3 Ways Our Minds Lead Us Astray
Our world is home to countless scientists, philosophers, teachers, artists, writers and engineers who have changed the course of history by relying on their creative genius: the mind. The way we perceive, organize and formulate ideas in our human brains have helped us go to space, develop artificial intelligence, write incredible music and much more.
This is all great until our mind’s intuition starts to lead us astray. We are only human after all and our minds can trick us into believing something is true when in fact it is not.
The mind has a particular way of perceiving and organizing information coming through the senses. To make sense of what we are perceiving, we rely on our schemas. Schemas are mental frameworks that guide us in our perceptions of the world. These cognitive frameworks hold assumptions about ourselves and others. However, they are not always grounded in objective reality. For instance, traumatic events in childhood such as emotional neglect, parental rejection, and death of a loved one influence the way we think about ourselves and the world at large. Moreover, these traumatic events contribute to the development of negative views of the self or negative self-schemata later on in life.
Three common cognitive errors
Cognitive errors or distortions can be likened to little black holes we fall through inside our mind. All of us experience these thought patterns from time to time and they are definitely not particular to a mental health issue. However, these “distortions” tend to go hand in hand with our schemas and how our perceptions of the world we live in have been conditioned in some way in childhood or experiences in our adult lives.
Most of these thought patterns occur automatically. In other words, we have relied on these patterns, or frameworks for long enough that it does not take any special effort to think in these ways.
- Black-or-white thinking (also called all-or-nothing thinking)
- How often do you use the words “always,” “never,” or “completely” when interacting with others? Researchers, Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi and Tom Johnstone (University of Reading, UK) found in a recent observational study that the use of absolutist words is associated with various affective disorders. When individuals engage in this pattern of thinking, they miss the grey areas of the situation they are in. Thinking that you are either a “total failure” or a “complete success” with regards to work, school, and/or relationships is an example of this thought pattern.
- This thinking error is an example of jumping to conclusions about what others think about us. We engage in mind-reading when we think that we accurately know what another person is thinking about us. This usually results in coming to faulty conclusions as to what emotional influences the other person might be under. For instance, let’s say that you bumped into a friend on your way to work and her facial expressions suggested to you that she might be angry. You may take that and assume that she was not happy to see you at all when in fact, she might be angry at her roommate about not paying the electricity bill.
- Emotional reasoning
- Most of us probably engage in this pattern of thinking from time to time. Emotional reasoning is about taking our emotions as factual information regardless of the situation we are in. However, this does not mean that our emotions are not real. As complex human beings, we experience a multitude of emotions every day and they need to be acknowledged. Yet, problems arise when we rely solely on our emotions to evaluate the situation we find ourselves in. We might find ourselves in this pattern of thinking when making statements such as, “if I feel bad, there must be something bad about this situation.”
Take home message
We all engage in different types of cognitive errors in our everyday lives. When we grow awareness around our thought patterns, we will have an easier time navigating life through different perspectives and viewpoints.
- 1. Al-Mosaiwi, M., & Johnstone, T. (2018). In an absolute state: Elevated use of absolutist words is a marker specific to anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Clinical Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/2167702617747074
- 2. Verwoerd, J., van Hout, W. J. P. J., de Jong, P. J. (2016). Disgust - and anxiety-based emotional reasoning in non-clinical fear of vomiting. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 50, 83-89. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbtep.2015.05.009
- 3. https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/cognitive-distortions/
- 4. https://www.apa.org/