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Perfect Proof: Our Beliefs Massively Distort Reality

In my post earlier this week, Why what you believe gets you nowhere, I discussed the phenomenal power of our beliefs.

No aspect of our psychology has such an uncanny ability to distort our perception of “reality” and “truth” and that’s why, as a therapist and coach, I spend most of my time working on client’s beliefs… whether they know it or not.

When Jonathan Ziemba (@massbehavior) tweeted about my Beliefs post with an extra link to this video, I knew I had found the perfect evidence of the power of our beliefs. After all, everyone knows that money doesn’t grow on trees… right?

If you only have time to watch one video today, make sure it’s this one – it’ll shake up your perception, for the better. Guaranteed.

(If you’re reading this via your email inbox, you may need to click the title of this post to view the video in your browser)

What do you think? Would you have walked right on by without noticing?


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  1. Okay, dude. This was kind of sad. With that little doo-doo-doo music in the back, and all these people just walking past… We all laugh and joke about wishing money grew on trees (or sighing over the fact it doesn’t), but even when it’s right there before us… we just can’t see it.

    It reminds me of a common business situation – smart people try to help other people who need the help… and it’s like they don’t see it, or can’t believe it, or feel unable to accept the help. My peers and I often exclaim over it (“And she wouldn’t take it, even when I GAVE it to her!!”) and throw our hands up…

    And maybe this explains why.

    Free money. And it’s like we just don’t see it.

    1. Maybe it’s too early in the morning for me to not be cynical, but honestly, if I happened upon that situation I would’ve just thought: “Oh, look, some artist is doing some art.” And I may or may not have taken a dollar because (A) it’s just a dollar–can’t even get you a double cheeseburger these days–and (B) I don’t know if I’d want to be part of some dude’s art project.

      I think this experiment would have been much more interesting if there were $500 bills on that tree. More expensive, I know, but I think you would get a stronger reaction. I could imagine some guy walking up, finding the money, and then looking around to make sure it wasn’t some kind of joke. Then agonizing over whether to take it or not for about 15 minutes. And then, finally, grabbing it all up and using it to pay off their upside down car loans.

      But with just $1 bills, I think the stakes are too low to make any broad observations about humanity.

      James, you are totally right about people being unwilling to accept free help–especially in the business world. I think it’s because we are hardwired to believe that nothing is truly free. And even if it is, we still feel indebted. The thing that I hate more than anything in life (even bees!) is when you have to pretend to fight over the check for lunch. It’s like a game of etiquette-chicken. And if you lose, you always say, “Well, I got the next one.” We don’t like to accept things from others unless we feel we can repay them.

      So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s not that we don’t see it–I think there is something ingrained in us, socially or otherwise, where we prefer not to accept handouts–even when there are explicitly no strings attached.

      I think I’m most impressed by the fact that no one just looted the entire tree. Like, some kids grab a sack and fill it up and hit the arcade for the afternoon. But I guess this experiment has already been proven with the “please take one” Halloween candy bucket method… Even those who took several seemed to be more interested in the quaint little messages. I think that’s what probably got people thinking the most.

      1. All good points Jack and yeah… I want to see the $500 experiment too! Although, I would be much much more suspicious of a filmed prank – whereas $1 bills feels like it really could be an “experiment” and not a reality tv show.

        I’m not sure about the filmmakers, but I assumed from people’s responses that they couldn’t see the cameras. What astounded me was the people who appeared just not to notice the money at all. At the very least, I’d expect everyone to give it a moment’s glance.

    2. Yeah I think that’s a great example James. Many successful entrepreneurs report an inability to “get through” to other wannabes who are seeking advice. It’s like the solution is right in front of them, but they can’t see it!

    3. That’s a pretty common thing though, James. No matter how good the advice may be, if the listener is not paying to get it, they won’t heed it. Seen it over and over and over again. But charge them money for it, and suddenly they’re all ears.

      As for not noticing the tree is there at all, that surprises me even less. The mind has a wonderful propensity for not noticing what it isn’t expecting. That’s why I like to tell people that they make their own luck. It means they are suddenly expecting ‘luck’ to strike them out of the blue, but what really happens is that they are suddenly open to the unexpected so they’re more likely to notice good opportunities.

      All makes perfect sense to me.

  2. It’s an interesting video, but I wouldn’t blame anyone who walked past or stopped but didn’t take it.

    Besides them having a number of reasons why they reacted like that, I think this is a great example of distance perspective. For example, it’s often easier to watch other people in their situations and help them or advise them what they should be doing. But I’ll also bet there’s people who could look in on our lives and point out our own follies or ways of running our lives / businesses more efficiently.

    Bear in mind, we’ve been let in on the set up and we have the point of view of the camera. We don’t have the point of view or the thoughts of people walking by.

    I bet if there was a camera following us aournd all day, someone would be watching it and thinking: “How long does she spend on Twitter? Why is he worrying about his traffic stats rather than creating that course he wanted to do? Why on earth is she eating minced beef on toast with salad cream for breakfast?” (Just me that last one?)

    Good video though, it has got me thinking. 🙂

    1. Amy, that distance perspective point is spot on… but perhaps that is what this is all about! It’s easier for others to give advice from “outside the fishbowl” quite possibly because they’re not subject to the same set of (limiting) beliefs as we are… or conditioned by our same past experiences.

      1. As James was saying, I think that’s why it’s frustrating when we offer help and advice which is ignored, even when the people we’re trying to help tell you they “desperately want” a certain result, but don’t take the action to achieve it.

        Keep provoking those thoughts! 🙂

  3. Remind me to look at a tree every time I go out now. Who knows, maybe I can snag some free cash. However it’s likelier I would have bird poop on my face.

    On a serious note I have been a prey to this kind of perception bias. Say I tell a friend that I would meet him at a particular spot in front of three exits of a busy station. I know the approximate direction he is supposed to come from. However most of the times I focus my eyes on only one exit. If the dude happens to emerge out of the adjacent exit I would, 9 times out of 10 miss him even if I was scanning all the three exits at the same time.

    My mind has already assumed that he would leave by exit 3 so exits 1 and 2 have been blocked out.

    Also did you notice the lady in the blue dress walked towards the camera in the beginning and didn’t pluck the money? The second time when she was going back in the opposite direction she took a buck.

    1. That’s a god example Bhaskar – it’s amazing how literally blind we can become through our own assumptions.

      I’ve very often surprised myself by simply NOT being able to see my car keys, because I’m POSITIVE they’re not on the bench. I know I’ve lost them someplace else, so I hunt and hunt…. and my eyes dart over the kitchen… but it takes me a few tries to actually *see* them.

      I like to think it’s a fascinating psychological phenomenon. But I’m probably just an idiot 😛

      1. You may or may not be an idiot, but it certainly is fascinating from a psych point of view. If you think about it, most people are unhappy or struggling, precisely because they don’t notice that what they don’t expect.

        The value of advice, an interesting meeting, a great deal on some product. If you’re not on the lookout, you don’t see it. Which makes it even more frustrating, because when you ARE on the lookout, chances are also big that you will look past that what you’re in need of.

        Fix that please, mr Shrink. The world needs you. And money trees.

  4. If I came across the tree, I think I would also think it was some kind of attempt at art, or a cute little trick. I don’t think I would have taken any because it would feel like stealing. I know for certain that I need help seeing the money right in front of me, so maybe there’s my answer:)

  5. It’s kind of interesting to read some of the comments – it’s almost as if we’d like to justify people’s actions with logic.

    And true, there are some logical explanations for actions. Some people were on the phone, distracted. Some had kids. Maybe some just assumed they were leaves (I guess it’s possible.)

    But what got me is that some people didn’t even glance. They just didn’t *see* the money – even if it was only a buck. (How could you know it was just a buck if you didn’t check?)

    So maybe some people might have thought it was art – that’s a plausible one – but what explains those that walked by, completely oblivious, some even nearly scraping bills as they passed?

    Peter’s point wasn’t about the actions people took (or didn’t take). It was that many people never even *noticed* something was different. That’s a little scary.

    It’s like people who drive to work for years. And one day, they “wake up” as they realize they’ve arrived… but they don’t remember any of the drive. Or people who don’t even see the clown on the corner because they’re looking for a green truck instead.

    We filter out what we’re not looking for simply because if we noticed everything, we’d go nuts. There’s SO much to notice in the world… and we don’t notice half of it. (Can you feel your left foot right now?… )

    Hey wait a minute. Just two minutes ago, you didn’t even notice you had a left foot.

    Alright, true, that’s another area; perception bias.

    But that brings me back to beliefs: if we perceive beliefs, don’t they become more real? And if we don’t perceive them at all…. well, doesn’t that mean they don’t exist?

    Think about that next time you tell yourself, “I can do this.” And remember that two hours earlier, you weren’t thinking that at all.

    Right on. Time for more coffee, because I may be going down a crazy, slippery path.

    1. Thanks for sharing this ramble James 😛

      I just remembered another fantastic example of what you’re talking about:

      Last new year’s eve, I bought a full body camoflage “system”… like a suit that made me look like a bush. I wore it to the NewYears party I went to (in NZ its warm, summery and outdoors) and spent much of the night sneaking up on friends, disguised as a bush!

      The hilarious thing is that it’s so damn obvious – I looked like a swamp monster from a bad 60s TV show…

      BUT, no one noticed me. Because their brains were not ready to comprehend a swamp monster/man-in-a-sniper-suit…. no one saw me. I literally had someone HEAR me, stare right at me and say “it’s just an old log”.

      Sure, I was lying down… sure, we were outdoors in a environment where logs *might* be around and sure, the girl had probably had a few.

      BUT, once i had scared a few people and then word spread that there was a guy in a camo-suit…. the game was up. Any suspicious bush was instantly recognised as me.

      Why? Because the people were mentally *sorting* for it. They were paying the right kind of attention.

      If you’ve read this far hoping for a point to all of this, you’re out of luck! hehehe

  6. I didn’t reach the same magical conclusions the filmmakers did. Maybe I’m just too cynical, but if I spotted this tree while walking down the street, I’d *immediately* suspect someone had a camera pointed at that tree watching my every move. I’d walk by, pretending I didn’t even see it.

    Here’s what I think is sad: The filmmaker expected people to “swarm” the tree, and was surprised they didn’t. It says more about her little world than any of the people who walked past that tree.

    This video does not demonstrate any of the above. If anything, it demonstrates we live in a culture that’s bombarded by tricks, gimmicks, and advertising overkill — and money hanging off a tree is not even a particularly clever trick or gimmick. Why should I pay attention? Why would anyone stop? Heck, most people have seen far more amazing gimmicks in the window of the local Starbucks.

    All in all: Massive Fail.

  7. The hardest part for me watching this video was waiting for it to download! Net Speed in this country….

    I agree with James the most notable to notice, was that people didn’t. That is oddly scary!

    I thought about what I observe which made me think about what I miss. But I would not have missed the tree.

    It did look “arty” and gimmicky to me, white stickers with imprinted questions. Yet that would have attracted my curiosity (only) and I would have stopped. Plenty of other people opposite to my personality would not have just like in the video.

    Personality differences, that’s another obvious anyway.

    I don’t find the producers comments at the end of the video profound at all though. Not meaning to sound negative.

    She would have got the results she was expecting if it was in a lower social economic suburb? The tree would have gone as well and I’m just being real. So it’s not a well rounded experiment overall for me.

    Place that tree in an area where the demographic of people is more needy, and they will notice money on a tree 100%. No rocket science there. And would we come up with the same theories?

    Likely more obvious ones.

    So the people who walked right past the tree without noticing (or did they) are they less needy?

    Maybe, maybe not.

    More of the obvious distracted, oblivious to different, in a hurry, see it but pretend they don’t and on it goes.

    I like the mum’s with their prams; I think one goes back for another bill? That’s not greedy, that’s smart. I mean there it is and you’ve got written permission, what more do you need?

    In saying that, the video portrayed people in real time. It was rare and lovely (yes fluffy) to see people take one bill and swiftly enlighten others that they to, can have a bill of their own.

    That was “real” you could see it and it’s a big positive I take away. No matter what others may make of the video good and bad, those moments of unselfishness are theirs. And they don’t know it.

    This makes me remember one of Peter’s earlier posts about gratefulness.
    When I express more gratefulness for the things in and around my life, I notice MORE and close to everything.

    When I am in those states (it takes work) I miss nothing that is going to be of value to me so I can be more for my family, friends, the world and the person central (heart love and stuff) in my life.

    That’s me………….out.

  8. The comments on “Why what you believe gets you nowhere” and this video is priceless. For everyone who is dismissing the implications of Beliefs please watch this:

    You said it clear Peter:
    “There isn’t a part of our thinking more important or dangerous than the beliefs we hold. Beliefs are the ideas or concepts that we hold in our mind as “true” and they dictate the way we see the world.

    Literally. Our beliefs determine what we see, hear and feel around us. Beliefs can also affect what we don’t see, by causing us to delete or distort possibilities that our beliefs do not allow.”

    I have an old note I pull out randomly that lives in my wallet. It reads “Noting exists unless you are aware of it.” Awareness is our consciousness.

    Peter I think you need to increase your hours, as I see a lot of business coming your way.

  9. I think I would’ve had to stop and read the notes out of curiosity, but I would’ve felt a little guilty taking the money. Knowing me, if I had time and felt like no one was watching, I’d probably take them all down to read them all and then put them all back except for one.

  10. It’s weird that people didn’t notice it. I think it is definitely linked to our belief that money doesn’t grow on trees, so people aren’t primed to see money there. However, the people who do look at the tree and stare (like the guy at the end) may have still SEEN the money but just thought it was fake (or maybe he just wasn’t interested in taking any).

    The response I am most surprised NOT to see is someone finding the tree and then taking all of the money.

    Very, very cool idea and video. The little messages on each dollar bill gave it a really human touch. Thanks for sharing this!

  11. This post and the previous one on beliefs has a lot of religious application — people only see what they expect to see, or what they have been trained (schooled) to see. You have established that people don’t tend to see what they believe isn’t there. The obvious application is the world of beliefs — religion.

    Jesus spoke of the necessity of having ears to hear. Hearing what Jesus actually said involves having the right presuppositions about life and reality and God. And in the same way not hearing it involves either not having the “right” presuppositions or having the “wrong” ones. Should we call them “right” and “wrong?” Well, if they don’t facilitate the hearing, they don’t work correctly — and that meets your criteria of practicality. What doesn’t work isn’t practical.

    1. Hey Phillip,

      When explaining this same concept (that the posts refer to) to 1-on-1 therapy clients, I’ll often use the example of “miracles”.

      Many people believe in “miracles” happening… and so, those people tend to notice miraculous occurrences all around them. They sort for it and give the coincidences the benefit of the doubt. For them, miracles are real.

      It all comes down to beliefs… and at the end of the day, what’s “true” doesn’t matter. “What works” is all that counts.

      1. Peter, yes, I understand. But if it is the case that truth works and falsehood doesn’t work, then truth actually does matter. And doesn’t science confirm that what works is true and what doesn’t work is not true.

        Doesn’t suggesting that truth doesn’t matter reflect a philosophical commitment to Postmodernism?

        1. The problem with that is that there is no objective truth. The question is not whether truth matters or not, because it does once you realise everyone holds his own personal truth and that always matters to that individual.

          1. Martin, again you are stating Postmodern doctrine as if it is objective truth. You are simply regurgitating what you have been taught by the multicultural Postmodern philosophy police. How do you know that there is no objective truth? Your statement that there is no such thing as objective truth is itself an attempt to make an objective statement. So, if you are correct, then you are wrong.

            I’m not trying to tie people up in fu-fu knots. I’m only arguing that objective truth is a logical necessity, for without it logic cannot stand.

          2. What’s true to me is a lie to another. What’s true to another is blasphemy to me. I’m with Martin on this.

            And I’m not quoting Postmodern doctrine or regurgitating what I’ve been taught by multicultural Postmodern philosophy police, mostly because I have no friggin’ clue what either of those mean and also because I come from Quebec. I’m not even sure we have that kind of police around here.


  12. @Phillip

    Actually, the theory goes back a few thousand years, long postmodernism regurgitated it.

    And yes, there is a paradox in it. Welcome to Life.

    How do I know that there is no objective truth? I don’t. I opine that way, is all. And it works for me.

    I do see some proof though. Killing is said to be wrong and against nature and what not. Until there is a war and suddenly it’s not only no longer wrong, it’s actually good! And you want to tell me about ‘objective truth?’. It’s a phallacy whence I know not.

  13. James, if you don’t know what Postmodernism is, then you can’t possibly know if you are a reflection of it. If truth is relative, as you suppose, then math is not possible. For math to be possible (to work in the world), its definitions and meanings must not simply be shared among people, but reality itself must conform to its objectivity. What is relative is opinion, not truth. And opinion is a function of beliefs, training and presuppositions.

    Martin, yes, Postmodernism isn’t actually new. It’s polytheism in a new suit. Your opining takes us back to Peter’s observation that people only see what they expect, and do not see what they do not believe.

    Killing is most certainly not against nature, red in tooth and claw. Doesn’t the theory of evolution depend upon the death of the inferior in order to progress?

    The proof you see would be my proof in that the admonition against killing originates from God’s commandments, not nature. And the fact that sinful men disobey God’s commandments negates neither their value nor their objectivity.

    The point is that knowledge is bounded by belief. To know more, we must stop restricting our beliefs — at least that is what Peter seems to have been saying.

    1. “reality must conform to it’s objectivity”
      Dude, are you serious? That in itself debunks your theory, but I’ll ignore that.

      Reality is a definition of our perception corroborated by our attempts to quantify our perception based on hypothetical definitions made up from temporary laws. Flat world, anyone? Science itself only accepts truth until it’s falsified, so tell me the objective truth is please.

      Killing is not the same as natural selection which indeed does lead to evolution. Don’t mix the two: we’ve seen how hurtfully wrong that can go.

      As for the dogma that killing is wrong: I wasn’t around back then but I’m guessing that killing humans has been ‘wrong’ since there were humans. And that was some trifle of time before the Bible, or indeed any other system of dogma. But even cavemen must have justified slaughtering other cavemen if it served there purposes (i.e. when they went to war.)

      “Knowledge is bounded by belief”. That I don’t understand. Could you explain please?

  14. Martin, we are ships passing in the night. And I am serious, perhaps too serious. But then again, life is too short to waste on trivialities.

    Your understanding of reality is pretty thin, full of temporary, subjective hypotheticals. Hardly the stuff of reality! It seems to be missing the dimensions of the ultimate and the eternal, and lacking full dimensionality it is somewhat flat. And it conforms to Postmodernism to a proverbial tee.

    I will be happy to tell you where objective truth can be found. However, it is a pretty big topic. The most important book about objective truth is the Bible. Why is the Bible objective? Because God is objective by definition, and it is His book. But it’s tricky because, as Peter has observed, people do not see what they do not believe. So, in a phenomenological sense it is important to bracket (hold in abeyance) as much as possible all opinions regarding the Bible as it is read.

    Even reading it with an open mind doesn’t usually help. The problem with an open mind is that it doesn’t believe anything, and not believing anything doesn’t see anything. So, the way to read it is to simply believe that it could be true. Like a scientist, accept the possibility. Try to understand how it might be true rather than simply trying to falsify it. Perhaps we can dialog about your reading.

    I’m having a hard time seeing how individual murder is all that different from the elimination of inferior beings (survival of the fittest) by a “intelligent” force. If memory serves me, that has been tried, and it seemed a lot like murder. But it is unlikely that you can help me with that.

    If the Bible is right (here is Peter’s insight at work, believing it to be true), then while it did take some time to get the Bible written, there was not a time before God, by definition. And since God’s admonition about the two trees and the knowledge of good and evil (His moral instruction) came in the first week, it is unlikely that war preceded it.

    Thus, the objective standard by which good and evil are determined is God’s standard. It is objective precisely because it is not dependent upon a human perspective or opinion, and has been understood to be exactly that across much time and many cultures.

    And I suspect that those warring cavemen were warring because they didn’t heed God’s advice.

    1. Hi Phillip.

      I presume and respect your integrity.
      However, I’m signing off on this topic. Religious discussion to me is only worthwhile in the company of a good cigar and a glass of good Scotch, and in the absence of dogma. I won’t engage in this debate online, or indeed in private.

      I was a monk for quite some time though by Christian standards I would be an idiot, heretic, sinner, and doomed so we really have little common ground to talk. I’m only mentioning this because I’m miffed by your saying my ideas lack the perspective of the ultimate and the eternal. They don’t.

      Maybe I should have clicked your link earlier so I wouldn’t have wasted your time. Sorry if I did.



  15. Martin, the loss is likely mutual. I’m not sorry the monk thing didn’t work out. By RC standards you might be all of those things, but God is bigger and more gracious that we can possibly understand. This is not to suggest that you are not any of those things, you know yourself better than I do.

    And yet that is exactly the kind of people that God forgives. Every Christian is all of those things in the eyes of some other Christian group, myself included. The thing about Peter’s original essay(s) here was his secular insight that dogma requires belief. The critical thing about dogma is not that it comes without proof, but that without the right presuppositions it can’t even be seen.

    I’d get with you for the scotch, but cigars gross me out.

    Thanks for being miffed. It means that you still care. Are you sure that you didn’t purge the ultimate and the eternal when you kicked the habit? I was just going on your words here. Perhaps the Baby’s bath just needs a good draining. Meaning is often like a well-lathered baby — slippery and hard to get a hold of. Especially the Father’s baby!

    If you want to stretch those old muscles, take a gander at my site/books. Should you ever want a second opinion, I’ve got a boatload of them and I’m willing to share.



    1. Thanks for the kind words Phil. I did have a look at your site earlier. It’s not for the likes of me, sorry.

      “didn’t purge the ultimate and the eternal when you kicked the habit”. I don’t understand that. I didn’t purge anything, and besides, I wouldn’t say the ‘monk-thing’ didn’t work out. It just ended.

  16. Reminds me of something similar that some kids did at my high school, a long time ago now.

    They put a 5 cent coin on the ground and watched to see who would take it. I grabbed it.

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