Why we jump to conclusions – and how to stop!

Mental Health

Dr. Happy

One of the greatest misperceptions of human functioning and especially, human thinking, is that we are, by and large, rational creatures. Although there’s no doubt we can and do think logically at times, there’s also no doubt that much of our thinking, much of the time, is nowhere near as rational or as accurate as we assume it to be.

In fact, our thinking is distorted in all sorts of ways. The way we interpret situations is coloured and biased by our upbringing including cultural and religious backgrounds, not to mention our moods within and feelings about what’s going on at the time. 

This isn’t always a serious issue; and it shouldn’t necessarily be considered a sign of any real dysfunction. But at the same time, it is worth recognising that it can be problematic if or when it causes distress and/or if it impacts on important parts of our lives such as our work or our relationships (or, for that matter, anything else). 

Some of the more common “distortions” or “thinking mistakes” we make include: 

  • Catastrophising: or making mountains out of molehills
  • Overgeneralising: making general conclusions based on a single event or piece of evidence
  • Dichotomous thinking: assuming everything is “black or white”, “right or wrong”
  • Personalising: believing everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to us
  • The Fairness Fallacy: which mostly leads to resentment because we think we know what’s fair but other people (or the world) conspire to not agree​​​​​

Amongst these, one of the other more common and more destructive distortions in our thinking is …jumping to conclusions. This occurs when we think we know what others are thinking and feeling, or why they behave in certain ways, even when there’s no evidence to support our beliefs (this also overlaps somewhat with “mind reading”!).

Not surprisingly, this can lead to all sorts of problems. Assuming you know what someone’s thinking, or the motivations behind why they’re behaving in a certain way, is not something any of us can do accurately; even psychologists like myself who despite what some believe, can NOT read minds! 

Accordingly, we often get these guesses wrong which can upset and insult or offend the other person. This can be disastrous for relationships – our intimate and personal ones, as well as our professional and workplace ones. 

So why, then, do we do this if it’s so often unhelpful?

Well, quite simply, just as most things have pros and cons there is a plus side to this strategy that’s mostly unhelpful; and it’s important to understand this if we’re going to do something about it. The plus side, or the advantage, is that it saves time. Imagine thinking through the facts and logics of every single situation and decision? It would take a lot longer to get things done! 

But saving time isn’t always a good thing; especially if it has a deleterious effect on our mood, the mood of others, or on the way we relate to or interact with others. 

Accordingly, it’s important to ask what we can do about these unhelpful and often unrealistic thoughts? And as always, I’m happy to share some suggestions with you below: 

  • To begin with, be mindful of your thoughts; most of these unhelpful thinking patterns occur unconsciously and we can’t change something if we don’t even know it’s there. So, begin to pay attention to your thought processes and observe what’s going on, without judgement
  • As you get better at noticing your thinking, start to look out for some of the specific types of unhelpful thoughts described above and especially, jumping to conclusions. Ask yourself questions such as “Do I have any evidence for thinking or assuming this?” or “Is it possible there’s another reason they’re doing what they’re doing?”
  • Further, once you identify specific thoughts, ask yourself simple questions such as “Is this helpful?” and/or “Is this realistic?”
  • And finally, even if you think you know why someone’s acting in a particular way, get in to the habit of checking. Gather real evidence by asking the other person if they wouldn’t mind explaining what they’re doing and why they’re doing it

Although “Jumping to Conclusions” makes sense in some ways because it saves us time, it’s very important to be aware that our assumptions can often be incorrect and accordingly, unhelpful. Taking this into account, if we’re more aware of what we’re doing we can interpret what’s going on around us more consciously and as such, make better decisions that will have more positive impacts on our lives and the lives of those around us.

Dr Happy

Please note: Dr Happy's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic, please consult your healthcare professional.

Category:Mental Health

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