Everybody gets things wrong. At least some of the time. And the way we deal with finding out that we were wrong has a big impact on our relationships, our education, and our potential careers. And while there are millions of unique moments of recognized mistakes, very few examples have the shared cultural experience that comes with the holiday season. At some point, a lot of people believed something very specific about a bearded man in a red suit. At some point, those same people suddenly believed something very different. And our experiences with making that shift – and related shifts as we get older – depended heavily on the reactions of those around us at the time.
My own family showed a marked commitment to maintaining that particular myth. As kids, it seemed reasonable that a bearded man busy with presents might not notice a camera set up to catch him at work. As kids, it also failed to strike us as odd that the man who failed to notice the camera during his work would then, somehow, end up turning it off to save battery. Though the camera stunt helped the myth last a bit longer, it ultimately ended up adding to the evidence that brought on its own demise. Because of the broad cultural investment in that myth, recognizing your own misconceptions can be hard. You can easily feel like you have been duped.
But what about beliefs that entire corporate marketing departments aren’t invested in you believing? What happens when you spot errors that are uniquely your own? Consider, for a moment, unicorns and Bald Eagles. They have nothing to do with the holiday season, but they provide perfect examples of acute moments of misunderstanding in my life. The first moment was experienced by a close friend as we were driving with a car full of fellow geology majors in undergrad. Whatever the conversation, it somehow led to a mention of something being as real as a unicorn. My friend, who is very smart and now has a Master’s Degree, had a rough moment. She said, “But unicorns aren’t fictional; they’re extinct.” Then after a very long pause she put her head in her hands and said, “Oh, that’s not right. Is it?”
I laughed. She also laughed, eventually, and we all talked about how she had made it that far in life without that particular childhood belief getting corrected. How embarrassing that must have been for her, I thought. And then a few months later I nearly crashed a car in Pennsylvania when I saw a Bald Eagle flying overhead. Just like my friend had some childhood moment that left her thinking that unicorns had once roamed the Earth, some aspect of my own childhood had left me thinking that Bald Eagles came from the world of griffons and centaurs.
I was embarrassed. It was objectively embarrassing, but the story has served me well in the years since. And those years have held countless other less dramatic examples of new information showing that old ways of thinking were suddenly defunct. Recognition of false beliefs is clearly an important part of the human experience, and researchers have determined that it starts young.
Scientists have found that babies as young as 16 months can recognize that different people have access to different amounts of information. In general, the studies involve an adult entering a room, hiding an object, and leaving. Another adult then comes in and moves the object without the first adult knowing. Then the first adult comes back in to look for the object. Based on measurements of increased attention, the babies were expecting the adult to look in the original location that no longer had the object.
Such studies may seem odd, but recognizing false beliefs in others is part of recognizing false beliefs in yourself. But as anyone who can think back to when their logic about the man in the red suit started to fail, recognizing your own false beliefs is an unpleasant process. Cognitive dissonance, a type of psychological distress caused by holding two conflicting beliefs at once, accounts for just one part of that unpleasantness. Another part comes from the reactions of those around you.
Consider the unicorn moment. It was a silly mistake, and my friend never really thought that anyone would judge her for years to come based on that belief. Acknowledging it as a false belief and adjusting it gave her an easy way to resolve the dissonance. Then consider the UFO-centric cult from the 1950s that so strongly believed that the world would end that they gave up jobs, sold possessions, and left behind spouses. When the predicted flood never came, resolving that extreme dissonance would have required the members to 1) admit that they had been wrong or 2) come up with another belief that let them get by without having to deal with the reality of their profoundly false belief. Rather than just accepting change, like in the unicorn situation, the cult members instead then believed that their piety had prevented the oncoming apocalypse. And unlike my friend who changed her belief quietly, these cult members went on the news and evangelized how important their beliefs were. The higher one's personal stakes in a belief, the harder that person has to invest in not changing it to avoid feeling bad. It’s just part of how humans deal with processing conflicting information.
When we want kids to learn new things, and learn how to learn, part of that has to be recognizing and dealing with false beliefs. And remembering what it felt like to be duped – even with the most festive of intentions – can help provide some important sympathy in dealing with others who might be facing false beliefs of their own. It is a careful and dismissive line to tread that makes it easy to welcome someone to embrace a new belief, or makes it easier for people to believe something negative about the rest of the world rather than believe something truly embarrassing about themselves. This holiday season, maybe the bearded man in the red suit can provide everyone with a bit more patience to wonder why people might have such different beliefs rather than simply writing them off for doing so.