The Great Pumpkin and the Power of Beliefs

By Reese Ramos, Director & University Ombuds at Virginia Tech

Have you ever seen the classic fall television special, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown"? In the story Linus, a member of the Peanuts gang, believes that if he sits in a pumpkin patch Halloween night the Great Pumpkin will appear. Linus tells the other kids that the Great Pumpkin will rise out of the pumpkin patch where the children sincerely believe in him and await his presence. If kids doubt his existence, the Great Pumpkin may pass over those patches, thus not delivering presents to all.

If you have ever followed Snoopy and company in the old comic strips, you would guess correctly that in the end—like Charlie Brown believing that Lucy won’t pull the football away at the last second—Linus is humiliated when the Great Pumpkin fails to appear. Linus, though, vows to wait for him again the following Halloween. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Linus’ belief is so ingrained that he refuses to contemplate the possibility that maybe the Great Pumpkin does not exist after all.

Beliefs are powerful. They direct our focus and our actions. They can even be so powerful that we adopt “identities” and “roles” that dictate certain beliefs. For example, have you ever noticed how some labels we adopt can have specific beliefs we attach to those labels? Think of a variety of words such as “Hokie,” “Marine” “Conservative,” ‘Protestor”.  Do these words conjure up beliefs specific to those labels?

Here’s what’s interesting. As many have said in the past, words don’t have any meaning except the meaning with give those words and so some of us might not have strong associations with certain words but definitely have some strong associations with other words or labels. And these strong associations often dictate the beliefs we have about ourselves or others. Here’s what’s interesting; studies in neuroscience indicate that sometimes we believe something so intensely that we not only seek confirmatory evidence in support of our already existing beliefs but also discount any evidence to the contrary.

For example, in a classic study from 2004 researchers asked self-described Republicans and Democrats to assess inconsistent statements by then Presidential candidates Bush and Kerry. Not surprisingly, Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush when the candidates made obviously contradictory statements. However, both groups let their own candidate off the hook when presented with evidence of the inconsistencies! You can read more about the study here.

Known as confirmation bias, this tendency can be so powerful that we get stuck believing something that may not be accurate. Have you ever been guilty of that? I know I have. I’m not here to tell you what to believe but to offer a distinction that can help us become more aware of the effect beliefs have on our behavior. And, by being more reflective of why we belief what we belief we can better assess whether that belief is consistent with our values, other beliefs and needs.

Specifically, we can use this concept of confirmation bias to be more aware of the limiting beliefs we may have at the workplace or on campus. For example, we may believe unconditionally that there is no point in sharing our ideas because our classmates always shoot down those ideas. Or perhaps we believe that someone with whom we have a conflict will never change. Perhaps we are limiting ourselves from taking on a new responsibility because we have never considered ourselves capable of that new role. Maybe we have labeled someone a poor performer and now we look for behaviors consistent with that label. The possibilities are endless as to what we may believe and how we will seek “proof” of that belief. If we can become aware of our biases and the beliefs supporting those biases we can then perhaps start changing those limiting beliefs and making our beliefs more accurate. Some simple questions to ask ourselves in relation to our beliefs are: Why do I believe what I believe? How certain am I on a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being very certain) of what I believe? What would need to happen for me to change my belief?

Examining our beliefs is not an easy undertaking but one that might mean we don’t sit around a pumpkin patch waiting for the Great Pumpkin to appear.