If you’re surprised to hear that maths can be used as a tool to teach self-help, don’t be. I believe so deeply in its powers that I’ve written a book about it.
So let’s turn to the theory in question. In his excellent book ‘Man vs Maths’ Timothy Revell puts Bayes’ theorem in simple terms: for any opinions you hold, you should always be willing to use new evidence to update your beliefs.
Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it?
It can be very hard to put into practice though. Updating our beliefs means admitting we may have been wrong about something, and we have a very strong need to be right.
Think about an argument with a loved one in which they said something that shocked you. Perhaps they judged you very harshly or said something that felt unkind.
It takes a lot of effort to actually listen to tough words from someone you care about and take analyse whether there’s any truth in them — perhaps you need to take on some responsibility for a situation. You may be in the tough position of having to update your beliefs.
If you think of yourself as open-minded, consider how often you find yourself complaining about a person’s behaviour to a friend. Is it possible that the reason for your venting is that you need someone to confirm that you are right, and that the person you are taking about is, of course completely in the wrong?
It’s funny how attached we are to our beliefs. Being proved ‘right’ benefits us very little unless we are on a game show.
However, learning the uncommon art of changing our views benefits us hugely. It improves our relationships, our health, our peace of mind and even how we feel about ourselves. It also requires patience and plenty of practice.
Initially, hearing another person out fully and then being able to admit that we might have not seen the whole picture or realized we’d acted in a hurtful way can make us feel weak and uncomfortable.
As we practice it more often, we can learn to see it as a sign that we are simply human and constantly growing. We may almost enjoy the feeling of spotting an error and thinking, ‘Ah, there’s something else I couldn’t see before and now I do!’
There’s no need to equate being wrong about something with our worth as a human being. In fact, the more things we are able to find out we were wrong about, the more proud we should be about ourselves. Or the more humble we should feel: pick the label you like best, as long as it feels like a positive one to you.
You can use Bayes’ Theorem to constantly see life anew.
That sounds much more exciting to me than constantly being proved right — yes, even as a mathematician.