What We Believe Really Matters

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In times past professionals mainly concerned themselves with the kinds of unconscious emotional conflicts that could make a person “neurotic” or sick with worry, but these days professionals more often focus on the attitudes and beliefs that can predispose people to behave in socially problematic ways.

People across the U.S. were at once stunned and horrified when a man entered a food processing facility in Moore, Oklahoma — a town still recovering from a devastating tornado the previous year — and brutally attacked a woman at random, stabbing her repeatedly and then gruesomely decapitating her. The assailant was in the process of stabbing yet another victim when the chief operating officer of the company, who just happened to also be a reserve Sheriff’s officer and who happened to be armed, shot him and thwarted a possible second beheading. As tragic as the event was, it has a lot to teach us not only about what’s behind so many of the social nightmares we experience these days but also why it’s so imperative that we abandon some of the misguided notions about how these problems can be solved.

Alton Nolen had just been fired from Vaughn Foods for a variety of still undisclosed personnel issues. Workers have told reporters that he had been trying to convert his co-workers to his religion and making statements about the dire fate that awaits all non-believers. And if Nolen’s actions and the actions of other individuals harboring the same disturbing ideology should teach us anything at all, they should teach us that what we think and believe really matters because that thinking is so inextricably linked to how we behave.

Psychology has undergone a sort of revolution over the past couple of decades, and some prefer to call it the Cognitive-Behavioral revolution (the revolution that gave birth to cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT). Whereas in times past professionals mainly concerned themselves with the kinds of unconscious emotional conflicts that could make a person “neurotic” or sick with worry, more often than not these days professionals turn their attention to the kinds of attitudes and beliefs folks hold that predispose them to behave in socially problematic ways.

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For more on CBT see:

Early on in my professional career I recognized that problem actors fall into two general categories:

  • Those who say all kinds of ridiculous things to explain (i.e., rationalize, attempt to justify) their irresponsible behavior. These are the folks who have you to scratching your head and asking yourself: “Do they really believe the crazy stuff they’re spouting?”
  • Those folks who sincerely embrace some pretty warped thinking.

For more on these issues, see the articles “What Were They Thinking?” and “CBT and the Thinking Patterns of Disturbed Characters”.

I also came to recognize how much more dangerous the latter group is compared to the former. “Twisted thinking” is always at the root of a person’s character disturbance. More often than not, folks who have a distorted take on reality really know better at some level. Such folks often say crazy things not so much because they truly believe them but because they want you to believe they think that way and don’t get clued into their real motivations or agendas. But when someone actually holds a twisted set of beliefs, and especially when they hold them with disturbing conviction, it’s pretty much inevitable they’ll do something horrifying one day.

The incident in Moore should make some things abundantly clear to us: simply banning various kinds of weapons will not solve problems of character. Bad actors always have and will use just about anything they can think of to accomplish their nefarious ends. Passing tougher laws and imposing greater penalties won’t really solve the problem either. That’s because, for the most part, our problems lie in the hearts of people, and only people who are reasonably good-hearted and conscientious pay attention to the rules anyway. So, what are we to do about people who harbor attitudes, beliefs, and ways of thinking that predispose them to behave irresponsibly at best and in lethally dangerous ways at worst? That, if I may say, is the greatest challenge of our time.

All my books have one theme in common: character disturbance is the proverbial “elephant in the room.”

  • Character Disturbance
  • In Sheep’s Clothing
  • The Judas Syndrome

Unfortunately, we’ve been in a massive state of denial about this, and until we both recognize its presence and acknowledge it as the most pressing issue of our time, society remains at great risk.

Character is shaped in large measure by the kinds of beliefs we come to hold about the nature of the world around us and how best to deal with it. Recently there have been some particularly insidious ideologies spreading throughout the world — ideologies that those who feel “disenfranchised” in one way or another unfortunately find all too attractive. (For more on this topic see “Radical Ideologies, Deadly Ways of Thinking”.) Such ideologies have visited us before, and when those who were attracted to them for one reason or another embraced them and rose to power, the results were catastrophic — witness the “master race” ideology of Nazi Germany, for example. So when a troubled character embraces a way of thinking — especially one that not only allows but lauds the deliberate victimization of those who don’t adhere to that same way of thinking, it should give us great pause. It’s another ominous and potentially apocalyptic elephant in our midst. And if we don’t recognize it honestly and deal directly with both the ideology and the factors that lead some misguided souls to embrace it so eagerly, civil society is likely to be trampled in the impending stampede.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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