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Common Types of Thought and Belief Mistakes: Jumping to Conclusions and Emotional Reasoning Biases

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Another family of cognitive biases (the Jumping to Conclusions family) occurs when people falsely jump to conclusions (usually negative conclusions) that aren't warranted from the facts at their disposal. "It looks like a nice day outside", says the depressed person, "but I'm sure it will start raining as soon as we decide to go for a walk." There are a few different kinds of Jumping to Conclusions biases:

  • Labeling occurs when you make a blanket statement that casts a negative light on someone or something, for now and all time, in the absence of evidence to make such an all-consuming statement valid. "I'm a loser", says the depressed person, "I've always been a loser and I'll always be a loser. Why do I bother at all?" The angry person has a slightly different take: "That wife of mine is a money-sucking leach! She'll bleed me dry!".
  • Mind Reading occurs when you decide that you know what someone else is thinking (usually negative thoughts are attributed), and base how you react on that (often mistaken) conclusion. There is no attempt to look for evidence to support your conclusion; instead, you accept it as unquestioned truth. "Why should I bother trying to dance with one of those girls? They all hate me anyway". By reacting as though you already know what someone thinks, you risk creating a self-fulfilling prophesy, wherein your negative response to someone else causes them to react negatively to you. If you had not reacted negatively in the first place, they would not have reacted negatively to you.

The final family of cognitive biases can be called Emotional Reasoning biases. When you reason emotionally, you decide that if you feel something is true, that it must be, in fact, true. Of course, this is frequently not the case. "I feel like a loser, so therefore I must be one".

  • A variety of Should, Must and Ought biases belong in this category, which is sometimes described as "Musterbation". When you make this variety of mistake, you create artificial and perfectionist deadlines and demands on yourself that are all but impossible (or often actually impossible) to meet. Then you punish yourself for not meeting them. "I should be more beautiful!" "I must lose weight, or no one will ever want to be with me" "I ought to be a better student". As a consequence of failing to meet your impossible goals, you judge yourself a failure and feel shame or guilt. An alternative version of this mistake set has you holding other people to an overly high standard, "My mother should let me do whatever I want to do. It isn't right that I'm grounded.". There is no effort to justify to yourself why you or someone else needs to meet these high standards; they are simply taken for granted as a fact of life.
  • Personalization and Blame is a form of emotional reasoning that occurs when you assign responsibility to yourself or to someone else that is above and beyond the actual responsibility you or they have. "My mother's new husband is the source of all evil. He tore my mother away from my father. It's all his fault they divorced" (while failing to realize that the mother left the marriage of her own free will), or, "It's all my fault that my father died. I should have been there for him more often" (when the reason the father died has nothing to do with whether he was alone or not).

More biases are described in this Wikipedia article.