Beliefs I used to hold

In his remarkable book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Nobel laureate and Princeton University psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes this rather mind-blowing statement: 

“A general limitation of the human mind is its imperfect ability to reconstruct past states of knowledge, or beliefs that have changed. Once you adopt a new view of the world (or any part of it), you immediately lose much of your ability to recall what you used to believe before your mind changed. … Asked to reconstruct their former beliefs, people retrieve their current ones instead — an instance of substitution — and many cannot believe they ever felt differently.” 

I found this notion surprising, so I decided to put it to the test by thinking of some beliefs that I had changed my mind about. One obvious one was the fervent belief I had when I was 9 years old that girls have cooties and should be avoided at all costs. When I got a bit older, my cootie position evolved and, despite coming into contact with actual girls, I never became infected. Sure enough, Kahneman is right: When I see females today, “cootie” does not come to mind. 

Another belief that changed was my childhood sense of the afterlife. Heaven was a place where good people went after death to cavort with angels and rock out on electric harps and play Putt-Putt with Jesus and eat all the cotton candy and pizza they wanted. Hell was a place where murderers and masturbators and Oakland Raiders fans burned for all eternity and got jabbed by Satan’s pitchfork and were forced to do algebra problems and watch professional golf on TV. In my naive child’s worldview, Putt-Putt was heaven and golf was hell. 

I gradually developed a much more nuanced sense of the afterlife, where heaven was a place with sex, drugs and Thai food, and hell was mostly just golf. But even that gave way to my current view that the afterlife is just going to be a really long, soothing nap, during which no phones, leaf blowers or sirens are within earshot. 

Beyond that, it was surprisingly hard to think of any of my beliefs that have changed substantially. Then again, maybe I just believe that I believe everything I used to believe when actually my previous beliefs were quite different than I believe them to be now. But that is hard to believe. Or even follow. 

As a lifelong liberal, I’ve occasionally wondered if I would someday jump ship and become a conservative like my dad did. Dad was a commie-sympathizer in his youth and a dyed-in-the-wool Kennedy man in the early ‘60s — and then one day, without even suffering a head injury or a high fever, he went out and bought a Cadillac and voted for Nixon. 

His behavior after that seems to support Kahneman’s research: Dad completely forgot the liberal views he’d once held. For us kids, it was like watching Meathead morph into Archie Bunker in front of our very eyes. That probably won’t happen to me because if you’re old enough to remember Richard Nixon and Archie Bunker, you’re probably too old to change your political views. 

Oh, sure, I’ve stopped believing some crazy things I used to believe. I once believed that politicians actually wanted to solve problems. I once believe that America was a representative democracy. I once believed that NFL football was compatible with a civilized society, and that eating burritos as big as one’s head was a good nutritional choice at 2 a.m. Even my cootie position is ever evolving, because now there are new, deadly kinds of cooties and so it’s probably best not to touch anybody, ever. 

In a way, it’s comforting to know we don’t recall the beliefs we used to believe because it means we won’t torture ourselves over the crazy ones we used to hold. For instance, other than marrying my wife and having our son, the entire 1980s is probably a decade best forgotten — especially that lengthy period when I believed it was a good fashion choice to wear a mullet. 

But as Kahneman instructs, we are creatures with two systems of thinking — ones he labels “System 1” and “System 2” — the fast and slow ways of thinking in his book’s title. Armed with this knowledge, we may be capable of complementing our emotional, snap-judgment minds with our lazier, more deliberative, more logical intellectual powers to make better decisions. Or maybe I should just take up golf.