Tuesday, 3 December 2013

The Madness in our Thinking

Most of us regard ourselves as sensible human beings who think rationally and act accordingly. Psychology takes a different view on matters! It shows us how our thinking often gets tangled up, frequently in ways that become habitual and therefore feel ‘normal’.

Image: Fotolia
Here are three common types of 'Distorted Thinking':

Overgeneralization: You arrive at a conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. If something happens once in a certain way, you expect it to happen over and over again. 'Always' and 'never' are cues that this style of thinking is in force. This distortion can lead to a errors, as you make future decisions based on a single incident or event.

Our cat, Tigsey, displays this kind of thinking and actually it comes from a place of common sense; the notion that if something can happen once, it can happen again. We have to give him tablets regularly for an on-going illness and as any cat-owner knows, getting a cat to swallow a tablet is no mean feat. Tigsey now associates my husband and I taking a simultaneous interest in him with the ‘tablet scenario’, so he hides under the table. Very sensible. Although, of course, there are times when he misses out on affection, because he’s got it wrong. We don’t have the tablet to hand – we only want to cuddle him!

The same principle follows in infant education – if a child touches a hot kettle, he’s unlikely to do it again – whether the kettle has just been boiled or not. In this case, it is extremely useful. It’s only when we fail to recognise and act on the exceptions that the thinking fails us.

Global Labelling: You generalise one or two qualities (in yourself or others) into a global assessment; either negative or positive. ‘All rich people are happy.’ ‘All dogs will bite you.’ Global labelling ignores all contrary evidence, creating a view of the world that fits into set categories and stereotypes. Labelling yourself can have a negative impact on your self-esteem; while labelling others can lead to snap-judgements, assumptions and prejudice.

I’m certainly guilty of this one. For example; 'shaved heads' – I used to have an immediate prejudice that an individual with a shaved head was not going to be a pleasant person. I saw the error of my ways when I considered all those individuals enduring chemotherapy. While their heads may not be shaved, they can look remarkably similar. Now, I’m aware of my tendency to make a snap-judgement in this regard and look for other characteristics in an individual beyond their lack of hair, in order to come to conclusions about them. Being aware of it means I’m in a better position to address it. I had a similar problem with motorbikes – until I saw the Hairy Bikers getting excited in the kitchen over a plateful of vegetables. They are a couple of the sweetest, cutest people on TV!

The Hairy Bikers
Heaven's Reward Fallacy: You expect all your hard-work, sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if there were someone keeping score. You feel bitter when the reward doesn't come as expected. The problem is that while you are always doing the 'right thing,' if your heart really isn't in it, you are physically and emotionally depleting yourself.

I’m not particularly guilty of this one, but I do fall into a version of it - which is to exhibit a form of ‘magical thinking’. It works like this – at times I catch myself thinking that ‘if X happens, then Y will follow,’ even though the two situations are completely unrelated. For example, ‘If the toast I’ve dropped lands butter up, I’ll get the job.’

Rafael Nadal - image: The Guardian
It’s a bit like Rafael Nadal, the tennis player, who doesn’t step on the court lines during a match. In extremis, magical thinking can develop into a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) where certain ritual actions must be carried out the same number of times, in the correct order for an individual to feel safe.

I don’t do it very often, I hasten to add, but it’s there in my psyche – just like superstitions like Friday, 13th and black cats are embedded into our collective consciousness.

The essential factor with Distorted Thinking is to become aware of doing it. Which types do you find yourself slipping into? There's 'Catastrophizing', 'Mind-reading' and 'Polarised Thinking' and many more. Once you have identified what you do, you can challenge your habitual thinking - and change it.

            References: Thoughts & Feelings by McKay, Davis, & Fanning. New Harbinger, 1981 
            and The Self-Esteem Journal by Alison Waines. 

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