The White Van Phenomenon

It’s easy to jump to conclusions. I failed that assignment, therefore, I must be not good enough to pass this class. He broke up with me, therefore, nobody will ever love me. I didn’t see that situation coming, therefore, I must be doomed to fail.

We all have deeply held beliefs that we may or may not be aware of. These are the beliefs that we worry might be true and feel true when we are having an especially difficult time. In therapy, we often call them core beliefs or negative cognitions. They aren’t true and yet, there’s something deep down inside that believes that they are. Often times, these thoughts come in the form of feeling un-something: unworthy, unloveable, not good enough (okay, so that last one isn’t an un- word).

We often fall into the white van phenomenon as a result. Back in the early 2000s, there was a string of sniper shootings in the DC area. The newscasters reported that the criminals were driving a white van after many eyewitnesses described seeing white vans near the location of the shootings. Everyone started looking for suspicious white vans, which lead to the police being inundated with calls about white vans.  In the end, it turns out that the criminals were actually driving a Chevy Caprice. People believed that the criminals were driving a white van because white vans are very popular vehicles. If you don’t believe me, take a look around the next time you are near a parking lot. It is likely that there were white vans nearby in all crime scenes. However, they were not the vehicle that the belonged to the criminals. They just happened to be popular enough to appear to be correlated with the shootings.

You may be wondering how does this relate to core beliefs? In life, there are many situations that are easy to interpret through the lens of core beliefs. We face situations every day that could correlate with core beliefs despite the fact that they are not the true. I failed that assignment because the test was harder than I expected. He broke up with me because we were not the right match. I didn’t see that situation coming because I didn’t have all the information. See the difference between beliefs above and these beliefs?

When we start believing core beliefs, we can fall into the trap of seeing them everywhere. More and more situations seem to be true because of these beliefs. And yet, just like the white vans, they are not the true explanation for the problem.

Here’s where therapy comes in. Together, we can look at what beliefs of yours might fall into this category and look at them more objectively and with more compassion. Through EMDR or talk therapy, we can figure out what is really going on so that your core beliefs don’t become self-fulfilling prophecies. These new interpretations tend to be much more positive than the core beliefs (none of them involve being un- something!). And as difficult as it can be to look at these beliefs, there’s a life with a lot less suffering when you let go of them.

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