I recently got my driver’s licence after having put it off for many years. Apart from the tricky business of navigating big UK roundabouts, it turned out that I had an aversion to buses. My driving instructor would frequently ask me why I was slowing down upon seeing an oncoming red bus, even when I had right-of-way. “It seems you respect buses more” he would note jokingly. We both laughed about it, but there was certainly something going on. It was only a year later during a visit to Sri Lanka that I realised that a hidden belief was at play in my mind. To really understand the big red bus problem requires an understanding of the structure of beliefs. 

What are beliefs? 

A belief is any idea about how the world works, or yourself within it, which you accept as true. Beliefs are necessarily forward looking and even ‘hard facts’ such as the sun rising can fall into the category of beliefs/assumptions. That the sun has risen today is indisputable, but there is a probability, no matter how small, that it may not rise tomorrow (I am ignoring the definition of “rise” here for simplicity). So, the idea that the sun will rise tomorrow is a belief, or more accurately an assumption, but one we would be silly not to subscribe to! 

Beliefs and assumptions are closely related. They both involve expectations about the future, but beliefs have a power that mere assumptions do not. One way to understand the structure of beliefs is in relation to their stickiness in our minds. Ultimately, beliefs are formed and live within us. So, it’s about our relationship to an idea that becomes the heart of the matter. 

Structure of beliefs 

Using stickiness leads to three potential categories that can help us understand the structure of beliefs. 

  1. Weak beliefs (Assumptions): Ideas about the world and yourself that you would easily revise in the face of new, compelling evidence.

     

  2. Persistent beliefs: Ideas about the world and yourself that are sticky largely because of habit. These beliefs persist because of positive reinforcement, or lack of challenge, over time. New evidence may be slower to be recognised and fully internalised.

     

  3. Identity beliefs: Ideas that go to the core of your identity, where any challenge to them feels like a threat to your very existence. New evidence is rejected and often met with hostility.

In some sense, the three categories lie on a continuum of intensity. Yet, stickiness reaches a level of rigidity that’s so high with Identity Beliefs that they become a different animal altogether. Our attachment to Identity Beliefs can be so great that they feel qualitatively different to the other two.  They have real power over us.

The big red bus problem 

When sitting in a tuk-tuk on my last trip to Sri Lanka, I noticed a red bus pull-up beside us. It suddenly occurred to me that my fear of buses when driving was due to my experiences as a kid. Buses operated like ‘gangsters’ when I was growing up in Colombo. To be wary of reckless buses on the road was a common safety mantra. So, it was no surprise that I had internalised this. Well…apart from the fact that such caution wasn’t very relevant to my current driving environment! Dangerous driving by present-day London buses is  incomparable to the situation in Colombo 25 years ago. 

The bus issue probably falls somewhere in between an assumption (weak belief) and a persistent belief. The reason for the in-betweenness is that despite me consciously acknowledging that my aversion is inappropriate for London, I may still hesitate a little from time to time simply because of habit.  

Many assumptions and beliefs we hold in life are like the bus problem. We pick-up beliefs at different points in our lives and hold on to them even when they are not fit for purpose. The most problematic beliefs are those that we cling to with such force that we are blind to their inaccuracy and falsehood. We might cling to them even when they do us harm, simply because we cannot conceive of life without them. 

What’s more, most of these beliefs tend to hide outside of conscious awareness. Our most powerful beliefs are also the ones that we are likely to be least aware of, precisely because they feel so normal and form the basis of our very identities. They are more than the water we swim in — they are us. That’s why asking “what identity beliefs are at play in your life” can be so useful. Whether you decide to stick to them or discard them, you must first become aware of them. 

Values and the structure of beliefs 

The question of beliefs naturally leads to the question of values. Identity Beliefs. and to a lesser degree Persistent Beliefs. usually become the basis of our values. And, what is a value? I very much like Milton Rokeach’s definition: 

A value is an enduring belief that a specific mode of conduct or end-state of existence is personally or socially preferable to the opposite or converse…”A happy life is preferable to a sad life”, for example, would fit this where as “A happy life is preferable to fried eggs” would not. (1973) 

Following the thread of this blog, what makes something an enduring belief is our level of attachment to it — the extent to which we define ourselves by it. If we use the happiness example, all manner of beliefs may lie behind the desire for a ‘happy life’ — from “happiness exists as a permanent end state” to “I am a failure if I don’t find lasting happiness”. Going even deeper, there may be certain beliefs about a concept of I/self/soul that governs our relationship to all experience, let alone happiness.

Clarity

The more that a belief is centred around your relationship to yourself —your identity — the more powerful the values they drive will be. Deeper understanding then starts with realising that Identify Beliefs exist and that they can often hide from us while driving so much of our values and how we live. Seeing this is the beginning of finding clarity within yourself. 

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

Harsha PereraHarsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.

Subscribe to Harsha's Blog

11 + 3 =