top of page

The Belief Tag - putting the right label on the information you consume

critical thinking

When you check your bags at the airport, the airline doesn’t just take your bag and put it on the plane. First they have to put a tag on it so they know what to do with it.

Your brain does the same thing with information. You don’t just hear information and store it. First, you put a tag on it so your brain knows what to do with it. In this case, it is a belief tag - a label designating whether you believe the information is true or not.

When we consume information - whether we hear it, see it, or read it, your brain makes a snap judgment about whether or not to believe it. Think of it as a “belief tag” - a label you subconsciously attach to each piece of information you come across.

The vast majority of information we encounter gets stored with a “true” label, especially if you see it with your own eyes. However, it has become more apparent in recent years that images and video can be misleading - often intentionally. Since our decisions and behavior are based on what we believe, it is important to use the right tag.

Let’s say you read a headline while scrolling through the news, “Des Moines Cow Produces Chocolate Milk.”

Potential labels you might affix include:

100% true (totally credible)

Likely to be true (sounds plausible)

May or not be true (could go either way)

Not likely to be true (seems sketchy)

100% untrue (yeah, right)

This tagging process is usually done subconsciously - it’s a snap judgment that we don’t even think about. The problem is that our subconscious system (System 1) has some issues with accuracy.

First, it uses shortcuts and pattern-matching to draw conclusions. These methods are generally pretty accurate but can be erroneous because they use assumptions to fill in missing information.

On top of that, it has a bias for certainty. Your brain prefers to use only 2 labels: 100% true and 100% untrue. Affixing one of those other labels is to admit uncertainty, and your brain tries to avoid uncertainty whenever possible because uncertainty feels dangerous.

Interrupt the process

Here are some techniques for countering the inherent errors in the subconscious tag fixing scheme:

  • Interrupt the process and move it to your conscious brain system. That requires an extra step and more time but allows you to make a more accurate assessment. A void the impulse to jump to a quick conclusion but instead consider the following:

    • Is the information complete? What’s missing?

    • Is there a possibility it is true (or untrue) even though it seems otherwise?

    • Is the source credible? Be careful not to make assumptions based solely on the source, but information from a source that has proven accurate in the past has a good chance of being true.

  • Resist the urge to affix a 100% label on any new information. That’s the impulse we have, but it is usually false certainty. Using the chocolate milk giving cow example, you may accept it as true (it was in the news so it must be true), but it is more likely that you dismiss it immediately as obviously fake. A small percentage of people might think it sounds implausible, but maybe not impossible - you’re not an expert in bovine physiology after all. That’s the best way to go - “It’s probably false but what do I know.”

  • Embrace a willingness to change tags. We tend to view our beliefs as rock-solid, unchanging and permanent. By recognizing that beliefs are temporary tags that can be replaced when new or counter evidence emerges, we can be more accurate with how we understand and process information.

By using the belief tag metaphor to think about how your brain handles information, you can recognize when you need to slow down and do some quality control on those tags to make sure they are accurate.

Think well - live well.

- Steve Haffner, speaker and mind performance strategist

Want to learn more about improving your decision making performance?

Click here for my free book, 7 Strategies for Making Better Decisions


bottom of page