You are driving down the street minding your own business when suddenly someone cuts you off. All of a sudden, you feel that little twinge. You know what twinge I am talking about. It is that split second when your temperature starts to elevate, heart rate increases, and muscles get tense.
On many occasions, we experience a strong emotional reaction to someone cutting us off because we take their actions personally. The distorted thinking error that preceded the anger that we felt is “jumping to conclusions.”
We react as if the person pulled up beside us, looked us in the eye, rolled down their window, called us out by first and last name, and said: “I am going to cut you off and hopefully it makes you super uncomfortable, and I don’t care if you wreck.”
Unfortunately, this cognitive error is not reserved only for traffic and can negatively impact us in other important aspects of our lives; especially our relationships. Relationships can include our closest family members (i.e., spouse, parents, children), friends and acquaintances, and work colleagues.
In the upcoming sections, I will answer the following questions:
- What Are cognitive distortions?
- What are the two types of jumping to conclusions?
- What are the consequences of continually jumping to conclusions?
- When do I tend to jump to conclusions?
- What can I do to base my reactions on the whole picture?
What are cognitive distortions?
Patterns of negative, irrational thoughts that evoke negative emotions are called cognitive distortions. Everyone experiences cognitive distortions to some degree, but in their more extreme form, they can be maladaptive and harmful. Distorted thinking styles are mental habits that we use; primarily as a result of perceived adverse events.
Distorted thoughts are generally catastrophic, self-defeating, illogical, inaccurate, and rigid. Conversely, helpful thoughts are usually reasonable, self-enhancing, logical, accurate, and flexible.
We often make decisions or behave according to our “gut” or off of a “hunch.” It can feel uncomfortable challenging our beliefs because there is one thing that people desire even more than happiness: control. When we believe something to be accurate, we subconsciously work to affirm that belief by ignoring the positive and amplifying the negative.
The two primary types of jumping to conclusions: predictive thinking and mind reading.
We fall into the trap of mind-reading when we assume we know what someone else is thinking without having any evidence that supports our thoughts. Just to be clear, “because I feel like it’s true” is not sufficient evidence.
Here you are assuming that you know what someone else is thinking or the rationale behind their behavior. Your partner might, for instance, send you a text message that he/she wants to have a very important chat with you when you get home. Immediately alarm bells start ringing, and you jump to quick conclusions about what this could really mean. Do they want to break up with me? Have they cheated on me? Have they lost their job?
In another instance, you might be chatting with someone who is constantly shuffling their feet. They appear restless and agitated, and you immediately jump to the conclusion that they are not interested in talking with you. Maybe they find you a bit boring. However, little do you realize that they’ve been standing on their feet all day and their legs are absolutely exhausted.
The other form of jumping to conclusions is ‘predictive thinking.’ Consistently making predictions; notably, negative predictions can lead to intense anxiety, stress, depression, and hopelessness. These are often predictions where you overestimate the negative emotions that will come from a future event. Predictive thinking can have very devastating consequences for a relationship. For instance, if you consistently predict the worst, the potential growth of your relationship will be squandered, and silent (or loud) resentment will build.
Take, for instance, a couple who is considering going to marriage counseling. One might delay or refuse entirely to attend counseling because of a belief that going to counseling will uncover more issues and make everything worse. Consequently, the relationship will eventually come to an end without ever giving it a real chance for deliberate improvement.
As you can see, jumping to conclusions without having evidence can cause intense negative emotions and can severely damage a relationship.
To combat the negative impact that jumping to conclusions can have on a relationship, we must learn how to test the thought we are having.
I used the word “test” instead of “challenge” intentionally. Just because you have jumped to a negative conclusion, does not automatically make it wrong. You simply owe it to yourself and your relationships to make sure you are looking at the entire picture accurately. Below, you will find exploratory questions to help you identify when you jump to conclusions. From there, you will find a list of solution-focused questions you can answer to help you develop a clear picture to base your emotions off of.
The following are examples of exploratory questions that can help you start recognizing when you engage in this style of thinking:
- How do I tend to jump to quick conclusions?
- In what specific situations do I jump to these sorts of conclusions?
- What evidence and facts do I tend to overlook often?
- Why do I tend to jump to conclusions? Do I gain some value from it?
What can I do to base my reactions on the whole picture?
To move from distorted to thoughts based on reality, one must test their negative automatic thoughts (NATs) by asking the following solutions-focused questions:
- What is the evidence for what I thought?
- What is the evidence against the thought?
- Am I basing this thought on facts, or on feelings?
- Could I be misinterpreting the evidence? Am I making any assumptions?
- What are the alternatives to what I thought?
- Am I looking at all the evidence, or just what supports my thought?
- Am I having this thought out of habit, or do the facts support it?
- Is my thought a likely scenario, or is it the worst scenario?
- Did someone pass this thought/belief to me? If so, are they a reliable source?