Imagine an elementary school located somewhere in the fallen arch of Italy’s foot around 530 BC. The teacher asks a group of students to describe the shape of the earth. A boy at the front of the group, dressed in the finest cloth because his dad is some rich guy, says he knows the answer. The question seemed like a no-brainer to the boy’s fellow classmates who knew the earth is flat and has a big dome on top. But the rich kid shouts out the answer before anyone could say it first. “The earth is round,” he says confidently, before adding support for his answer. “My brother told me so!”
All the kids laughed at him, pointed their fingers at him, and said he was dumb. The teacher even laughed at the kid. In the weeks and months that followed the students made sure to ask the kid if he wanted to play “earth” with them. They would pick up rocks and say things like “hey rich boy! Wanna buy a world? I got one here – all round just like the earth.” Then, they would toss the rock toward the kid and laugh and laugh. Ha ha ha. Funny stuff.
The kid’s older brother had enrolled at some private school run by a wacky vegetarian star gazer dude named Pythagoras. The man had moved to the Calabrian community from the Greek island of Samos. He claimed to be a teacher and opened a boarding school where he taught kids about counting stones and such things. A few students lived in town, like the brother of the kid who was teased. Pythagoras taught crazy stuff about how to think different. The townspeople knew very little about the actual teaching at the private school, but someone said they heard Pythagoras was planning to write on the moon using a piece of glass or something, and that he dances under the stars with his students while singing songs to Apollo. The townsfolk wondered if this stranger from Greece was a pervert. He insisted on privacy, and wouldn’t let the students in his school speak for five years. The villagers talked with one another about the foolishness of parents who sent their kids to Pythagoras’s math school. Now they were hearing that Pythagoras was teaching kids the earth was actually round. And that made some think the man’s life should end before the entire community was mocked by the big flat world.
Of course I embellish. Please point me to a story about people that lacks bias. And speaking of truth, how many times have you answered a true or false question only to be told you were wrong? What is that like? Do you dismiss the question as stupid? Do you defend your answer? Perhaps you are the sort of person who sees this as an opportunity to learn something new.
To navigate our way through life we depend on beliefs–beliefs about people, places, objects, situations, experiences, and our own self-concepts. Without beliefs, we would not be able to function. Everyday actions depend on things we learned, and these beliefs or scripts automatically help us make thousands of little decisions during a typical day. Every action you take or decision you make relies first on everything that led up to that moment.
Human fascination with truth and beliefs is not new. Cognitive psychologists and social psychologists continue to discover the power of beliefs. The Situationist, one of my favorite blogs, today referred to an article illustrating this power. Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues conducted an experiment involving junior high school students whose math grades were taking a dive.
The students were assigned to one of two math skills training groups that lasted eight sessions. Group “A” students were given math skills training only. In addition to the skill training, Group “B” students were also taught that their brain is a muscle that can develop through exercise like solving math problems. The students eventually were convinced this was true. The result? Math scores for group B students improved more than group A students.
Of course, no critical thinker would be satisfied with limited findings from one small study. But, this study adds one more piece of evidence that beliefs are powerful determinants in our behavior, and that we can change elements to our character and functioning previously thought unchangeable by merely gathering new sources of information to challenge our beliefs. Chalk another one up for the nurture side of the whole nature versus nurture debate.
Where do you go for answers?
Most of us feel the urge to visit our private museum of experiences. There, we find easy answers displayed somewhere between the dusty relics of beliefs, and artifacts of opinion. Or, the solution might be located just beyond the hall of right-and-wrong, next to the all-or-nothing display. The alternative is to look for new information. And that information is sometimes found where we least expect it to be.
Pythagoras knew well the cost of discovering new ideas. He had to flee for his life when the people of Calabria had enough and a nobleman plotted murder. Maybe the guy was a menace to the community kids..  The kid who failed the quiz question about the shape of the earth put up with mocking for months. How do you decide when to challenge old beliefs?