You’ll See It When You Believe It

 The title of this post, of course, is the reverse of the popular phrase, "I'll believe it when I see it." In other words, until you show me proof, I'm not sure I'm going to believe you. That is fine, and it reflects our cultural bias towards objectivity.

As I explained in my post about the Ladder of Inference, however, we are constantly making sense of the world in very subjective ways–subjective because as humans we have no choice but to interpret the world through our lens.

There is one "rung" on the ladder that I didn't talk about much, though, and that is beliefs. The ladder explains how you take objective data and then add your own meaning and assumptions before you draw conclusions. But if you draw a conclusion, and it ends up getting reinforced with more data over time, then it might just move up the ladder to a "belief" about the world. Beliefs are now less dependent on data because you now simply know them to be true.

There's nothing wrong with beliefs. We need this category of understanding to try to simplify the world. If every single thing we knew had to be confirmed with data, we'd go crazy. But there is a down side to beliefs, particularly when they are about people (and even more particularly when they are about people you have a conflict with). Once you have a belief about something or someone, this seriously impacts the data that you notice or remember. That is, you will only see the things that confirm the belief you already have. You literally won't see (or at least won't remember) things that contradict it. In other words, you need to believe it to see it (not the other way around).

I once was in a meeting where someone got mad because the suggestion that she had made ten minutes earlier was ignored, but when someone else said it everyone liked it. This puzzled me because I had no memory of her saying it ten minutes ago, but she actually reminded ME of how I reacted to her original suggestion. ONly then did I remember the exchange. It was ten minutes earlier, but it was completely GONE from my memory, and I realized (later after thinking about it) it was because I went into the meeting with a belief that this particular person would not be able to make a valid contribution to the meeting. The belief led me to misinterpret what she said, and then forget it ten minutes later.

So be aware of your beliefs and try to prevent them from impacting your selection of data. That is easier said than done, but it is worth the effort.

Photo source.


  1. 25.06.2010 at 9:37 am

    Great post Jamie! It’s a very strong reminder of how easy it is to be blinded by our own cognitive biases and how they can lead to many unintended consequences! I’ll definitely remind myself of this post when interacting with challenging clients so as not to lose site of what’s really important. Well done as always!

  2. 28.06.2010 at 3:41 pm

    As always, love the candor of your posts. I’m curious, how did your opinion of the person change afterward? I assume you had the opinion you had for a reason, so I wonder if that reason was overcome by being confronted like that, or if the underlying reason was stronger.

  3. 29.06.2010 at 6:22 am

    Good question, Scott! In this case it did change my opinion a bit. I still think the person didn’t make her point as clearly as she might have, but I realized that when I heard any lack of clarity from her, I immediately wrote off what she was saying, rather than ask questions or try to understand better. In the end, I ended up hearing more from her than I ever expected to.