I think therefore I am.
And all that I am is dictated by my thought.
Thought breeds opinion, opinion belief,
Belief engenders attitude and attitude: behaviour.
Therefore in order to live well
A man must first strive to think well.
His thought must be fluid and well conceived.
It must be as a strong fortress to withstand the onslaughts of derision and dogma
And yet welcoming enough to admit the arguments of reason.
Thought must not be fixed but it’s foundations must be firm.
And thought belongs to us all.
According to the late Albert Ellis (creator of ‘Rational Emotive Therapy’) there are three ‘general’ thinking errors that crop up time and time again in the development of emotional distress. These are much less specific than his famous collection of twelve irrational beliefs and are more to do with thinking ‘style’ than with any specific belief but they are, nevertheless a reasonable place for us to begin this little post on the link between cognition (thinking) and emotion.
The three ‘general thinking errors’ are….
Ignoring the positive
Whether you tend toward anxiety, anger or depression you’ll find it much harder to maintain emotional stability if you ignore the positive aspects of life. Like many of the thinking errors we’ll consider this simple truth is both obvious and depressingly common (pun intended).
Exaggerating the negative
As if ignoring the positive wasn’t bad enough, many people have developed the thinking habit of exaggerating the negative. The net result is that not only do they see the bad in their lives but they also have an even more negative view because they blow things out of all proportion until it seems as though they are overwhelmed by negativity.
This thinking error becomes habitual and remarkably destructive. This is the thinking habit that prompts people to believe that all aspects of their life are unsatisfactory when in fact only a small part of it may be. This is the sort of thinking error that prompts people to expect ‘one of those days’ simply because they spill the milk at breakfast. The misfortune is generalised to include the whole day.
On a related point I often wonder why they choose to generalise only to the whole day. Why not to the whole week or month? Maybe even their whole life. Either one makes as much sense as the others.
Or maybe they could try relating the misfortune to the whole of the time it takes them to clean up the spilled milk and then move on. After all:
There’s no use crying over spilled milk!
Yes – I know. I couldn’t resist that!
Other errors that psychologists have identified include:
An inevitable result of Ellis’ 3 general thinking errors above is the way that people take a minor problem and blow it out of all proportion. This is what happens when a person argues with their partner and then convinces themselves that the whole relationship is over. Most of us have done this at one time or another – especially during our teenage years but by the time we become adult we should have plenty of evidence to show us that it’s not inevitably so. Yet – by ignoring the positive evidence and exaggerating the negative implications of the situation we convince ourselves that the worst is about to happen.
Catastrophisation often relies upon this process of arbitrary inference to make it happen. This is the way we draw conclusions from very limited evidence to support our basic assumptions.
The problem is compounded by the extremely common habit of inference chaining where a series of arbitrary inferences are linked together to create anxiety, depression, anger or even psychotic states such as paranoia and other delusions. For example:
Joan and David live together and have done for eight years. They are happy and regularly go out as a couple to the local cinema as well as restaurants and other places. They have two small children, Anna and Michael who they adore.
This afternoon David tells Joan that he is planning to go to the cinema with some male friends from work. Joan becomes distressed by this, much to David’s confusion because he doesn’t understand the arbitrary inference chain that has developed in Joan’s head. It goes something like this:
David’s going to the cinema without me
That means he doesn’t want my company
That means he doesn’t love me
That means he will leave me soon
That means I’ll be on my own with two children
That means I’ll never find anyone else. Nobody will want to take on the kids as well
That means I’ll be alone
That means I’m a failure because I couldn’t keep him
That means I’m useless
Obviously this chain of ideas may well be distressing but these thoughts don’t really reflect reality. This thinking style of arbitrary inference is extremely destructive and unnecessary. It often has the feel of predicting the future. Assuming claIrvoyance another of Ellis’ irrational beliefs. One simple trick to get to the bottom of inference chains that therapists use a lot is to keep asking:
If that were true, what would it mean for you?
It is truly amazing to discover the assumptions people make based upon the flimsiest of evidence or the most innocuous of events.
Determinism comes in many forms but they all have the same ‘feel’. This is the assumption that the outcome is inevitable because of some other, often irrelevant, circumstance. Determinism makes us powerless because it tells us that there is no hope. This belief discourages us from trying to improve our situation. Common examples of determinism include:
I’m bad tempered because my parents were Irish;
I failed at school so I’ll never make anything of myself;
I’m unemployed so I must be miserable
I was traumatised as a child so I’ll never be happy;
Of course I can’t look after myself – I’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
This thinking error is very similair to arbitrary inference. The difference is that it’s often a more conscious process of ‘self-censorship’. It’s the process by which people ignore evidence that doesn’t fit with their preferred beliefs and opinions. They acknowledge only the evidence that supports their preconceived notions and so they fail to grow, to develop and ultimately to learn how best to survive in the world. In everyday language this is what we mean when we say that someone is ‘burying their head in the sand’. This is the sort of thinking error that allows:
Racists to ignore the evidence that people from other racial groups are just the same as people from their own;
Politicians to draw different conclusions from the same evidence;
People to blame others for their emotions in spite of their own self-destructive thoughts and behaviours.
This is one of the most common thinking errors. It’s the habit of applying a single principle to a total situation. It’s one of the most destructive thinking habits, especially when people apply it to themselves.
The man who finds himself out of work following a spate of redundancies is not a total failure.
The girl who finds herself taken advantage of after a drunken night out is not a whore.
The woman diagnosed with depression is not completely unable to function in the world.
All of these people may face some very real difficulties but that, in itself, does not negate all the other aspects of their personalities and circumstances that make up who they are. Global thinking, when applied to ourselves or others, is always far too superficial. It’s the sort of thought process that leads people to write off small children as evil and a host of other, equally superficial judgements with no real understanding of the complexity of human beings and their capacity to behave in a variety of ways given the right circumstances.
Also known as ‘black and white’ thinking, this is the belief in extremes. The world is full of shades of grey but the dichotomous thinker can see only definites. Dichotomous thinking is common among children – in fact it’s a vital stage in cognitive development but it isn’t the end result. Dichotomous thinking gives rise to attitudes such as:
With us or against us
Good and evil
Us and them
Good people and bad people
The reality is much more complex than that.
Magical thinking (the Wizard did it)
Magical thinking is the opposite of the ‘cause and effect’ principle that rationalism is based upon.
Rather than take the time to understand how the world works people assume a magical connection or a guiding force instead. They put their faith in a form of wishful thinking and trust to ‘luck’ or to ‘God’ instead of doing the work needed to make lasting change. The irony is that when they don’t get the job or the advice of the pendulum they swung turns out to be false the same magical thinking provides them with some sort of solace through the belief that:
It wasn’t meant to be.
Magical thinking prevents people from taking responsibility because they attribute success or failure to the magical force of their choice. Consequently they stop trying to understand and ignore the real ’cause and effect’ lessons that would actually help them to achieve their goals.
Some people go through life believing so completely in their own importance that they think everything is about them. The majority of people really aren’t all that important and most people we come across are far too wrapped up in their own lives to devote much attention to us, our characteristics or the state of our hair.
One excellent thing to keep in mind is this:
I’m not special – I’m unique, like everybody else!
About the ‘Fallacies’ series
The ‘Fallacies’ project was built up from a series of instalments that first appeared online during the summer of 2012. It is republished as part of a larger set of changes intended to rationalise the contents of several different blogs into just 2. The other remaining blog focuses mainly upon social care and mental health related issues. It can be found at http://www.TheCareGuy.com
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