Why It’s Hard to Change Beliefs

The other day, I posted an article by Barry Ritholtz entitled "A Millionaire Mindset Never Made Anyone Rich" on Facebook. Granted, the article is an opinion piece rather than research based. But he should know: He's the Chief Investment Officer of Ritzholtz Wealth Management who work with high net worth individuals.

He starts his article with "The notion that just thinking something can make it happen is a joke. Too bad some people fall for it." In fact, many people fall for it and the self-help industry is rife with such advice. A belief that mindset can bring about change without any action by us is just magical thinking. The appeal is that it makes people feel good. This is seductive, but feeling good doesn't often translate into action, which is crucial.

Research on motivation (which is really the purpose of mindset) shows that the key to motivation is to make progress in meaningful work no matter how small. This leads to more progress resulting in an upward spiral, with motivation and progress fueling each other. And there are two other forms of magical thinking that have been researched: visualization (which is often recommended as a way to change mindset and, if done incorrectly, can actually hinder progress) and positive affirmations to improve self esteem which actually have the opposite effect on those with low self-esteem, the very people they are designed to help. 

In one of the Facebook groups I belong to, I received a lot of pushback (over 50 comments in 1 day!). People hold onto their beliefs, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. 

That's because of cognitive biases which all of us fall for to a greater or lesser extent. A cognitive bias is "a mistake in reasoning, evaluating, remembering, or other cognitive process, often occurring as a result of holding onto one's preferences and beliefs regardless of contrary information."

It's unclear how many cognitive biases there are (some list +200 biases) but these two seem particularly apropos here:

  • Confirmation bias: The tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. This limits people’s ability to question information that confirms or upholds their beliefs.
  • Conservatism bias: The tendency to revise one's belief insufficiently when presented with new evidence.

To be clear, I'm not against changing your mindset. I'm against thinking that it's the only thing you need to do to achieve success.  I'm angry at those who continue to preach this kind of magical thinking to vulnerable people (by vulnerable, I mean those who buy into this). They are actually holding them back from success, for their own gain.

Please let me know your thoughts.

  • But, everything is about money $$$$. People sell programs, mastermind groups, etc., the only people who become rich are the people selling these types of programs.

    • It is true, Eva, that many people make money by selling a lie. Sadly, many people are looking for an easy fix, which these marketers provide. The truth is change, even a mindset change, requires effort. Any good coach or psychotherapist will tell you that you need to apply what you’ve learned. Otherwise, it’s just information.

  • Excellent article Irena. And Cognitive Dissonace is at play also, when evidence is contrary to a belief we hold. Do we adjust our belief to align wothyhe evidence or do we alter how we interpret the the evidence so we can continue to hold onto our belief. Keep on doing what you di and continue to challenege our beleifs Irena.

    • For sure, Colin. It’s easy to believe that, when we’re struggling, it’s not because of our wrong efforts, it’s because of our wrong mindset. And I also think there’s a laziness: changing mindset seems to be easier than putting in the work.

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