How cognitive distortions can lead to faulty conclusions
By Kristine Keller
There are times when you’re playing back a situation in your mind and a split screen appears. On one side of the screen there’s reality—the version of events that actually happened. But it’s the second screen we zero in on in high-definition, with surround sound and unequivocal certainty— the twisted version of reality. When the aloof waitress pours your coffee only halfway and then throws your check on the table with steely eyes, you’re convinced she’s a moody person all the time. Or when your loved one comes home and offers a curt “hi” before shutting himself away, you think he’s mad at you.
It’s easy to delve into the muddled inner corridors of our minds and jump to irrational conclusions. Our brains have innumerable associations to make every day at extraordinary energetic costs. We find ways to maximize our cerebral energy, and sometimes the result is making hasty judgments and associations. Sometimes these quick associations are helpful—there’s no need to re-evaluate your stance on Chris Brown (blech) or Beyoncé (goddess)—but when doing so, we must aim for being a truthful and insightful observer of others’ behaviors, rather than misrepresenting actions that falsify reality.
The most prominent exaggerated thoughts can make us irrational, illogical creatures, one snapchat away from sending our best friend a selfie sad face. This past weekend, these fallacious thoughts took the cerebral stage when I offered to dispense advice to a friend trapped in text banter purgatory. “She doesn’t like me anymore,” he moaned. “Her replies went from sexy paragraphs to the equivalent of a verbal lobotomy.” I rolled up my sleeves and consoled him: “Maybe she lost her job this week. Maybe she’s got a thorny family problem. You don’t know what kind of cross she’s bearing right now.”
I’ve been on that sinking armchair before, and this propitiating advice is unsatisfying or ignored 90 percent of the time. My friend committed a common cognitive distortion known as the Fundamental Attribution Error. This is the tendency for us to attribute internal, intrinsic motivations to the behaviors of others, while minimizing the impact of external situations. These situations may be unpredictable and leave us, at best, a little snippy, and at worst, on the floor in shambles, foaming at the mouth with tequila and chipotle. In tandem, we’re prone to personalizing these situations and led to thinking their acts are a direct reflection of how other people feel about us.
After erroneously underestimating the impact of external situations, your mind might amble to a related cognitive distortion, all-or-nothing thinking, which goes something like this: He didn’t text me back, and it’s been two hours, so he’s never going to text me again and this will always happen in my life. Before you weep into your hands and curse the sky, relax. Turns out, his dad was just kidnapped on the L train by a belligerent goon on the lam. Your sometimes-boy has got bigger fish to fry, so you have to cut him some slack for his lack of emoji-cyber reciprocation. The “never” and “always” extreme labels that we generalize from one situation leave us unable to see anything in shades of gray.
When trying to decipher the veracity behind others’ actions, we only have the information presented before us, especially when evaluating the actions of strangers. But in focusing solely on internal characteristics to make sense of brusque behavior or confusing commentary, we often deceive ourselves. We can remedy this by engaging in mindful empathy, and imagining the manifold reasons that could have contributed to someone’s ill-perceived behavior. Taking a second to think about the kind of day your waitress or loved one had before personalizing actions can keep these distortions in check and our negative conclusions to a minimum. Maybe then we can merge our split screens into one and have a better viewing experience all around.
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