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Why Changing Beliefs Can Be Challenging

Ever wonder why beliefs—even ones that you know are wildly irrational—are so hard to change? If they don’t make sense, you might think, why the heck do I hold on to them? I’m smart, I want to take care of myself, so why would I let some wacky ideas dictate my
behavior and hold me back from eating “normally” and living my best life?
I came across an answer to this question in a Center for Inquiry summary of a 2008 study done by neuroscientist Sam Harris at the University of California Los Angeles. He was trying to answer the question, “How is the brain activated differently during a state of belief compared to a state of disbelief” and asked participants in an MRI scanner questions about their beliefs on numerous subjects. He found that “Brain activation, overall, was much greater and persisted longer during states of disbelief. This is important because neuroscience has long shown that greater brain activity requires more mental resources, of which there is a limited supply. A cognitive process that demands little mental resources, such as believing, is less work for the brain and therefore favored.” The summary goes on to say that “Harris’ results were widely interpreted as further confirmation that the default state of the human brain is to accept. Belief comes easily; doubt takes effort.”
True that: Belief does seem to occur awfully easily and belief analysis requires serious effort. Take the irrational thoughts you have about eating or weight, such as, “I must finish all the food on my plate” or “Thin is more lovable than fat.” You’ve thought these things so strongly for so long that it takes absolutely zero energy to convince yourself that they’re true. For the longest time, in fact, you’ve actually mistaken your thoughts for truth. Now consider what you go through when you start to doubt your long-term beliefs and all the energy you expend wondering which thought is the correct one, the incumbent or the challenger. What is your experience when you try to change a belief to, for example, “It’s okay to leave food on my plate” or “I am lovable at any size”?
It takes tremendous determination and mental effort to ditch old beliefs and think in new ways, even when we desperately want to believe differently. It almost makes our brains hurt. No wonder we get so exhausted that we sometimes give up and revert back to old ways of thinking. If the results of the Harris studies are correct, making attempts to change beliefs requires energy because it goes against what is already established, the status quo. So from now on, when you fall back on unwanted beliefs, rather than berate yourself, offer self-compassion. Recognize that you’re only human, then resume summoning up the energy you need to change your thinking. It’s far easier to change behavior when you first change the beliefs that underlie it. For more information about changing beliefs about eating, see my book, The Rules of “Normal” Eating.