am:

    thanks. Yes, you are a wise man indeed.

    yes, you can be seen as indecisive, if you change your opinions quickly and easily. However, if you notice what Bob Sutton says carefully – he says “strong opinion” weakly held. If he had said “opinion” weakly held, that would be true. When we form strong opinions, it means that we have thought long and hard, considered evidences and formed the opinion.

    In other words, there are 2 steps:
    1. form sound opinions in the first place and express it freely.
    2. If someone has an opinion that is contrary and if it is valid, then one can change the opinion.

    I suspect that we may not be doing step no.1 or even when we have strong opinions, we may not be expressing it freely. So when step no.2 happens, we are seen as swinging with the wind or indecisive.

    In fact, if we do step 1 well and then do step 2 well, our leadership will be even more respected, because as i said, confirmation bias prevents leaders from changing their opinions easily. So those leaders that do that become more accepted.

    Not sure i have given a workable solution to the problem you posed?

  12. Quote
    Subba Muthurangan said May 7, 2008, 6:58 pm:


    Thanks for the kind words.

    Yes. I re-read the Bob Sutton’s post and compare your notes. Now this makes lot of sense. We have to wait until an opinion forms strong in our mind to express it freely. But we have to “weakly held” and based on more information, we can change/adopt new opinion. Where “some opinions” come and go (other words short-lived) so we need to careful before expressing it freely. I think that now I got the whole picture.


  13. Quote
    pk.karthik said May 8, 2008, 2:00 am:

    Very Insiteful Sukumar…..

    Its a long time since i visited ur posts so ..I hope i am not late for the discussion.

    I may be tangential ..but i feel that sometimes our belief systems is based on what is convienient for us..I guess the tank example may summarize….

    Another porblem which all of us face without realising it ..imposing our belief system on others voluntarily or involuntary…As a result we are responisble in building up a system in our own sphere’s of influence….as result it makes us judgemental on others……

    I did not get chance to read Bob Suttons blog…will try to read and express my views too

  14. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 8, 2008, 9:21 am:

    Thanks Subba. I think you got it.


    Yes, what is convenient to us is a good point. And i think it is due to the left brain goading us to believe what we already believe even when contradictory information is presented.

    I don’t think i understand your second point? How do we impose our belief system on others?

    Please do read Bob Sutton and express your views.

  15. Quote
    pk.karthik said May 8, 2008, 10:36 pm:


    What i mean by imposing is as follows…

    See if I am the manager in a company and I have 100 people under me then any discussions etc i may have my last word….Now my subordinates will tend to agree with me out of respect or out of fear…..we may hear lone voices of dissent here and there but then they will be overcome too …

    So each these 100 souls when they grow and move around ….after viewing a successful tend to follow him….The manager may have never consiously tried to do it but then….his anecdotal experiences etc will guide/misguide people.

  16. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 9, 2008, 8:05 am:

    That is a good point Karthik. This is why it is important for everyone to have a sound belief system, so that we don’t negatively influence people that are around us. Unfortunately, since having a sound belief system is uncommon, i am not sure we can eliminate this negative influence you have talked about? The way you put it, it does sound scary.

  17. Quote

    Karthik, I think it depends on the organization structure, organization business operations and practices. Just imagine Apple without Steve Jobs. He has his own way. He gives problems and pushes everyone hard. He influences. In this example, I am not able to say whether it is correct or wrong.

    Personally I worked with some managers who are very strong focussed (to the extent they are not great people managers), but I see one thing that amazed me, they are highly customer focussed. My take on this with a sound belief that “one can be customer focussed but still try to be a lot people focussed”, I am able to personally make a practice that we have to balance between the two. Customers will be there, they might be gone. But the team we build will always be there for us and the synergy we bring in is what will ultimately bring the results (there is a cycle here).

  18. Quote

    It also happens in many areas including technology. In 2000 and 2001 EJB is God. Every web application tried to use EJBs and it caused many performance issues. (due to bad programming, bad design and not right solution to the given business problem), then in 2002/2003 POJO revolution started, bad mouthing EJB component model became a trend. Many frameworks we commonly see now like Spring, Hibernate, (to some extent JBoss which really striked balance) came out. In that environment, I attended an architecture training by Juha Lindfors, a JBoss Engineer. All other architects went into an argument with him when he told EJBs are useful and not to be abhorred. The other side were arguing strong. Being a great guy, he calmed the class and reasoned with them. A big lesson I learnt is that never have sweeping opinions in technology. Have a balanced view of the business problem and give a balanced solution. Not just with what we know, but with what we can do to solve the problem.

  19. Quote

    Thanks for your reply to my query Sukumar. i got your point..

    I am still not convinced on the trust factor.. i may be wrong.. we dont use to trust a data or information.. however we trust the source of the data or information… This is where i am not clear.. for example, we trust the newspaper.. as a result, we believe the information/data/news received from it.. (most of the times, we never used to verify the news ourselves.. its not possible too )

    The second factor is the level of “Convincing” .. we believe some thing, which we get convinced. so apart from trust, this convincing factor also influences..

    I never believe anything that doesnt convince me.. Even if there is any challenge to my existing belief, i will not change it, as long as i am convinced i am wrong.. For each belief that i make, there is certain amount of reason and thoughts put in to it.. so, if at all i change my belief, i would first analyse why i believed the existing one, and analyse where i went wrong..

    So, my opinion is that when we change our belief, without realising where we went wrong, we end up in unstable belief system..

    In many cases, there is no definite criteria to judge whether a belief one has right or wrong, as it happened in the example that vamsi explained..

  20. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 9, 2008, 10:12 pm:

    Interesting examples Vamsi. Steve Jobs is an exception. His style defies definition as well as common sense views of what is leadership. Therefore modeling after him maybe incorrect. Here we are talking about regular folks’ belief systems.

    As for the EJB example, that is a great example of an unsound belief system. In technology every thing comes with pros and cons for a certain situation. An architect needs to be conscious of this. The problem is often times, Architects use the same solution (EJB in this case) for all problems. This is why we land in problems later.

    As for customer focused versus employee focused? I am not sure it is an either-or. We need to do both well. Without customer focus there is no business and without employee focus there is noone to execute the business.

  21. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 9, 2008, 10:28 pm:

    Thanks. Yes we do trust some sources of information and trust everything they write. A good newspaper is a good example. However, even within the trusted newspaper, you can separate fact from opinion. For instance, when the newspaper says 100 people died in a traffic accident, it is most likely to be correct. But when they say inflation is out of control and Manmohan Singh has done nothing – that is an opinion. For it to become a fact, we need evidence – maybe this evidence is what you call as “convincing factor”?

    Opinions are formed based on one’s belief system. Like you say, i dont think anyone will believe something unless they are convinced of its validity. However, what is convincing to one person may not be convincing to another. For instance, i am convinced that the caste system is evil. Whereas you think caste system is noble. Which belief is correct? Sometimes the passage of time can show up the truth. For instance, it was common knowledge that the earth is flat. Now we have incontrovertible proof that the earth is spherical. By the same token, some beliefs may never get settled by the passage of time.

    You say, when your belief is challenged, you don’t change untill you know why you are wrong. This is good. However, the add-on i would propose is this – when your belief is chalenged, try to argue why that challenge is correct and try to see if there is more evidence in favor of the new challenge. Typically, what people do (the essence of my post) is when their belief is challenged they seek more evidence on why their current belief is correct or why this new challenge is incorrect. This is known as the confirmation bias.

    A person with a sound belief system tries to avoid confirmation bias.

    Hope that helps?

  22. Quote

    Thanks sukumar.. its a coincidence that the example you quoted appeared on Prem’s internal blog (regarding obama and hillary’s win) few days back.. your point is very valid.. but, even the figures sometimes go wrong.. for example, during elections, it was apparently wrong.. also during last tsunami, there was wide variance in death toll reporting.. This is where multiple sources of information helps..

    i feel, both opinion and belief system induce each other.. Also, the differences in experiences of the people, social background, and the way the people grown out, also plays a factor.. for example, regarding the “God Telling” example i quoted in your egypt blog, you had outrightly rejected.. but, the next week, i saw another god telling in my gula temple, and i just verified directly whether its spontaneous or pre-planned.. it was spontaneous.. before that, it was my opinion, but after that incident, my opinion got transformed in to a strong belief, that this “god telling” is a way of rural spirituality..

    Secondly for caste system, i came from the very caste background that you term it as evil and still living in that environment.. i have a first hand experience of this system, and hence could understand more than others.. And still the village setup very much exists in both my village and my relative’s villages.. so anything that we argue, i could verify at the ground level.. that’s why i am strongly advocating against terming it as evil.. i have been analysing the caste system for past two years, and i should thank you for providing valuable links in your earlier post, which gave new insights to me..

    The level of one’s experience also shapes one’s belief..

    I agree with your confirmation bias. it occurs more due to taking sides and attempting to defend one’s belief system.. but, can we term it as confirmation bias, when both the sides has valid points, but believe in opposite things..

  23. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 11, 2008, 6:45 am:

    You are right. Even the facts can be incorrect. Yes, that is why you have to read trusted newspapers. And even trusted newspapers can distort facts, but then you have to depend on some agency that will report the facts accurately. Otherwise, you will have to collect your own news and report and there is no guarantee you won’t make any mistakes either.

    Yes, Opinions are created using a belief system. That is correct.

    “God Telling” – I did not deny that it existed. I have seen it myself. Whether it is a legitimate scientific phenomenon or not is the question. It is not a scientific phenomenon. It is either put on, or they are under the influence of some drug or they have some sort of a psychological disturbance – possibly due to a temporal lobe malfunction in the brain. If you are really interested in why God Telling happens, you may want to do some research on the Internet.

    Caste system is evil. The fact that you hold a positive view of it because you have seen it in your village does not make it evidence. If you want to prove that caste system is not evil, please collect data. Goto several places, talk to people, understand how the caste system and then do a blog post or write a scientific paper, and then we can have a discussion.

    Yes, level of experience affects one’s belief. Absolutely.

    You are right, confirmation bias occurs when one’s attempt to defend one’s beliefs.

    Please give an example of when both sides are correct and have valid points?

  24. Quote

    Thanks sukumar..

    * I will write my own post on caste system..

    * I will also write a post on god telling too… if possible, i will interview the person who had that “God telling”.. based on my observance, i feel, its NOT due to drug or psychological disturbance..

    * I would quote the hillary vs obama campaign.. both are equally capable.. this is an example where both sides have such large number of delegates (more than 1500 each) and believe their respective candidate is right choice.., and both sides are valid in many points.

    Some general scenario where both sides have equal valid points may occur in interpretation of data.. For example, in our earlier discussions on priya’s post on status of women, i gave a statistics on number of crimes in both india and US. But our interpretations are completely opposite, which i feel valid in both terms.. (probably you may feel, i am totally wrong)

  25. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said May 12, 2008, 9:24 am:

    Look forward to your post on the caste system. I think we may be talking about two different things. I am talking about “Saami Varudhal” – Someone claims that Saami or God is speakking through them. They also enter a state of frenzy and say things that are generally taken as God’s utterances and acted upon. Maybe you are talking about something else?

    Not sure hillary vs. obama is a belief system thing, but one could argue that it is, because people tend to vote on party lines (depending on which party they belong to).

    On the crime statistics you reported. The problem is, in India crime statistics is notoriously hard to obtain, especially crimes against women – rapes etc go unreported because the burden of proof is on the woman – a classic trait of a male-chauvinistic system. So comparing India’s crime statistics with the USA is a flawed comparison and in the same way using what i call as the “Trophy Progress” argument – namely, Indira Gandhi, Indra Nooyi and Jayalalitha are there in positions of high power and hence Indian women are better off than American women. Another instance of flawed logic.

    It is going to be very hard to come up an example where there are 2 equally opposing arguments both based on scientifically obtained evidence? Yes, it is possible, but most often, one side is using flawed logic and refuse to accept it due to the confirmation bias.

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