How Your Beliefs Shape Reality - Transcripts

March 06, 2023

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As you move through the world, it's inevitable that your way of seeing things won't always align with the people around you. Maybe you disagree with the way your neighbor raises her kids, or find your brother's politics to be troubling. But you may not realize how much your core beliefs shape your perception of the world. This week, we talk with psychologist Jer Clifton about how our beliefs shape our reality — and how we can use this knowledge to live happier and more harmonious lives.


This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. One spring afternoon in 2011, Jeremy Clifton was in a rush. He was living in Atlanta, trying to make ends meet, working as a tutor, a guitar teacher, and fitness instructor. On that day, he was running late to one of his many gigs. But as he waited for a train on the subway platform...

I just heard a scream, and I looked down to my left, and there was a guy down on the tracks. And so I ran to him, and I was about to reach him until someone yelled to me, Don't touch him, don't touch him, don't touch him!

Because he was right next to the third rail. The third rail, of course, is the live rail. It's surging with enough electricity to kill someone who touches it. In fact, first responders are taught to never grab someone who is in contact with the third

rail because they could get electrocuted too. I was like just six feet above him and trying to get him to move. And he began to come to, and he moved his arm, and he made contact with the third rail. And just sparks flew up and down his body, and I thought he was dead. Like I thought it was done. But it didn't kill him, and he looked up at me, and he reached out his hand to me. And I was like, oh no!

And I just grabbed his hand and helped pull him up out of the subway tracks. Jeremy experienced a bolt of electricity shoot through him as he pulled the man up from the tracks. But he completed the rescue. A crowd that had gathered cheered. Someone recorded the entire incident. Very quickly, the story went viral.

Jeremy was invited to go on television.

Jeremy Clifton joins us right now live in the beautiful city of Atlanta, Georgia. Jeremy, who usually goes by Jair, was lauded as a savior. And the victim, he was characterized as a good-for-nothing drunk. Apparently, he'd had way too much to drink earlier before he wound up at the subway station. Jair didn't like the way the story was unfolding. He had helped someone who had fallen. He didn't feel he had done anything heroic. Yeah, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the story, and I didn't like it at all. What actually made Jair unusual is that the incident prompted him to ask a question that was fundamentally psychological in nature. Why was his perception of the incident so different? This week on Hidden Brain, we explore this mystery of perception and the powerful implications it has for living a harmonious and meaningful life. In 1982, terror broke out in a small community in Lebanon just outside Beirut.

A paramilitary group stormed a Palestinian refugee camp, killing hundreds. Almost immediately, there was speculation that the Israeli army, who had invaded Lebanon weeks before, had coordinated the attack. A few years later, the psychologist Lee Ross showed media coverage of the incident to two groups. One was pro-Israeli. The other was pro-Palestinian. Ross wanted to know, how would two groups of people with very different beliefs react to the same media clips? In a 2019 interview with the Association for Psychological Science, he described what he

found. The data were really quite remarkable. There were no overlapping cases. Everybody who labeled themselves as pro-Israeli saw that coverage as more anti-Israeli than anyone who saw the coverage and was anti-Israeli.

There was no overlap in the data. Pro- Israelis felt the news clips painted Israel in a bad light. Pro-Palestinian said no, the clips were depicting Palestinians in a bad light. How could it be, Ross wondered, that people could watch the very same clips and come to

wildly different conclusions? This is an example where it was a natural experiment. We didn't cleverly design the materials to make this happen. The materials were designed by CBS and NBC News, who, if anything, wanted their coverage to be seen as fair and impartial. But this phenomenon was strong enough so that they didn't, and everybody not only saw the media as biased against them, they wanted to censor it, thought it would be harmful

to show, and would turn people against their just cause. It was almost as if the two groups had seen two different realities. D. Ross eventually came up with a term for this phenomenon. He called it the hostile media effect. People on opposite sides of a spectrum can both feel the media is biased against them. Ironically, the more media outlets attempt to be fair, the less likely they often are to be perceived as impartial by partisans and others who are deeply invested in a particular

viewpoint. If I see the world as white and you see it as black and someone comes along and says, it's kind of gray, a mixture of black and white, we're both going to be dissatisfied. So we make the startling prediction that both the left and the right are going to think that the media are biased against them.

Lee Ross, who died in 2021, conducted a number of other experiments to show how people with different viewpoints see fundamentally different worlds. One of his most important contributions was to coin the term, the fundamental attribution

error. The truly fundamental attribution error is really the illusion of objectivity. That I have a sense that what I perceive is the way it really is. And that starts just with the fact that as human beings, we perceive a real world that has color and solid substances. And we take it for granted that our perception of things are as they really are. And therefore, to the extent that other people see it differently, the thing to be explained

is why those other people see it differently. This is why when others don't agree with us on some important issue, we swiftly assume there must be something wrong with them. They must be misinformed, uneducated, biased.

These beliefs can cause international conflicts, but they also show up in our daily lives. You see it in elderly couples arguing about how to set the thermostat. One says, the room is too cold. And the other says, no, it's lovely. And one of them will agree to accommodate the other and from their viewpoint, sit in a boiling hot room to accommodate their spouse. But they have no doubt that the room is actually boiling hot and there's something wrong with their spouse. A great comic, George Carlin had a line, he said, did you ever notice when you're driving that anyone who's driving slower than you is an idiot and anyone driving faster than

you is a mania. Years after the subway incident in Atlanta, Jared Clifton stumbled on the idea of the fundamental attribution error. He was starting to become a psychologist. Lee Ross's work helped to make his own experience make sense. He had believed that the way he saw the world was objectively true, but what he saw was shaped by his prior beliefs, just like everybody else's version of reality was shaped by their points of view. Jared realized he felt his behavior on the subway platform was not unusual because he tended to have an optimistic view about people. In fact, this had started right from when he was a child.

So I grew up with a stutter and my full name is Jera me and I still get stuck on it. I'm a pretty outgoing guy, I'm a pretty extroverted guy and stuttering made me more of a thinker

and I thought God gave me a stutter because he wanted me to write. In this optimistic view, Jer's stutter became a kind of superpower. He found ways to work around his stutter, like drawing out his speech. Over time, Jer came by the work of another pioneer in behavioral science. Psychologist Aaron Beck was not looking at geopolitical conflict. He was studying people with emotional disorders.

And Beck comes along and he was a depression researcher and he found that depressed people were making these claims like I'm worthless or my boss hates me or my spouse thinks that I'm not good at this and so on and so forth. And people had known for forever that these extremely negative beliefs were a part of depression somehow, but they thought that they were symptoms. And Beck was really the first one who was like, you know what, these extremely simple

and even simplistic statements are not symptoms perhaps, they are causes. It turned out to be a profound insight. Most of us think that we see the world as it is that our beliefs are shaped by our experiences.

So we don't stop to wonder if our beliefs might actually shape the world we see. So if you think that your boss doesn't like you or hates you and you get an ambiguous email from him, your belief might be pushing you to believe something that might not be

true. An ambiguous email from a supervisor can be interpreted as a passive aggressive comment instead of a simple reminder of an upcoming deadline. Aaron Beck hypothesized that if our beliefs about the world cause us to see the world in a negative light, changing those beliefs could change the way we experience the world. By deliberately reappraising and recalibrating our thinking, we can change the way we feel. We can swap out the lens through which we see the world for another lens, a better, more accurate lens.

Eventually, this treatment approach became known as cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT. There are a variety of tools that clinicians have to teach a person in a therapy session to dispute their belief and the interpretations of any given event in their life that the belief might influence. And to this day, it's arguably the most important intervention that researchers have. And it's based on the idea that these beliefs are not symptoms, that they are causes of

depression outcomes. B. Ross had shown it was a mistake to assume that the way we see the world is the way it really is. Aaron Beck reinforced this idea by showing how false beliefs about our flaws and feelings can cause untold despair and suffering. When we come back, Jair Clifton starts to ask, what are the other lenses that shape how we see the world? You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedanta. This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedanta. Every day, everywhere in the world, people clash with other people. We struggle to understand why others don't quite see things our way, from our loved ones to our world leaders. We ascribe our differences to personality quirks. My husband doesn't want to go wine tasting because he's unadventurous. Or we attribute our conflicts to differences in intellect.

My uncle doesn't support the new proposition because he's uninformed. Sometimes we can't seem to pin our differences on anything at all. Someone disagrees with us and we wonder, how could they possibly believe that? We shake our heads at their irrationality. Psychological research suggests a different explanation. All of us assume we see the world objectively, when in fact, we don't. Since everyone has a different version of reality inside their heads, and everyone believes their version is objectively true, you end up with disagreement and conflict. At the University of Pennsylvania, Jared Clifton learned about the work of Lee Ross and Aaron Beck. He asked himself if there were fundamental beliefs that shaped the way large numbers of people perceive reality. He found a lot of research that examined one particular set of beliefs, whether people

thought the world was fair or unfair. The belief in a just world is an idea from Melvin Lerner, 1980. This is the belief that the world is a place where you get what you deserve and deserve what you get. It has been tied to dozens and dozens and dozens of different life outcomes. They really come down to four main buckets. If you see the world as a just place, you tend to work hard. Belief in a just world is tied to GDP in countries. It's tied to being more productive in the workplace. The idea is that if you work hard, you just have this assumption that it'll come back to you somehow. It's tied to being nicer because don't be a jerk because that's going to come back and bite you. Be nice because the world will reward you for that. When you meet a stranger, don't be a jerk.

The third one is that you tend to be happier because of course, it's nicer to be in a place that's just. So if you work hard and you're nicer, you tend to be more successful. But the fourth bucket is you tend to blame victims. So not as good of a thing. So if the world is a just place, then if you're poor, then maybe you were lazy. If you're sick, well, maybe you didn't take precautions and so on and so forth. And so believing in a just world is even tied to like blaming sexual assault victims amongst women because the assumption is, again, that like, well, the world tends to be a place where you get what you deserve. So it's tied to both these good things

and these bad things. The voluminous research into just world beliefs showed Jer how beliefs could have profound downstream effects on behavior. And as with the Israelis and Palestinian supporters in Lee Ross's experiment or the depressed patients in Aaron Beck's studies, people had no idea that their views about hard work or politeness or the criminal justice system were being influenced by the beliefs that they had brought to those questions. As Jer found more and more evidence that belief in a just world plays a powerful role

in perception, he asked himself an important question. When we discovered belief in a just world and that so much great work had been done already, we were like, well, that's just one of them, right?

Like what about the other ones? What about the other ones? What other beliefs were out there that could have profound effects on the way we see reality, the way we act in the world? Jer recruited a team of researchers to identify as many general beliefs of the world as possible. They looked at religious texts and famous writings

going back thousands of years. Oh my goodness. So this is what's to me pretty insane about these beliefs is that they've been in plain sight, like for so long. So in Ecclesiastes, all things are meaningless. That's a belief about the world that nothing matters. The dukkah, the first of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that life is suffering. A definitive aspect of life is suffering. Heraclitus thought the world was defined by change. He's the one that said, you can't step into the same river twice.

Her Thagoras said that the world is defined by beauty. You can see global beliefs being expressed all the time in popular culture. Think of the classic line from Wesley,

the main character in the movie, The Princess Bride. You mock my pain. Life is pain, Highness.

Anyone who says differently is selling something. Or the classic line from the movie, Forrest Gump.

My mom always said life was like a box of chocolates.

You never know what you're gonna get. Jer and his three-year-old kid recently watched Tangled,

Disney's take on the classic fairy tale, Rapunzel. I love this story because the whole thing is about your beliefs about the world as a whole is one big place. So the witch is trying to manipulate Rapunzel by teaching her that the world is a scary place. Like that's what she says. Listen to your mother, it's a scary world out there. And Rapunzel goes out into the world anyway. And at first she's scared.

She jumps at like the bunny in the bushes.

Serapians, folks, have you come for me? She goes to the bar with the scary looking people just to find out that they're actually nice and things look scary and they're actually nice a lot of the time. See, I ain't as cruel and vicious as I see. And then she discovers throughout the film such that the big moment when she realizes this world is wondrous and you are trying to manipulate me and it's a privilege to be alive in this world.

Once Jer and his team began identifying these overarching beliefs about the world that it's wondrous or that it's dangerous or that it's painful, they couldn't stop. They launched into a full scale research project.

So we spent 18 months trying to wrap our arms around what are all of the possible beliefs that one could have about the world as a whole is one big place. Really basic beliefs. So we look through 80,000 tweets that begins with phrases like the world is, life is, and everything is.

The universe is falling apart.

The world is full of magical things. The universe is a scary place. We had 12 focus groups,

10 of which were in the four biggest world religions.

If God wills it. Nothing is by chance. My home is with God. We looked at the 840 most used adjectives in contemporary American English drawn from a day to base of 450 million words. Pleasant. Good. Boring. Abundant. Mechanical. Peaceful.

And that's like four or three of like 10 things we did. After all this digging, Jer and his team reached something of a saturation point, meaning they weren't discovering any new beliefs. They grouped together varying perspectives that people had about the world. They call these perspectives primal world beliefs.

Jer said they fell into three main categories. The first one is a belief the world is a safe place

versus a more dangerous place. Think back to the movie Tangled. Rapunzel saw the world through the witch's eyes as a scary place where everyone was out to get her. Over time, this belief changed. She began to see the world

as a place that she could freely explore. The second main belief is the belief the world is enticing versus dull. And the central ideas to that one is the belief that the world is full of beautiful and interesting and meaningful and funny things

versus dull, barren, boring, ugly. Maybe you had a roommate in college who found everything dull while you found yourself fascinated by the smallest things. It's likely you were on opposite ends of the enticing versus dull spectrum. The third main belief was that the world was alive

rather than mechanistic. And that's the belief that the world is imbued with intention and purpose that interacts with you and needs your help for an important task. And so the flip side of that is focus can see the world as mechanistic. And that's the belief that the world has no special need you things don't occur because of some purpose and it isn't interacting with you in a special

way and it's probably indifferent. If you reflect on where you fall on the spectrum of each of these beliefs, you likely see that

there are connections between them. So if you tend to see the world as safe, you also likely see the world as enticing and you also likely, compared to others, tend to see the world as alive. In the same way, if you see the world as a dangerous place, the odds are is that you

see the world as a dull place and a mechanistic place. These connections play into something Jair calls an umbrella belief, a belief at the top of the hierarchy that affects everything else. And that overarching idea is whether you believe the world is a good place or a bad place.

This is perhaps the most fundamental question that all of us have to respond to. Is this world worth existing? Is it a privilege to get to live in this world or is it more of a curse to have been born here? And according to all of these incredible theorists and researchers, we have every reason to think this overarching belief that the world is a good place as well as the others should

play a role in a whole range of different life outcomes. Some of these outcomes are straightforward. For example, if you see the world as an enticing place, you are probably a more curious person than someone who sees the world as dull. But what about the outcomes associated with believing the world is a fundamentally bad place where danger exists at every turn and people are mostly self-serving? Could holding this belief protect people from bad things? To answer this question, Jared's team studied the effect that seeing the world as a dangerous place had on people.

They looked at parents and children. Many, many parents want to teach their kids that the world is a bad place. And that's not like a reflective act.

It is a conscious goal that they have. It seems intuitive that if kids learn the world is dangerous, they will be more vigilant about dangers. It makes sense that teaching them this belief could protect them from harm.

But that's not what Jared and his team discovered. And basically we found very little evidence, very few places where seeing the world as a bad place was tied to good things. Thinking about who are the people that tend to be successful? Who are the people that tend to be healthy? They're not people who see the world as a dangerous place.

They're people who tend to see it as safe. Then, the lenses through which we see the world change the world that we see. As Aaron Beck had found with depressed patients, some lenses caused people to feel sadness and despair. Other lenses caused them to feel better adjusted. Most of us have views about whether the world is a good place or a bad place, a safe place or a dangerous place. But if you set aside for a moment the question of which beliefs you think people should have and ask instead which beliefs allow people to live more meaningful and harmonious lives, the question then becomes the same question Aaron Beck asked. Is there a way to swap out lenses that make us unhappy for ones that make us feel and function better? You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedanta. This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedanta. You've heard the saying, to see the world through rose tinted glasses. The implication is that you put a positive spin on things. But why do some of us see the world with a rosy glow while others feel like we're looking through smudged and scratched spectacles?

And if you're a member of that second group, is it possible to swap out your lenses for new ones? At the University of Pennsylvania, psychologist Jerr Clifton has encountered two similar stories with very different endings that help to answer this question. The first is about Jerr's grandfather-in-law, who was a combat dentist in World War II. He walked on the front lines, helping piece back together the faces and mouths of soldiers. It was a brutal job. After returning from war, he struggled to see the world as anything but cruel. And thus, a family saying was born.

Whenever something bad happened, he turned to his son, Jerr's father-in-law, and say, life's a s*** sandwich and you just took your first bite. This became like a mantra, and it was shared in a loving way. It was like, hey, I need to teach you this really important thing about the world.

The world's going to be a bad place and you need to prepare for it. This story stood out to Jerr as a prime example of how experiences can shape your beliefs about the world. That was until Jerr thought back on an experience he had had in college.

He was in Europe on a quiet trip when he met an older tour guide named Sarah. She was one of those cool people that everyone in the group was trying to figure out how they could talk to her. I got my time with her in the basement of a restaurant in Lithuwe, where it was like exposed brick. It's where they keep the wine. The candles are melting off of the side of the brick. She told me the story of being a young Jewish girl in Poland, where at the very beginning of World War II, the Nazis and the Russians split Poland in half and take it. The Nazis came through her town and marched people down both sides of a street. Then the Nazis in the middle of the street turned and shot all the people on one side. Then they turned to the other side. That was Sarah and her mom and dad and her sister, I think, and shipped them off to concentration camps. I can't remember the name of the first three, but the last one was Auschwitz. At that point, I believe her parents and her sister had already died.

She was in Auschwitz Christmas Eve 1944. This is the last Christmas of the war. She doesn't know that. She's just been in these camps now for years. In the biggest, perhaps worst camp of the war, Christmas Eve, and she was sick. She was in the infirmary. The worst part of the worst camp, like incredibly awful conditions. She was lying there in a cot and there was a girl next to her about the same age. They reached across the cot and they held hands. She said to me in this basement of this restaurant, and that's realized that the world was so full of love and connection and it was massive and impossible to stamp out. The world was so wondrous, so wondrous that I had no choice but to believe that there was a God and to be grateful.

So, I mean, you've given me two examples of people, one, your grandfather-in-law, who, as you said, was a combat dentist in World War II, and Sarah's in a concentration camp also in World War II, and they both go through terrible experiences. One of them basically says, life is terrible and welcome to this terrible world that's only going to get worse with time. The other one says, life is wondrous and amazing and we're filled and surrounded by connection and love. And it begs the question, where did these beliefs come from? Because clearly, both Sarah and your grandfather-in-law had ample evidence to support the belief that

the world is, in fact, unsafe, and one of them did and one of them didn't. Exactly. Like, the funny thing is that we all tell these tales of our lives to make sense of our beliefs. But for all I know, that my granddad-in-law already saw the world as a bad place, and the experience that he went through just confirmed that the world is a bad place, and Sarah might have already seen the world as a good place, but that moment might have even pushed her more. Like, it might have crystallized for her. So it's entirely possible that they each approached the incredibly awful things that they came

through and were essentially strengthened in the beliefs that they already had. Actually, Jer was seeing that people did not always arrive at their primal beliefs as a result of their experiences. But he wanted to test this idea scientifically. He and his colleagues put together a survey asking laypeople and researchers to guess

what people's primal world beliefs were after giving them information about people's backgrounds. Do you think people who live in high crime zip codes would see the world as a dangerous place and to what extent?

Do you think people who are rich see the world as abundant? They also asked, do you think people who are poor see the world as more barren? Do you think people who have experienced trauma perceive the world as more dangerous?

Then they looked to see how people's predictions lined up with reality. Do people in high crime zip codes see the world as more scary? Do people in high income zip codes see the world as more abundant? Do people who are wealthy see the world as more abundant? And so on and so forth? And I think what's kind of surprising is that people who are rich aren't more likely to see the world as abundant. People who are poor aren't more likely to see the world as barren. People who live in high crime zip codes aren't more likely to see the world as a dangerous place. And of course, that's really different than, like, a rich, incredibly bad experience like being a combat dentist in World War II or going through Auschwitz. I'm very reluctant to make claims on the impact of extreme particular traumas, but I think what we're finding just again and again and again and again is that human beings are actually terrible

at predicting the primal world beliefs of people based on their backgrounds. Our beliefs do not appear to be the consequence of our experiences. Instead, as Aaron Beck hypothesized, they are the lenses through which we see everything that happens to us. Take, for instance, the COVID-19

pandemic. Pandemics are awful, but if you study world beliefs, world-wide events are very useful. And it was fascinating because we assumed that when the world objectively became a more dangerous place, that the belief the world is a dangerous place would go up. And we had two samples that we administered right before the pandemic. It was just luck that we had these samples, both in the US. And what we found was no change at all, no change at all. There was no statistically detectable change in these samples in their belief that the world is a dangerous place

because of the pandemic. Jared Clifton realized that if primal beliefs are upstream of our experiences, rather than the consequence of our experiences, we can and probably should

change our beliefs in ways that can make our lives more meaningful. If people aren't updating these beliefs because of worldwide events, and if people aren't updating these beliefs because of the events in your own lives, then if you want to see the world as a good place, if that's an attractive option to you, there is no reason to wait. There's no reason to wait until your own life gets better or the world gets better because the odds are is that if it does get better, if If it got dramatically better,

the odds are is that your primals would not change. Jer has personal experience with changing one of his own primal beliefs. When he was in college, he began to feel like life was dull. So he did something about it. He took active measures to cultivate his own curiosity

about the natural world. And one of the things that I did in my own life that seemed to change my belief is called the leaf exercise. So the leaf exercise is an exercise where I'm trying to reintroduce the fact that ubiquitous beauty is all around us all the time. That beauty that we ignore, that we don't pay attention to is there and we just don't see it. So in this exercise, you go to a park or a forest, you pluck a single leaf off of a tree and you look at that one leaf and you look at the speckledness on the front and the veins on the back and you soak up the beauty in that single leaf. You pluck a second leaf from the tree. You look at that leaf. You look at how the story of that leaf is similar, but not the same as the one you just plucked. Then you take a step back and take a deep breath and you look at the tree. The average adult oak tree has 250,000 leaves. Each one is a beautiful thing. And then you take a proverbial step back.

And I would take a step back in my mind and just imagine the forests of Siberia and the Amazon. And then you take another step back of all these leaves and you think about all of the plants and the trees that have gone before you that produced the air that you now breathe and all of the trees that will come because you just have a slice in time you just have the leaves that exist right now all the leaves that will come and then you pile all those leaves and you realize that all these leaves if they were rare would be mounted and placed in halls of art And it's only that they're ubiquitous that they fall and we walk on them and they're considered worthless.

And then you ask yourself what sort of world this is. And what's your thinking that this will do for you, this ability to slow down, see the world in its wondrousness?

What do you hope that it's going to accomplish for you? Well, so I did that exercise like maybe once a week or so. And I also started to journal about five new, beautiful things that I saw each day. And for me, I really, the central idea for me in my own life was the belief the world is a beautiful place. It felt awkward at first, it felt like I wasn't good at it. And then I got better at it... Like the muscle developed. And I began to just pour out and I found myself just walking around, noticing beautiful things in my life. And it's partly why I fell in love with my wife because she would point out the beautiful things in my life and we became buddies to see the beauty that is around us all the time.

And I realized from that process that my own wellbeing was going up. This is not to say that changing primal beliefs is easy or quick. Very much as Aaron Beck found with cognitive behavioral therapy, changing the way you think involves practice and effort. The habits of mind that you have cultivated over 20, 40, or 60 years cannot be changed overnight. As Jerr showed with his research on the effects of the COVID pandemic, primal beliefs are

not easily shaken. Just because beliefs are stable across time doesn't mean that they can't be changed. But we're not going to change them just by making our own lives or the world better. And I think that's the big takeaway, that the world might get dramatically better. Your own life might get dramatically better, and that's probably not going to change your world beliefs that much. Those to change your world beliefs have to be about something else. And I think that comes down to understanding that they're lenses by exploring the fact that you have a lens, that you don't have to have the lens that you have, that there are options. And the nice thing is now, Shankar, is that you've got people that are way more smart than me who are working on this now. There's a whole bunch of incredible research coming. And in the next few years, I'm very hopeful that someone's going to begin to crack the

code about how not just to shift these beliefs, but to change them quite a bit. The research on how to change primal world beliefs is ongoing. Jer, as you might expect from a person who is an optimist, is optimistic. But even if you don't change your beliefs, Jer argues there are important reasons just to understand the primal beliefs you do have.

He discovered this himself in his interactions with his mother. So I have a history of living in rough parts of town. So my wife and I have lived in West Philly. We lived in the west side of Buffalo. And my mom has lived in Taiwan and Hong Kong and has lived in all these parts of the world. And when she would come to visit me, she would be anxious. She would make comments about the crime where I lived. And she just kind of like was negative about where I lived. What would she say? It was nothing dramatic. It was just like, oh, man, I've heard that crime is really going up here. And like, do you think that like it's OK that I park here?

And it was just like a constant like negative stream of like, man, I wish you didn't live in such a rough area. And I kind of got to the point that I just kind of felt vaguely insulted. Like it was a predictable thing that like she would come and I would feel vaguely insulted about where I live.

And it annoyed me. When Jared began researching primal world beliefs, he developed a survey that would identify people's world beliefs depending on their answers.

He sent it to a bunch of folks in his life, including his mom. So she took the survey and she sent me the results. Turns out my own mother sees the world as a dangerous place. And I looked at it and I thought there was a mistake because my mom is outgoing. She's not anxious. We had people in our lives all the time. She kicked my butt out the door and said, yes, you have a stutter, but go have fun and explore and don't be scared. And when I discovered this like last year, it kind of blew my mind and it allowed me

to understand all these stories from my past in like a new way. Learning about his mother's primal world belief gave Jared some insight into why she said the things she did.

And this insight shifted his perspective when she would come to visit. Like the theory with primal world beliefs is that we use these beliefs to fill in ambiguity in our lives when we don't know. And so my mom would come to visit me in these new places. She would fill in based on her general belief about the world as a whole. But then as she learned more about that place, she would need to rely less on this prior belief and then it would go away. And it wasn't because my mom was anxious or fearful or whatever, it's because she had this underlying belief about the world. And to me, that's like a really important takeaway. We're working on different ways to change these beliefs and which ones are helpful and which ones are hurtful and so on and so forth. But at minimum, it allows us to understand each other. I'm less angry at my mother when she comes to visit me and she's scared or anxious about the part of town that I live in. I've come to expect that and be patient with that because if we switched our beliefs, if

I had her belief about the world, I would likely be doing the exact same thing. If you consider your own life, it's likely you sometimes lock horns with the people around you. It might be an overbearing parent or a coworker, or maybe it's a friend who doesn't seem to share your political views.

Sarah says taking a moment to consider that primal world beliefs might be a game changer. I'm guessing there's a whole bunch of people that are extremely close to you that you might actually not know their underlying beliefs about the world as a whole. And if you knew them, it would provide insight and more patience as you deal with them. That's actually a huge way that I've become a lot more patient, is deeply understanding the primal world beliefs of each side.

It's allowed me to become more patient with the people in my life. Jeremy Clifton is a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Jared, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain. Thank you so much. Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Bridget McCarthy, Annie Murphy-Paul, Kristin Wong, Laura Correll, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. For today's Unsung Hero, we turn the mic over to you, our listeners. It's a story from our show, My Unsung Hero. Today's story comes from Kate Baker. About 20 years ago, Kate and her husband and their two-year-old son, Neil, were on a flight

from New York to Europe. All three of us were healthy. But halfway over the Atlantic Ocean, Neil started to get very warm and his face was red. And he started foaming at the mouth. He was having a seizure. The flight attendants were going up and down the aisle asking anyone if they were a doctor, if they could take a look at him. No one would come forward. And then the pilot started announcing, is there a doctor on board? And should I turn this plane around? And again, no one came forward. Then one of the flight attendants asked my husband, who was holding Neil, is he breathing? And he said, just barely.

I was standing in the aisle. Well, when I heard those words, I think I must have gone into shock because I couldn't feel anything and I couldn't speak. Then I noticed three women, passengers, get out of their seats and come toward me. They were Muslim women wearing the hijab. And they came to me and put their arms around me. Then they were speaking to me in a language that I didn't understand. It might have been Arabic or Turkish, I'm not sure. But the tone of their voice was so soothing. And they stood there with me with their arms around me until the flight attendant told us that we should move to the front of the plane and take a seat up there. We arrived in Amsterdam and went directly to the clinic. They couldn't find anything wrong with Neil. By that time, he was fine.

But we got on another plane in a few hours and went back home to New Jersey. We went immediately to a pediatrician who discovered that Neil had just had an ear infection. And he had a seizure because his temperature spiked very rapidly on the plane. So Neil was fine. We treated him for the ear infection and everything was fine. But I never forgot those women and how supportive they were. I grew up in a place where there were no Muslims, very few people of color, and everyone spoke English. So that encounter was very new for me. I will never forget them and what they did for me. We may not speak the same language or share the same beliefs or religion, but none of that really matters to me because we can connect on a very deep human level. So if I ever saw those women again, I would just say thank you so much.

And I love you. Kit Baker lives in Middlesex, New Jersey. Her son Neil is now grown and works with adults who have autism. If you would like to help us build more stories like this, please act now. Visit and join the hundreds of other Hidden Brain listeners who have agreed to help. Again, that's I'm Shankar Vedantam.

See you soon.