By Adam Wright, Clinical Psychologist
I’d like to try a little experiment with you.
Think about what you had for breakfast today.
Now think if you can about what you would have thought that would have led to your decision to have that food for breakfast (or to have breakfast at all).
a). Carefully consider all available options and make a decision based on a sample of key variables (time, nutritional benefit, taste)?
b). Make a snap decision based on maybe one thing, or a feeling, or automatically choose one option for ‘no reason’
Clearly, the rational response to this decision would be a) because that is the method that will provide the maximum benefit for you.
But I strongly suspect that almost all of you would have chosen b). I’m guessing not many of you would have had a ‘rational’ reason for your breakfast choice, even if you can remember what you had. I for one had jam on toast this morning because I didn’t want Vegemite. Not very rational!
Unlike almost all animals, humans are capable of rational thought. Yet why do we often think so irrationally?
The reason why is because being rational doesn’t always suit our interests. Our brain’s main function is to handle our behaviour to keep us alive. Sometimes that means filtering through masses of information quickly and efficiently, in order to help us make a quick decision. Being entirely rational doesn’t always suit us. If you had gone through all the available breakfast options and chosen the most nutritious option, you would probably still be deciding on what to have for breakfast! Instead, we cut corners by making quick decisions based on a small number of variables – it was the fastest option, I choose what I had yesterday, it tastes the best etc.
Most often, this tendency of our brain is not a big deal, aside from making us more susceptible to advertising. But sometimes these irrational short-cuts our brain takes can set us up to feel negative emotions more strongly. Here are a few ‘thinking traps’ that can often increase our feelings of anxiety, anger and sadness:
Jumping to Conclusions or Mind-reading
This is when our brain takes a small amount of evidence and ‘jumps’ to a conclusion without considering the whole picture. It can often take the form of guessing what other people are thinking.
E.g., “My boss didn’t say hello to me this morning. He’s probably upset with me.”
This is seeing the worst possible scenario and ignoring the other possibilities.
E.g., “I’m definitely going to fail this test!”
When we make statements that are over-applied, ignoring individual variations.
E.g., “All the people in my class probably wouldn’t realise if I wasn’t at school today.”
When we over-attribute blame to ourselves without thinking about other factors.
E.g., “It’s probably raining because I didn’t pack my umbrella today”
Shoulding or Musting
Using ‘should’ or ‘must’ unnecessarily, placing a lot of responsibility for things on yourself.
E.g., “I should be making sure my friends are having a good time.”
Black and White Thinking
Seeing something from a ‘all or nothing’ perspective, drawing on two categories when the reality might be greyer.
E.g., “Either you’re a success or a failure!”
If you recognise any of these patterns of thinking, that’s normal. What you can do about it, is to notice it, name it, and then ask yourself what you would be thinking if you weren’t falling into that thinking trap? For example, if it wasn’t just my fault, what other factors played a part? Is the worst possible outcome I’m imagining really likely to happen?
In doing so, you’ll be taking a step back from your thoughts, which will give you a fresh perspective and a chance to think about the same thing differently.
Adam Wright is a Clinical Psychologist with an interest in helping people think differently. Find more info about him here.