How do we come to believe the things we believe? (R10)

For many years (as it seems now) I had a belief that the sky was held up by rather tall pillars at a great distance from where I was standing outside Rudkins, the greengrocer shop. This was a belief instigated by my father (a great tease) when I asked him why the sky didn’t fall in. I must have been just 3 or 4 then because he went off to India to participate in some periodic bout of reciprocal destruction in 1941.

How do we change our beliefs? How did I lose the belief that the sky was held up by rather tall pillars somewhere or other? I suppose it was the realisation that, though it remains even now a rather pleasant fantasy, it was just a physical impossibility one way or the other.

It’s obvious that much of what we believe comes to us out of the mouths of parents and teachers—people who, for a short time at least, we revere or look up to; authority figures whose word is their bond. We are entranced by what they say, by what they write—what we read in books & newspapers and so on is another source of belief.

Should one wish to develop a kind of certainty in one’s belief system, Gurdjieff’s advice is to seek to verify everything for oneself, to take nothing on trust.

Believing and Knowing

A distinction is drawn between belief and knowledge—the apparent certainty of the one set against the dodginess of the other; the certain knowledge (or fact) that a kettle’s contents will boil when you leave it on the gas long enough is to be contrasted with the relative uncertainty of a belief in fairies or God. Some people have a belief that if you make a comprehensive set of assertions about the existence of fairies or God and go on proclaiming them at length, with due ceremonial and in a loud enough voice, amongst paintings of grottoes and lit candles on altars, what is to outsiders a mere belief becomes a fact or a piece of certain knowledge. Other people have a belief that if they exercise their so-called scepticism ardently enough they can demolish anything under the sun—belief or knowledge…

What Are We to Believe In?

At Teacher Training College in the mid-1960’s we were presented with two what could be called ‘belief-systems’; what seemed to make them ‘belief-systems’ was that their proponents appeared then to be at war with one another—this is perhaps an indicator that you are in the presence of a belief-system: what you can’t solve by rational discussion you pick up cudgels over. At any rate that’s how it was presented to us when we had a lecture or two on Behaviourism followed closely by one or two on Field or Gestalt theories. As a result of this we were presumably supposed to be thinking about how people learn on the presupposition that this would assist us in coming to some conclusion about how we would set about the teaching task. Quite how this would happen was never really made clear.

It’s Very Clear to Me Now!

On the one hand there was a dog whose daily scoff was accompanied by the ringing of a bell. After some repeats of this procedure the innocent dog began to salivate at the sound of a bell: he had learned that bell = food; his response to the stimulus of the bell had been reinforced by prior learning, process unspecified. This procedure could be monkeyed about with but the principle was that you didn’t have to know anything about the workings of the dog’s brain to make sense of the behaviour; in fact it was a mistake to imagine that dogs or humans had any kind of interior being. Observable behaviour is all you could possibly know about. The present day lurch towards Gradgrindism (in the UK at least) is based on this principle: present lots of so-called facts, drill their acquisition, test the result and tell the kids that when they get high marks they’ll get a good job—dog, bell & a can of Doggo. No thinking required.

On the other hand there were rather astute apes who figured out how to reach bananas inside a cage by using a stick: the hypothesis was that they had made an internal pattern or plan on which to operate by trial & error; stick + desirable banana + reaching activity would result in achievement of purpose. Things like purpose, intention, cognitive patterning, mental set, good gestalt—ruled out of order by Behaviourism because of their airy-fairiness—could be brought into what one might choose to consider in relation to learning.

The War Between Belief Systems

We were at the thin end of a war between belief-systems. There was the behaviourist belief that it was simply not necessary to take mind or soul or internal being into account in a description of learning episodes; what one acquired in the way of learning was just a matter of successful stimulus-response-reinforcement.

Offer an essay subject, get a scrawled bit of homework, mark it—one unacknowledged problem being that research demonstrated that in order for reinforcement of behaviour to have any real effect it had to be offered within 45 seconds of a behavioural performance! I did not learn this till much later… So much wasted effort…

Really extreme Behaviourism was said to deny the existence of mind which ironically caused a degree of cognitive turmoil for me at the time as I recall—which ‘I’ and where stored? I might now ask.

The Gestaltist belief was that we aimed to make as decent as possible a pattern out of whatever came into our sensing apparatus, that we can develop insights out of patterns—insight is learning.

I was on the side of the Gestalt believers.

Intervening Variables

My own further researches took me to Clark Hull (1884-1952) who developed a mechanistic theory (or belief) about the way the human organism worked. Still studiously avoiding any reference to the abstract notion of ‘consciousness’, he developed a model that suggested a something or other inserted between stimulus and response. What is going on inside us, so he said, is a complex of ‘intervening variables’ that you could call habits, drives, intentions, needs, goals, trail & error, motivations, neural impulses—hypothetical constructs that run the risk, as the behaviourist might say, of pinning functions down as things—the Reification Slough.

I’m still impressed at the way Hull pursued his concept of a systematic psychological scheme: his conjectures and experiments occupy 25 bound notebooks dating from 1915 to 1951, full of qualifications and verifications—a true picture of the verification process.

The idea of ‘intervening variables’ seems to me to be as generous to reality as Gurdjieff’s ‘something-or-other’. It surely has to be true that something or other goes on between stimulus and response!

After reading about Clark Hull, I began to resolve the cognitive dissonance produced by the piecemeal presentation of rival theories produced and defended tooth & nail by warring factions.

A Third Way

I do not remember where or how I came across it—it must have been one of those happy accidents that change the way we see the world—but a synthesis (or Third Way) came to me when I read up Herbert Mowrer’s cybernetic theory of learning, a great attempt to reconcile Behaviourism & Field Theories. So simple really!

Mowrer used the analogy of a self-correcting servo-mechanism which operates on feedback principles.

Before the Age of Terrorism we were invited to visit the cockpit of a big aeroplane flying back  from Zimbabwe to London. At the very moment we arrived in the cockpit the plane was right over Kipling’s Great Grey-green Greasy Limpopo river. I was very surprised to find the pilot sitting far from what I took to be the controls reading a book.
“The plane flies itself, you see! We set a course and a something-or-other inside the system just keeps checking that it’s going in the right direction, making appropriate adjustments all the time…” the pilot explained.

That’s how servo-mechanisms work—they thrive on feedback.

Same, said Mowrer, with the human machine: you do something—the result of your action is not quite what you wanted—you modify your behaviour accordingly. The pattern of the result of observing what happens makes some kind of mental image which tells you whether you are on course or not—you keep on adjusting till things are as you would have them be.

In their brilliant Plans and the Structure of Behaviour (1963), Miller, Galanter & Pribram present a very simple model that amply illustrates this process.

The TOTE Model

You have a plan or pattern of ideas for a project inside you somewhere (in your ‘mind’ maybe); you don’t know if it will work so you test it out and seek to make the outcome of your action congruent with the hitherto vague image you had in your so-called ‘mind’.

You Test your plan by Operating in some way; you Test the result and if all’s well you Exit the process. Test-Operate-Test-Exit gives us what’s known as the TOTE model.

To begin with there is an incongruity between your plan, vision, project, theory or idea and the world as it is out there. You hypothesise that your proposal for action (which we be able to observe when it happens) will produce some degree of congruity between your plan (etc) and ‘external reality’ (which remains after all merely a personal invention on the best of days). It will probably be the case that you’ll have to go several times round what is essentially a system before ‘congruency’ happens and sub-TOTES will probably emerge along the way.

To illustrate the system, Miller, Galanter & Pribram use the beautifully simple analogy of hammering a nail into a piece of wood.

You have a plan or project to hammer a nail into, say, a fence post; you test the nail, its appropriateness for the job, the angle relative to the post, its direction of aim; to start with it’s loose & ready for action; you check the suitability of the hammer, swing it a bit and give a thump, taking care to avoid hitting your thumb. Test the nail and keep going the circuit till the nail-head is flush with the surface of the post—EXIT!

Hitting the Nail on the Head

With any plan, intention, project or theory you hope to hit the nail on the head in this way eventually.

Even here we can see that there are at least two closely connected TOTE’s at work:-


These combine with other sub-TOTE’s in the following way:-

This appears to me to be an accurate statement about how internal patterns of ‘thinking’ relate to what we perceive as the effect of our relating them to the world out there. It is not a matter of belief—it represents the way things are.

Applications of the TOTE Model

The TOTE model can be applied in all kinds of ways. For instance, there’s an interesting question (variously attributed) that goes—how do I know what I think till I see what I write? The question strikes me frequently when I’m writing something, poem or prose, and serves usefully to keep my nose to the grinding paper—if in doubt, write something down and see how it works out; change it if necessary.

In order to practise the process, one could concoct many variations of this. For example—how do I know what I can reasonably believe until I observe the results of the practice of my belief?

Several times round the circuit creates many sub-TOTES which will have the effect of refining, modifying or even ditching the belief.

It’s a systemic process:-


Anyway, that’s how I heaved myself out of the cognitive dissonance of 1966… My new beliefs make total sense to me and they work out in mundane ‘reality’.

18 thoughts on “How do we come to believe the things we believe? (R10)

  1. Just Beautifully demonstrated Colin –

    “To begin with there is an incongruity between your plan, vision, project, theory or idea and the world as it is out there. You hypothesise that your proposal for action (which we be able to observe when it happens) will produce some degree of congruity between your plan (etc) and ‘external reality’ (which remains after all merely a personal invention on the best of days). It will probably be the case that you’ll have to go several times round what is essentially a system before ‘congruency’ happens and sub-TOTES will probably emerge along the way”.

    I cannot begin to tell you how many times this happens as I scribble away in my “office” – “thinking” and planning that I am going to be writing about one thing but then through my living in the world and the “doing” it evolves into something different, even though related to the original, but which now has congruence, meaning and usefulness(hopefully).

    It all brings to mind a simple yet profound quote I love – “Action will remove the doubt that theory cannot solve” (Teyhi Hsieh).


    1. For me, the writing project, is such a good demonstration of a TOTE happening. It can certainly be used to sort out what they call ‘writer’s block’. When the TOTE system becomes part of one’s being it can clear all kinds of things.

      Robert Dilts often uses the concept in his brilliant presentations. It gave me a great kick when the TOTE model emerged in NLP (for me around 1994) after all the years I’d been using it!


  2. P.S. so my own beliefs are formed by deliberately challenging the assumptions that I already have in place through investigation and “doing” and so new beliefs are formed and lived out – in any case I think beliefs may always be temporary since we have new experiences throughout our lives to draw upon.?


  3. Hi Colin,

    Your elegant TOTE model for validating beliefs puts me in mind of the most concise model of the personal coaching process I’ve encountered in my professional studies – the Integral Coaching model developed by James Flaherty, of New Ventures West. In that model, the client enters the coaching process when some typical action, or more likely some typical pattern of actions, is producing undesirable results. To frame this in what I now understand as TOTE terms, there is a growing, and increasingly dissatisfying, divergence between the initial Test and the Operation – and the client is at a loss as to how to modify the original Test. The coach intervenes just prior to what TOTE would deem the second Test, by offering the client a “distinction” – defined as a new way of seeing the situation that has so far been eluding the client’s vision. When the distinction is powerful enough, and the client is open enough to accept it, the result for the client is a new way of engaging with reality that produces new and better outcomes – or in TOTE terms, the distinction produces the successful Test that allows the client to Exit.

    Is that about right?

    As usual, your articulation of one of your own processes has allowed me to look anew at one of mine!



  4. Absolutely right, Tom!

    As presented in its simplest form the TOTE model doesn’t necessarily include outside intervention but that would, I think, come under the heading of a sub-TOTE! The coach, who has already done a TOTE in making a preliminary hypothesis, presents a re-frame, the client, whose TOTE system hasn’t had an exit till now, tests it out and operates on it – if it figures then EXIT, if it doesn’t then round again, prompted by the coach who has already modified their initial TOTE scheme. And so on…

    Looking forward to further things on/by Robert Thurman, by the way!

    (How’s the arm?)



    1. Have about 90% mobility back, after four weeks of physical therapy – 3 sessions per week. My surgeon not pleased with the progress, however, and has ordered additional testing for next week to determine if nerve damage is impeding full recovery. Meantime, continuing with the therapy and hoping no further surgery will be required!

      And how goes your own recuperation??


      1. Hope the other 10% soon returns, Tom.

        Left my stick somewhere about the house & couldn’t find it last Wednesday. So I started walking unaided! So that was that belief gone – the one that said I had to have a stick to walk!

        The remaining pain which happens when I first get moving is apparently ‘just’ muscle spasm.



  5. I have realised over the years that all my attempts at diy projects have followed Tote and can feel how one Tote feeds on and builds into the next. Never having had any training in woodwork or plumbing but realising that not making do with the wrong tools was probably a good idea I forged ahead with increasing confidence that I could bend what ever material I needed and see, if not on the first attempt, the best way of doing things. Once it has become clear (through test operate) how to make something work, the precise hand movements, the sequence of events, the pressure needed, the tools and materials that best fit. I am always doing things I can’t do that’s how I get to be able to do them!


    1. Simon: Nice! Do you remember your paternal grandad? I learned how to TOTE from him as far as the things you mention you learned by toting are concerned – I recognise your processes through him! He also suggested to me in a roundabout kind of way that one could do anything one turned one’s mind to – composing music, painting – it all works by toting! Action & Adjustment.


  6. Reading Simon’s comment reminded me of my own attitude toward doing things I previously had no awareness of being able to do.

    It’s exactly as I go about things; especially practical things like cooking, dressmaking, wallpapering and upholstery and I’ve even made a bed and a dining table, out of sheer resourcefulness and necessity at various times and then for the sheer pleasure – yes and all by TOTE.

    It would seem to me that underlying/preceding the courage to TOTE, MUST be a belief that if one turns ones mind to something with sufficient vigor – one can achieve many things, but also in one’s own ability to work at somethingwith sufficient mental agility and flexibility ’til it works.
    It’s been one of the most rewarding parts of my life, finding out what I could do – through doing and believing I could do what ever was required. Quite apart from but including my professional life. It is entirely an attitude of mind, I have no idea where I came by it, but all my kids have said the same thing at different times – that I brought them up to believe they could do anything – I really don’t know how I did that – I suppose I just believed in them.

    through the “doing” & Toting – I can now consciously believe myself to be resourceful and able to turn my hand to lots of diverse activites – even though I must have already believed that unconsciously.

    Perhaps it also has to do with the ability to take risks?


    1. Yes, Pat, taking risks… How do we learn to do that I wonder? Maybe just by taking risks!

      Just after the war (1945) when wood was scarce my father needed a piece of wood 8 feet long by about 1/3rd inch by 1 1/2 inch to form a gutter for a shed. He had to buy a long plank 9 inches by 1 1/2 inch. Between us we spent several days hand-sawing the necessary piece of wood for the gutter. Since I was only about 8 and he had a short fuse this was a sort of risky undertaking. We did it! It worked well as a gutter set at an angle of I suppose around 30 degrees to the side of the shed. I got resourcefulness and stickability out of that…


      I woke up in the middle of this last night and thought – it’s perhaps the case that unfortunates who brainwash themselves into thinking “I can’t…” are simply not aware of the TOTE process.

      I spent some time awake thinking that this might be a good reframe of eg ‘Writer’s Block’ or any ‘I can’t…’ thing (‘can’t paint’, ‘can’t write poetry’ etc). Just do it (T) – look at what you’ve done (O) – figure it out (T) – keep doing the circuit till Exit seems appropriate.

      Maybe not just a reframe but also a way out of any stuckness. Has practical application!


      1. There is also the lovely exit which saves any kind of beating yourself up about not being able to do that goes ..I don’t have to do anything I can choose to just be finding value in awareness, observation, stillness and silence!


  7. Colin – I realise that my previous reply didn’t get through the ether.

    Since we last spoke, I have been on a journey of discovery and found something I didn’t know I was looking for. I had sent a reply to your previous post, but it apparently didn’t get through the ether, since then however I have discovered the writings of a German Swiss Author called Herman Hesse and a quote from his novel Siddhartha – would appear to be apposite: and which allows me to answer you differently.

    “when someone seeks,” said Siddhartha, “then it easily happens that his eyes see only the thing that he seeks, and he is able to find nothing, to take in nothing because he always thinks only about the thing he is seeking, because he has one goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means having a goal; but finding means being free, being receptive, to have no goal.”……….. for in striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose.”

    it is precisely this attitude that allows me to find may way through writing, it is not writers block or being distracted or straying from the path – it is merely being open to being led toward finding the answer to questions I didn’t even know I was asking.

    It is the same attitude/state that is required for generative trance work or meditation, and neurologically speaking is the state required to facilitate the firing of the area of the brain that produces insight. Which is not on the logical left, but on the intuitive right.

    It is being in the flow of “doing” that allows me to access that part of me which provides insight.about “how” to do.

    It has been seen through fMRI that just preceing the moment of insight the visual cortex is closed down (as if the brain blinks) and the prefrontal cortex where active decision making occurs is defocussed – there is a turning down of the logical, decisional centre and then the neurons from the right side of the brain can look in diverse places in unusuall pathways for the solutions to problems. Allowing the brain to engage in a diversely different method of finding the answer to a problem rather than going down the same route – in going down a different route it is possible to “find” a different answer > insight.

    It is an attitude of having a “unfixed” idea about either outcome or how to get to outcome; it is the reverse of goal setting even though there was an originating idea.

    I believe it is fixedness – that stops us – and divergent thinking that frees us – such as Simons exit strategy – In order to reframe the personal outcome normally experienced in beating oneself up – —- beat up oneself > usual outcome feel bad – step back into silence and stillness – observe – become aware – be open and receptive to valuing oneself differently > outcome feel at peace with oneself.

    Herman Hesse again – this time from Demian – “The things we see are the same things that are within us. There is no reality except the one contained within us. That is why so many people live such an unreal life. They take the images outside them for reality and never allow the world within to asset iself”. and

    “An enlightened man has but one duty – to seek the way to himself, to reach inner certainty, to grope his way forward no matter where it led”.

    It rather gets away from TOTE doesn’t it?


  8. Pat


    I think it’s all up there… Your previous replies… ?

    You’re right about the distraction of having a goal. Like when teachers say “Concentrate, will you…” Quite the wrong advice! Things come when you play around and know what you’re doing. When I taught problem-solving many years ago my major piece of advice was FIDDLE – they paid good money for that!

    I really like this paragraph: It has been seen through fMRI that just preceing the moment of insight the visual cortex is closed down (as if the brain blinks) and the prefrontal cortex where active decision making occurs is defocussed – there is a turning down of the logical, decisional centre and then the neurons from the right side of the brain can look in diverse places in unusuall pathways for the solutions to problems.

    Demian Chapter 3: “We talk too much,” he said with unwonted seriousness. “Clever talk is absolutely worthless. All you do in the process is lose yourself. And to lose yourself is a sin. One has to be able to crawl completely inside oneself, like a tortoise.”

    I think this is all not very far from toting! I’ll come back to this!

    Many ways of ‘knowing’ – the task is to use them all. TOTE is perhaps intellectual/analytical. This, my favourite quotation from Demian, is a metaphorical or intuitive way. Then there’s a feelingful or guttish way. It’s all a matter of ‘I’s: Being-intellectual-I, Being-intuitive-I, Being-guttish-I and so on… And Meta-I can synthesise…

    Robert Dilts is great on ‘virtual questions’ – those we are asking ourselves all the time without realising it. We did great exercises with him on becoming aware of such questions!

    Journey to the East
    is a book I read at least once a year – an evening’s read when you know what’s coming!



  9. Ah the DIlts man – I’d love to have experience his teaching on “virtual questions” even though they reveal themselves anyway.

    As Mr Gilligan says Thinking in both/and mode; having a friendly attitude to both the conscious and unconscious mind and facilitating the relaxation response!

    Perhaps that facilitates the synthesis of Meta-I?

    Lest I am talking to much – I’ll exit now. I’ll keep a look out for Journey to the East.


  10. I don’t think that the ‘talking too much’ applies to us 🙂

    When we eventually meet I’ll take you through the best Virtual Question exercise we did!

    Yes, I think that what Mr Gilligan says will facilitate the strenghtening of Meta-I


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