Common Beliefs

When people in the old days believed things that we now look back on as ridiculous, we call that superstition. But what about the things people believe today en mass?

In Korea, people believe that if an electric fan is left running overnight in a closed room, the people asleep inside will die. It’s called Fan Death.

Fishermen believe that if you whistle or sing into the wind while on a boat, a storm is bound to follow. And don’t try to bring a banana onto a crab fishing boat or you’ll find yourself tossed overboard.

The French believe that placing a loaf of bread upside down on a table will bring bad luck and hunger.

And if you’re unmarried in Russia, you’ll avoid sitting at the corners since that will doom you to a lonely life.

The Japanese won’t sleep with their heads facing north since that’ll shorten their lives.

Don’t laugh. We have some pretty weird belief systems too. Witness the lack of 13th floors all over north America… really, we think because we changed the label on the door or on the elevator button that we made 13 disappear!

All these are examples of Common Belief Fallacy. It’s our willingness to accept any answer to a question rather than NOT KNOW what the hell is going on. Fueled by a desire to make sense of a reality we do not understand, we will grasp at an answer and then embrace that answer whole heartedly to assuage the fear of not knowing.

People seldom weigh facts before deciding what to believe.  And once we believe something, we will defend that belief beyond reason. Beyond reason.

When my mother-in-law presented me with the set of knives I’d asked for one Christmas, she made me give her a penny. She couldn’t “give” me the knives; that was bad luck. I had to “buy” them from her.

When you spill salt, do you throw it over your shoulder?

Do you avoid hanging a new calendar before the new year?

If your left palm itches, do you scratch it, rub it on your rump and put it in your pocket?

But common belief fallacy can be dangerous. When a group of people hold common cultural preferences or beliefs, they are more willing to express their beliefs, further strengthening the common belief.

In 1952 Willian Whyte Jr coined the term Groupthink, which is a narrower version of Common Belief Fallacy, to describe a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a bunch of people who want to conform make decisions based on erroneous information for the sake of consensus.  Nobody rocks the boat. The ingroup seems cohesive but the reality is everyone is afraid to break with the common belief and express their unique, independent ideas.

We may think of ourselves as unique and individual, but our strong tribal instincts make common beliefs fallacy true for all of us. And if we allow our social group to dictate how we respond, we’ll be guilty of groupthink too.

26 Responses to “Common Beliefs”

  1. This column reminds me of one of my favourite scenes from Monty Pythin’s Life of Brian, where Brian, pursued by a crowd who believe he’s the Messiah, encourages them to think for themselves:

    Brian: “You’re all individuals!”

    Crowd: “We’re all individuals!”

    Lone voice: “I’m not!”

  2. As the Society of Actuaries is prone to saying, “substitute facts for appearances”. In the financial world, if you didn’t run the numbers or you don’t have some statistical justification, then you’re falling prey to common beliefs.

    In the life insurance world, seg funds have guarantees that come at a cost – are they worth it? Is term cheaper than whole life? Is 20 year term cheaper than 10 year term over 20 years? If you know the answer to these questions but haven’t run the numbers yourself and looked at the underlying assumptons, then you are falling prey to common beliefs – and it’s likely costing you money.

  3. Don’t like the new font on website

  4. One common belief fallacy is that Canadians believe that real estate will go up forever and that it’s the best investment ever. When hoards of people are buying in, you know it’s time to jump ship.

  5. The font and formatting make this nearly unreadable.

  6. Thanks for saying something, Andrea.
    I was wondering what wrong button I pushed on my lap top.
    I don’t like it, either.

  7. Ah yes, man-made climate change comes to mind.

  8. avatar Marilynne Black Says:
    January 17, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    Yes, This new font is terrible – I can only read the left half of the opinions! Ah maybe there is madness in your message?????

  9. Last night at dinner my youngest son began singing at the table. He was quickly admonished by his older brother that “singing at the table is bad luck.” I asked my oldest son where he heard that load of hooey. Imagine my surprise when he said he heard it from me. #commonbelieffallacy

  10. I think the issue is only with this page. When I jump over the Other Voices it looks right. I’ve also tried to read the article in both IE and Chrome and it looks exactly the same in both places. Hope it gets fixed soon.

  11. I sure hope this font size is not permanent. I can’t read the right side of the article.

  12. avatar Linda Kingma Says:
    January 17, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    I also thought immediately of the Monty Python scene from Life of Brian:

  13. The font is bad, but the advertisement for is over top of the article, so I had to copy it to notepad to read it, thus eliminating the font issue. I tried the page in IE, Chrome and FF but same issue.

    All you have to do is look at religion to know how right Gail is. One religion believes one thing, and another agrees mostly, but not about one particular part so off goes a new belief. Then it’s ground into the kids so they’re basically forced to believe what the parents believe. Doesn’t matter what religion you are. If you’re in a community that believes that religion but want to stand out and say something isn’t right, or you don’t believe at all, you’ll have a really hard time doing so and possibly be persecuted because of it.

    Superstition, religion, banking, government all control people with beliefs.

    So my question is, what’s the way to get out of the circle?

  14. Really not liking the new font & format. It’s quite difficult to read.

  15. I like the message – but could only read half of it as well ! Little green boxes over half of it, plus the new font !

    I hope it will be fixed soon!

  16. I thought it was my computer. I can read everything, but it might take me time to get used to it. Change is difficult. Just like somebody took my arrows away to scroll down last week. There is enough change in the world. Just leave what we can alone unless it improves something. Suppose the print is larger though.

  17. avatar Zero Debt Says:
    January 17, 2014 at 9:53 pm

    Can’t read the posts, repair please.

  18. @Chris

    I agree. I’m in no way religious. I think a lot of it has no bearing in today’s society, but many people use The Bible and the teachings as a security blanket. It comforts them, as does their beliefs. And they know people from that same Church and most likely share the same beliefs. I have gone to a few different Churches, and ya know my Grandmother believes the Catholic religion is the way to go, but I don’t believe in what they teach. I did like the United Church I went to in Scarborough, but I don’t live there anymore and I can’t find one in my area that I like (and I honestly just don’t want to go, plain and simple. I believe in being kind to my fellow man, and not warming a seat in Church, especially if I can live a good life and treat people as I want to be treated instead)

    The way to get out of the circle is to THINK. Think for yourself and work on your own belief system and then having the will power/the balls to stick by it. Superstition for example: a broom fell and that means you’re getting a visitor. If you don’t get one, obviously it fell because it fell. If 1 out of 5 times you get a visitor, it’s just a coincidence.

    Open your mind up, analyze the beliefs, break them down, reconstruct them, put them back together, research and find if there is any truth to it, and form your own opinion from there.

    I don’t go with the crowd, I observe, I think, I research and I form my own opinion. I’m a unique individual who will call bull**** if I think something is a crock.

  19. I don’t like the font either. Please switch back to the old one.

  20. I can’t read the article either, missing the right half on my ipad. I’ve been avoiding reading the blog since they changed the blog. Gail, please fix it, I miss reading your blog….

  21. avatar Tania Dillon Says:
    January 18, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    Yes, religion is one of those superstitions. I believe we will one day look back and feel shame at what people can be made to believe, and to do in the name of those beliefs. So few people really think for themselves….or dare to think at all about some things.
    Good point-; ” People seldom weigh facts before deciding what to believe. And once we believe something, we will defend that belief beyond reason.” — in Michael Shermers ‘ book the believing brain it is explained how we form beliefs first then make the data/evidence support it even when it is illogical or ridiculous( interesting read)…..”groupthink” applies in many areas of life and some are more susceptible –calling it out and educating is a start to getting people to think critically,….Very good article.

  22. I agree with Andrea, Kelly, Nicole, Debbie, Zero Debt, Linda & Ib. The new font & formatting is awful. Please amend it as soon as possible or else return to what was being used before. If it remains this difficult to read, I’ll simply stop visiting this website. Thanks for your attention to this matter, Gail and/or Webmaster.

  23. Re: Religion I am a member of the United Church of Canada and we are encouraged to think and ask questions. That is one of the main things I like about the United Church. I spent and still many much time thinking about my beliefs. It is extremely hard work and I find very few are willing to do that. I am actually a Licensed Lay Worship Leader in our church and my two main criteria for when I preach are: It has to be real and relate to our every day life and my message has to bring hope. I am not sure where I would be without my faith. But it has to be my faith,not someone else’s faith.

  24. Tania
    It reminds me of the saying ” I try not to let the facts get in the way of my opinion”.

  25. Another vote for changing the website back please. I am really struggling with this new font and layout.

  26. Hi Everyone…just a tech glitch that the host is working to resolve. Know it’s temporary and NOT a new font or layout. We appreciate your patience while fixing the issue. Hopefully it will be all back to normal for tomorrows blog post. Keep being awesome!

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