I saw a great bumper sticker on my way to an appointment this morning that said, “don’t believe everything you think.” My first thought was, “don’t believe everything other people think either,” but then I realized that what matters in both of those phrases is our attitude towards beliefs themselves.
After talking to a friend yesterday about why investors, money managers, and politicians do what they do and believe what they believe, I found myself searching my phone notes for this Edward Gibbon quote:
The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.
Thinking recognizes there’s an itch, but a belief is how we scratch it. The quote reminds us that different people will both think and believe different things despite having the same basic information. Religion in the Roman world was embraced by regular citizens, opposed by the philosophers (at least in part) for sake of applying logic to the world instead of myths, and called upon whenever useful by politicians who could leverage it to support a point. “Mutual indulgence,” and “religious concord” meant everyone had some license to spin. Times don’t really change much, do they?
When we speak with people about why US markets have been outperforming their international counterparts, or why a politician is claiming or denying responsibility for market returns, we have to separate the thinking from the believing. When beliefs drive decision making, we can get ourselves into trouble. When we put ourselves in the habit of deconstructing the beliefs and actions of ourselves and others, we focus our efforts on weighing the evidence and not winning the ideological war.
In the end, we’ll still believe some of the things we think, but so long as we remember the bumper sticker’s wisdom of “don’t believe everything you think,” we, and those we serve, will be fine.