Liminal Thinking

February 19, 2018

This is an excerpt from Dave Gray’s book Liminal Thinking: Create the Change You Want by Changing the Way You Think. 2016, Two Waves Books, an imprint of Rosenfeld Media.

Principle 2: Beliefs Are Created

Liminal Thinking CoverAround noon on August 9, 2014, a hot summer day in Ferguson, Missouri, a young black man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer named Darren Wilson.

Although there were several witnesses to the shooting, their stories about what happened varied widely.

In the following days and weeks, the mostly black population clashed with the mostly white police force of Ferguson in an escalating series of protests, riots, and police clamp-downs.

This is not a new pattern in the United States. It is a recurring one that has been happening for years. Even as I write this, a similar pattern is unfolding in Baltimore, after a young black man named Freddie Gray died of a broken neck while in police custody.

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Every time something like this happens, a battle for the obvious unfolds in the news media, in living rooms, on social media, and elsewhere.

In one narrative, police are the frontline enforcers of a racist society that systemically oppresses black people, where poverty and hopelessness generate legitimate frustration and anger.

In another narrative, racism may be a real problem, but poor people are responsible for their own poverty and for pulling themselves out of it. The police are just doing their job, and unfortunately, sometimes people get hurt. If people didn’t break laws and resist arrest, they wouldn’t be hurt by the cops.

There are other narratives, too—many of them, too many to go into here.

The competing narratives are so different that they seem like different versions of reality, which is exactly what they are.

You can see similar battles for the obvious in media and politics all over the world, in debates about taxes, guns, religion, immigration, health care, and foreign policy.

We are like the blind men and the elephant, spouting multiple competing and conflicting narratives, which are unfolding everywhere in society, all the time.

What is wrong with us?

I once asked a neuroscientist, “What’s the difference between consciousness and dreaming?”

Figure 2-1—Are we walking around dreaming?
Are we walking around dreaming?

“Very little,” he told me. “In fact,” he said, “if you look at an MRI, at the actual brain processes that are happening when you are dreaming and when you are awake, they look almost identical. Only a practiced neuroscientist can tell the difference.”

What’s going on? Are we walking around dreaming?

It’s closer to that than you would think.

The obvious is not obvious. It is constructed. We work together, as individuals and in groups, to construct the obvious every day. We band together in obvious clubs that defend competing versions of reality. When you walk into your obvious club, you will find people reading the same books, watching the same news channels, and talking to the same people, all of which tends to reinforce the same version of reality.

When you feel that your reality is being threatened, you will often fight to protect it.

So if beliefs are constructed, how does that work?

We construct beliefs slowly, layer by layer, over time, using something I call the pyramid of belief. It’s based (loosely) on the Ladder of Inference, a concept developed by the late Harvard researcher Chris Argyris, a pioneer in human and organizational development.

Figure 2-2—Reality

Let’s just say this baseline stands for reality, which none of us can ever completely understand. This is the ground that the pyramid is built on.

Starting as a baby, you grow, learn, and go through your life, experiencing reality through your senses and perceptions. Like one of those blind men touching the elephant, your experiences are subsets of reality. They are necessarily limited. Even identical twins will have different experiences over the course of their lives. In addition, your experiences will be limited by the nature and capacity of your perceptive system. You will never be able to track animals with your nose, the way a dog can. What the world smells like to a dog is unimaginable, because we just don’t have the same sensory abilities. The differences between how people experience the world are more subtle, but they are just as real.

A neuroscientist named Manfred Zimmermann estimates that our capacity for perceiving information is about 11 million bits per second. That’s a lot, but it’s still a tiny fraction of the amount of information that’s potentially available in any situation.

Your experience of reality is limited by the range of your experience. So let’s draw your experience as the base of the pyramid, a platform, resting on the unknowable.

Figure 2-3—Experience

You are also limited by what you pay attention to. In any given moment, the more you focus on one aspect of your experience, the less you will notice everything else. A simple way of saying this is that you can only focus on one thing at a time. For example, if three people are talking at once, you can’t possibly follow all aspects of the conversation. There is only so much your mind can grasp at one time.

So your experiences, which are already a subset of all possible experiences, are further limited by the things that you notice, or pay attention to, within those experiences.

What do you pay attention to? In any situation, you will tend to focus your attention on those things that are most likely to meet your needs.

If you’re grocery shopping, for example, you will tend to notice the things that are most relevant to you. Even though you might walk through the entire store, it will be impossible for you to notice everything or remember everything you saw. If you’re looking for oranges, for example, you will tend to notice things that are small, round, and orange. If you are on a tight budget, however, you will probably pay closer attention to the things that are on sale. Psychologists call this the priming effect.

Zimmermann estimates that your conscious attention has a capacity of about 40 bits per second. That’s a tiny, tiny fraction of what you can perceive: forty bits out of a potential 11 million. That’s 10, 999,960 bits of information that you sense but don’t notice, every second.

Think of your attention as a very thin sliver of your overall experience, like a needle on a record player. It’s only able to take in a tiny fraction of what you are experiencing in any given moment.

With that in mind, let’s draw your attention as a thin line that rests on the platform of your experience, a line that, at least to some degree, you can control and direct.

Figure 2-4—Attention

Based on those things that you notice, you will form theories and make judgments.

For example, you probably have a theory that when you walk into a grocery store that you will be able to buy juice. You can probably walk into a store and find juice pretty quickly. This theory is based on your previous experiences shopping in grocery stores.

From your theories, you make judgments. For example, if you see something that looks like a grocery store, and you believe all grocery stores have juice, then you suppose— make a judgment—that you will be able to walk in and buy juice.

Of course, you might be wrong! Perhaps this one grocery store doesn’t stock juice, or it is sold out.

These are the third and fourth parts of the Pyramid of Belief: theories and judgments. You will only make theories and judgments about things that you have paid attention to or that you have noticed.

So let’s draw theories and judgments as two more platforms that rest on that needle of attention.

Figure 2-5—Theories & Judgments
Theories & Judgments

Your experience can be extended, of course, by things teachers tell you, things that you read or see on TV, things that your friends say, what your doctor says, and so on. But each of those sources is also making judgments, based on their own Belief Pyramids. So you will also need to make theories and judgments about which sources you trust and which you don’t.

Even if you trust your doctor, for example, you may still want to get a second opinion on issues that are very important to you.

These four things—your experiences, attention, theories, and judgments—form a foundation that reduces the unknowable to a kind of map or model that is simple enough to understand and use in daily life.

In essence, as people, we simplify reality to reduce its infinite complexity, in order to make it easier to understand.

This is important, and there’s nothing wrong with it. In fact, it’s essential. We all need this simplified reality in order to function. If you experienced everything as if it were completely new, you would be like a baby, helpless, paralyzed by complexity, and unable to do anything.

But it’s also important to realize that this Pyramid of Belief reduces reality from infinite complexity to a small set of theories, which form the foundations on which you (and everyone else) construct our beliefs.

So let’s draw one more platform to represent the set of beliefs you hold at any one point in time.

Figure 2-6—Beliefs

As I said earlier, it’s easy to confuse your beliefs with reality, and that’s what most people do.

This situation happens because the people in your social circle tend to have had similar experiences, and one of the ways we reinforce beliefs is by sharing experiences and talking to each other about what they mean.

Your beliefs form the fundamental model that you use to navigate the world, to think about things, to decide what to do and what to avoid, like a map. We form a lot of these beliefs by middle childhood.

And since you’re the one who built the map, it’s natural to believe that it corresponds to the territory that you are navigating. After all, most of the time, your map gets you where you want to go. So much so that when the map doesn’t get you where you want to go, the first thing you question is not the map but reality.

Figure 2-7—The Obvious
The Obvious

Here’s a picture of you and me, or anyone at all really, because this is all of us, standing on top of our self-constructed Pyramid of Belief, living in the land of the obvious.

We feel that we’re standing on solid ground here. We think that the ground is reality, that it’s obvious. But we actually constructed this reality. Your obvious is one of many versions, and other people have different ones.

The space between the baseline of reality and the obvious is liminal space. These needs, feelings, and thoughts happen inside you. If you don’t talk about them, they are invisible to others.

Learning how to navigate this below-the-obvious construction zone is one of the core skills of liminal thinking. Liminal thinking requires you to become more conscious of that invisible belief construction process, in yourself and others.

Principle 2

Beliefs are created. Beliefs are constructed hierarchically, using theories and judgments, which are based on selected facts and personal, subjective experiences.


Take a belief that you hold and try to deconstruct it. What personal experiences created that belief? What did you notice in those experiences? What theories and judgments have you made that support that belief? Can you imagine other kinds of experiences which might have led to different constructions? 

Discount for UXmatters Readers—Buy Liminal Thinking online from Rosenfeld Media, using the discount code UXMATTERS, and save 20% off the retail price.

Founder of XPLANE

St. Louis, Missouri, USA

Dave Gray In 1993, Dave founded XPLANE, the visual thinking company, to help people develop shared understanding, so they can make better, faster decisions and work better together to create more lasting, sustainable impact. He has grown this global change and communications company to $10 million in annual sales. He has a BFA in Illustration from ArtCenter College of Design. Dave has written four books: Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers, with Sunni Brown and James Macanufo; The Connected Company, with Alex Osterwalder; Selling to the VP of NO; and most recently, the Rosenfeld Media book Liminal Thinking.  Read More

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