Beliefs and Relief from Anxiety
If there is one human certainty it is our capacity and motivation to believe. Belief is so fundamental it’s impossible to see how we would function without it and I’m not just referring to spiritual matters. The moment we wake up our belief structure kicks in. We take it for granted the floor will hold our weight, that our body will move in a certain way, that the toaster won’t talk to us, and so on. Our beliefs are underpinned by attitudes, which say something about our deeper values.
This morning, news reports revealed that the closure in 2009 of the UK’s Ministry of Defence’s UFO desk and hotline, was due to the belief they served no useful purpose. The files have been declassified along with a statement that over the past 50 years no UFO report has revealed any evidence of a potential threat. From now on no investigations will take place to UFO sightings. Previous sightings included the man who believed he was living with an alien. Another man claimed his tent, car and dog had been abducted. Of course there are more besides. How do we explain such beliefs? The two most obvious explanations are that UFOs do indeed exist, but many sightings can be explained by more down-to-earth reasons. The second is UFOs don’t exist, and just because something can’t be explained doesn’t mean it is somehow other-worldly.
Beliefs are those things we hold as truths. They may be superficial and prone to change, but they may also run so deep that lives are lost or sacrificed as a result of them. Beliefs can make lives miserable or they can provide solace and comfort. Beliefs can also reflect cultural trends. For example, more UFO sightings occur following the release of sci-fi movies, similarly the numbers of people reporting poltergeist or other spiritual activities spike following related movies.
When it comes to our emotional wellbeing beliefs are just as significant. The placebo effect is a prime example. If we expect our condition to improve as a result of a course of action there is a very good chance it might. Stress and adversity tend to affect everyone to a greater or lesser degree. The way we cope with such times will vary and while some people find their belief in God provides comfort, non-religious people appear to increase their belief in science.
Oxford University scientists studying the nature of belief say that belief in science seems to increase in the face of anxiety and stress. The researchers say their principle interest was to establish the values that individuals hold about science, as opposed to the legitimacy of science or its values as a method. Previous research has indicated that religious belief helps people cope with their stress, so the research team wondered if this was specific to religious belief, or a more general function of holding belief. The findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
One of the aims of cognitive and similar therapies is a focus on beliefs and expectations. It is well known that some beliefs reinforce self-defeating ideas and behaviors and that the emotional distress this causes can be greatly reduced by modifying such beliefs.
Miguel Farias, Anna-Kaisa Newheiser, Guy Kahane, Zoe de Toledo. Scientific faith: Belief in science increases in the face of stress and existential anxiety. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2013; DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2013.05.008