Irrational unhappiness

Your beliefs influence the way you react to the world around you. Every experience you percieve is first processed by your brain, and only the interpretation of the experience triggers the emotional response. If your perceptions of the world are biased, your emotional responses will also be biased. Cognitive science has already identified a lot of ways in which human thinking goes wrong and this list is a similiar attempt to map the specific ways in which certain irrational thought patterns lead to bad outcomes. Naming those patterns makes them more noticable and easier to correct in our day-to-day thinking. The examples in this post are taken from Feeling Good.

All-or-nothing thinking

Example: A straight-A student gets a B on an exam and thinks “Now I’m a total failure.”

This results from modeling the world in a binary way instead of using a more realistic continuous model. To use a trivial example, even the room you are sitting in now is not perfectly clean or completely filled with dirt, it is partially clean. By modeling the cleanliness of the room by having just two states, ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’, you are losing a lot of information about the real state of the room.

Overgeneralization

Example: A young man asks a girl for a date and she politely declines, and he thinks “I’m never going to get a date, no girl would ever want a date with me.”

The man in the example concluded that because one girl turned him down once, she would always do so, and he would be turned down by every woman he ever asks out in his life. Everything we know about the world around us tells us the probability of such scenario is very low. Before you conclude anything you should think about how to interpret the event in light of your background knowledge, or potentially use a larger sample size.

Mental filter

Example: A college student hears some other students making fun of her best friend and thinks “That’s what the human race is basically like – cruel and insensitive!”

The negative aspects of a situation disproportionally affect the thinking about the situation as a whole, thus percieving the whole situation as negative. So the college student from the example overlooks the fact that in the past months few people, if any, have been cruel of insensitive to her. Not to mention the human race has demonstrated many times it is not cruel and insensitive most of the time.

Disqualifying the positive

Example: Someone recieves a compliment and thinks “They’re just being nice”, and when they succeed at something they say “It doesn’t count, that was a fluke.”

That’s like a scientist intent on finding evidence to support his pet hypothesis and rejecting all evidence at the contrary. Whenever they have a negative experience they say “That just proves what I’ve known all along”, but when they have a positive experience they say it’s just a fluke.

Mind reading error

Example: Someone is giving an excellent lecture and notices a man in the fron row yawning, then he thinks “The audience thinks I’m boring.”

This is just making assumptions wih not enough evidence and taking them as truth, while not cosidering the many other possible explanations of the same phenomena. In the example above, the man yawning maybe just didn’t get enough sleep last night.

Fortune teller error

Example: Someone is having trouble with some math problem and thinks “I’m never going to be able to solve this.”

This is assigning 100% probability to just one future possible outcome, while there are many possible outcomes, with some uncertanty about each one of them, and each of those outcomes should be considered.

Emotional reasoning

Example: “I feel inadequate. Therefore, I must be a worthless person”

Taking your emotions as evidence is misleading because your emotions reflect your beliefs, and if your beliefs are formed in a biased way, this is just propagating the error further. There are more things to take into account than just your emotions, and since your emotions can be highly unreliable, there are situations where they need to be completely reevaluated insead of taking them into account automatically.

Should-rules

Example: “I should be well-prepared for every exam I take”

All else being equal, it would be better if you are well-prepared for each exam, but when your all-too-human performance falls short of your standards, your should-rules create self-loathing, shame, and guilt. In a similiar way, if the behavior of other people falls short of your unrealistic expectations, you’ll feel bitter and self-righteous. Not being well-prepared for one exam does not make the whole situation a lot worse, and it is exepcted a certain amount of faliures will happen over time. There is no need to attach a negative moral component to someting which is a normal occurence.

Mislabeling

Example: A woman on a diet ate a dish of ice cream and thought, “How disgusting and repulsive of me, I’m a pig.”

When describing yourself you should look at all behaviors and beliefs you have, not just the one thing that is most prominent in your mind at a single point in time. You cannot be equated with just a single thing you once did – the label is too simplistic. The problem boils down to ignoring a large part of your behaviour and considering only a small subset of it.

Personalization

Example: When a mother saw her child’s report card, there was a note from the teacher indicating the child was not working well. She immediately decided, “I must be a bad mother. This shows how I’ve failed.”

There are a large number of factors influencing a certain outcome, just one of which is the influence you have on other people. You do not have a complete control over other people and the events related to them. Since you have only partial influence, it is important to take the whole picture into account, instead of arbitrarily concluding that what happened was your fault or reflects your inadequacy, even if you were not responsible for it.

~

The underlying theme in all of these thought patterns is an incomplete way of thinking.

Our models of the world are oversimplified:

  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Emotional reasoning
  • Should-rules
  • Personalization

The data we consider as evidence is radically incomplete:

  • Overgeneralization
  • Mental filter
  • Disqualifying the positive
  • Mislabeling

The nuber of hypotheses we consider is way to small:

  • Mind-reading error
  • Fortune-teller error
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