Belief Systems: what they are and how they affect you

Your belief system is the invisible force behind your behavior.

Together with other factors such as your personality, your genetic set up and your habits, your belief system is one of the strongest forces that affects any decision that you are making. The communication styles you are using. The ways in which you react to any things that happen in your life.

Any aspect of your behavior, really.

You have probably heard of the famous nature-nurture debate. In case you haven’t, its the discussion whether human behavior is primarily driven by genetic factors, or primarily by environmental factors.
Belief systems are a part of the environmental side of the coin. Humans accumulate thousands of beliefs throughout our lifetime, about all aspects of life. We gain them through things that other people say to us, things we hear on the news, things we read, or any other external influences that we are exposed to.

All of these beliefs are interacting with one another, affecting one another, and together form a system.

A brief introduction to systems thinking

“A system isn’t just any old collection of things. A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something”
– Donella H. Meadows in Thinking in Systems: A Primer

In other words, there are three main characteristics that define a system:

  • it consists of a set of elements
  • these elements are interconnected with one another
  • these elements are organized in a way to achieve a goal

The elements of a belief system obviously are beliefs. If we wanted to complicate the issue, we could also argue that values and assumptions are also part of a belief system. And that would certainly be correct.

But for simplification, in this article I am going to exclusively talk about beliefs as such.

These beliefs are interconnected with one another. A change in one belief will affect the system as a whole. If it is a core belief, a change can potentially lead to the disruption of the system as a whole. If a set of beliefs changes, other parts of the system will have to rearrange in order to rebuild the coherence of the system.

The ultimate goal of any belief system is a to ensure human survival and the passing on of your genes.
Intelligence and culture have developed as a way for human beings to evolve faster — not on a physical level, but on a mental level. Cultural evolution happens much quicker than biological evolution. Belief systems have evolved as part of this development in order to ensure the survival of human beings.

Besides that ultimate goal of achieving survival, there are also sub-goals of belief systems in different aspects of life.
For example, beliefs around sexuality and dating behavior are meant to ensure the passing of an individual’s genes onto the next generation.

Beliefs around effective decision-making, negotiation and business exist in order to help you achieve a certain status in the social hierarchy.

Beliefs around dealing with things like uncertainty and anxiety exist in order to help you maintain mental health and so on and so forth.

In other words, the sub-goals of your belief systems exist to ensure that you are capable of fulfilling certain needs that you have, whether that is related to fulfilling sexual desires, being secure, feeling loved, feeling a sense of belonging, or being able of developing your self-esteem.

Belief systems strive towards maintaining congruence among their elements

“Cognitive and behavioral change was seen to result from the need to maintain balance or congruence among the elements of the belief system and between beliefs and behaviors” — Grube, Mayton & Ball-Rokeach

I remember well the time when I was starting to get exposed to the writings of people like Seth Godin, who are basically arguing that the world is shifting towards a project-based economy, and that long-term job security can not exist in such an economy.

According to this worldview, there will be only very few conventional jobs like the one’s our parents had for the current generation of millennials. Jobs that people were doing for many years at a time, that were stable with a regular income and a large set of benefits.
For somebody who has grown up in Germany — a culture which is trying hard to avoid uncertainty, which is very conservative and therefore focuses on providing as many social services and as much stability as possible — these kind of thoughts are very disruptive.

Being exposed to a highly different viewpoint as compared to your own belief system won’t change it that quickly.

But if, over time, you are exposed to thoughts and beliefs that are in contradiction to your belief system, then there is a chance that eventually you will start to question some of your existing beliefs.

Most of the time, this process is more like water dripping on a piece of rock constantly. Eventually, the water will be able to shift the shape of the rock, but it will take a long period of time.

Sometimes, though, we are thrown into a radically different environment, which exposes us to a completely different way of thinking so suddenly and with so much force that this process can happen very quickly.
This could happen in many different circumstances like joining a new community of people. Reading the works of new and radically different thinkers. Or moving to another country.

Sudden disruptions of a belief system, however, have very strong effects on one’s sense of self and one’s emotional stability.

If you are in a situation where you suddenly get exposed to very different thoughts and beliefs which really put your current belief system into question, you are likely to experience emotions such as anxiety, anger, confusion, shock and frustration.

In very drastic circumstances, your core beliefs get affected.

Core beliefs are those which are at the very center of your own sense of self. Those beliefs that are so central to who you are, that putting them into question would mean that you even start to question who you are at the core of your being.

Culture shock, for example, is the condition that describes such a situation upon entering a different cultural environment.

It describes a situation where we are exposed to such a drastically different worldview so suddenly and on such a large scale, that we are forced to start questioning some of the most central assumptions which we had made about life so far.

A disruption of your belief system is a chance for growth

When we are facing a situation where our belief system gets disrupted so strongly that we are facing very negative emotions for a long time, we tend to think that there is something wrong with us.

Facing a long period of negative emotions doesn’t necessarily have to be a sign that you have a problem. It can simply be a result of external influences which have caused you to question some of your core beliefs, which has subsequently caused a disruption of your belief system. In those circumstances, it will take time for you to process this new information to the point where it becomes integrated into your belief system. Eventually, your existing beliefs will rearrange themselves in a way that the system reaches congruence once again.

However, there are some real dangers here:
1. people who think that something is wrong with them start trying to ‘get rid’ of these negative feelings. They don’t give themselves the space to process the new information and integrate it into their existing belief system. As a result, they develop a long-term identity crisis.
2. people who see the new information and new beliefs as a threat will often continue to reject it altogether. In doing so, they do not open up the space for themselves to absorb this new information and therefore continue to have strong, negative feelings for a long period of time.

What is the solution for this? Well, basically it is to let go and to accept this period of confusion and anxiety for what it is.

When we embrace the pain of the process and simply let it be, we give our brain the space unconsciously work on the integration of the new beliefs into our belief system, and the rearrangement of existing beliefs in ways that make synthesis between two different viewpoints possible. Even if these different viewpoints are so contradictory that it seems impossible on first view.

That is when real personal growth happens. When we start becoming a significantly different person than who we used to be. When our beliefs change so drastically that people around us start to wonder why we have changed so much in such a short period of time.

Three key elements of belief systems

Homeostasis: belief systems are constantly striving towards reaching a state of equilibrium. This is a state in which the elements of the system only have contradictions that do not affect the stability of the system as a whole. A state of relative congruence.

Self-regulation: belief systems have the capability to adapt themselves to the external conditions in which they are placed. In that sense, the system is capable of reaching a state of congruence regardless of the circumstances through a constant feedback mechanism between internal beliefs and external factors.

Autopoiesis: belief systems are capable of reproducing and maintaining themselves. This goes beyond the capability of mere self-regulation in the sense that it has the ability to change quite significantly and become significantly more complex as part of this process.

To paraphrase the inventor of the concept himself, Humberto Matuana:

“if the organization of beliefs changes, the belief system as a whole changes”

In other words, when you are exposed to new ideas and beliefs, your belief system starts rearranging itself. In the process of doing so, it will evolve and change into something significantly different than what it used to be.

What does all this mean for you?

Firstly, it means that you should not be too worried when you are at a stage of your life that you feel lost, confused, anxious or so. It may very well be a period during which your belief system is restructuring itself due to things you’ve experienced, ideas you’ve been exposed to, changes in your life circumstances and so on and so forth.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be worried about having a negative emotional state for an extended period of time at all. If you feel that something isn’t quite right, and if it stays that way for a long period of time, then certainly seeking out professional help is the best possible option.

Secondly, it means that you should use those periods during which your belief system is weak and in a stage of reconstruction for the sake of changing yourself for the better.

This can mean, during this period of time, that you could expose yourself to the right ideas and the right environment which you think will help you to grow in the way that you desire. It also means that during this period of time, you should be especially reflective.

Ask yourself questions like these:

  • which were my core beliefs that I am now starting to question? Why have I started questioning them?
  • which beliefs, ideas and habits have I been exposed to recently that I really want to ingrain deeply into my psyche?
  • which beliefs do I hold that are stopping me from making progress in the direction that I am looking for?
  • which environments can I exposed myself to during this period of time that will help me to grow in the direction of who I want to become?
  • who was I until now? Who am I right now? Who do I want to become?

Thirdly, it means that when you are at a stage of stagnation, or at a stage where you do not want to be, you can actively expose yourself to environments that will trigger a state of shock for your belief system.

Expose yourself to a completely different kind of environment. Join a community that is very different from what you are used to. Move to another country. Take on a job in a completely different field than you were trained in. Read books about a topic that you normally would’ve never touched.

For most people, their belief system is this invisible force that is influencing their behavior without them noticing. Become aware of how your beliefs affect your behavior, and consciously shape how your belief system develops. Your behavior and your habits will follow.


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Tim

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