Don’t Fall For Them
One of the sources of un-resilient thinking is our natural tendency to make inductions — that is, to reach general conclusions based on specific instances.
In many instances, induction is a useful form of reasoning: it helps us determine, for example, that a seemingly threatening situation is in fact dangerous and ought to be avoided in the future.
But in the case of adversity, our reliance on induction can lead to overwrought and inaccurate interpretations of difficult situations.
In The Resilience Factor, a 2006 book that I began to unpack in my last post, psychologists Andrew Shatté and Karen Reivich share Aaron Beck’s research on common “thinking traps” — cognitive shortcuts that we may not even be aware we are making.
The un-resilient and inaccurate beliefs we sometimes have when faced with an adversity (remember the ABC sequence of Adversity – Belief – Consequences?) occur because we’ve fallen into one of eight cognitive traps:
1. Jumping to Conclusions, ie, making assumptions without the relevant data
2. Tunnel Vision, ie, ignoring favorable feedback and seeing only the negative aspects of a situation
3. Magnifying and Minimizing, ie, emphasizing the negative aspects of a situation and de-emphasizing the positive ones
4. Personalizing, ie, reflexively attributing problems to deep-seated and immutable aspects of one’s character (this “why” belief tends to cause sadness and depression, as discussed in my last post)
5. Externalizing, ie, blaming problems on external forces, including other people (this “why” belief tends to cause anger)
6. Overgeneralizing, ie, explaining the cause of a problem by assassinating your own character or someone else’s
7. Mind Reading, ie, believing we automatically know other people’s thoughts, or expecting other people to know our thoughts
8. Emotional Reasoning, ie, letting our feelings create distortions in our thinking
How do we avoid thinking traps?
Shatté and Reivich recommend analyzing a recent un-resilient moment to uncover the underlying Adversity – Belief – Consequences sequence. Using the eight thinking traps as a guide can make it easier to identify the inaccuracies in one’s beliefs.
I didn’t have to look very far to recall an un-resilient moment in my own life.
Recently I took my daughter and two dear out-of-town friends, a brother-sister pair, to a movie. Afterwards all three kids clamored to play arcade games at the theater. Since this was a special occasion, I was happy to oblige. I distributed tokens to each of them. The sister tried a claw machine — the kind where you try to get a metal claw to grasp a stuffed animal. It ran for less than five seconds and hardly grazed the stuffed animals inside. So much for that game.
The kids were rightfully indignant, and the boy and my daughter searched for better games to spend their tokens on. The boy tried a similar game of a different design (poking vs clawing), but with equally frustrating results.
Seeing the looks on their faces, I shelled out money for more tokens. The boy used four tokens to play a driving game, which he enjoyed well enough. But the others didn’t want to try it, so his sister tried yet another claw machine. It was broken outright and stole her tokens. At this point, my daughter was looking around desperately for other options.
Not wanting to invite more disappointment, I suggested the kids all forget about the remaining tokens and take some silly pictures in a photo booth. They’d get a memento of the nice day we had just spent together — how could that go wrong?
After the first shot, it was clear that the forehead of the oldest child was the only thing high enough to be in the frame. “Stand up! Squeeze together!” I yelled. My daughter, being the smallest, wasn’t able position herself in the frame quickly enough for the second shot. While the others mugged for the camera, my daughter flung herself out of the booth in tears. I lifted her and tried to hold her in position so she would appear in the next shots, but she squirmed out of my arms sobbing.
We waited in silence for the prints. Shot 1: the boy’s forehead. Shot 2: blurry movement of everyone. Shot 3: the side of my daughter’s head up against the camera. Shot 4: a decent picture of the two bigger kids.
Unable to keep my own disappointment in check, I said out loud, “Well, that was a disaster. Let’s go.” A very un-merry band, we left the theater. You never would have guessed the kids had just spent almost two hours watching a movie they loved and gorging on treats. And I was more bent out of shape than any of them.
Shatté and Reivich say that most people fall into a few thinking traps repeatedly — though the traps often aren’t entirely distinct from each other. In this instance, it didn’t take much analysis to recognize all eight traps in my inaccurate Beliefs.
With the thinking traps as a guide, I was able to identify my beliefs — and perceive their inaccuracy — pretty readily.
Jumping to Conclusions and Tunnel Vision: I took the kids’ disappointment to mean that the entire afternoon was ruined, and that my efforts to entertain them had failed.
Magnifying and Minimizing: I immediately forgot that I had begun by warning the kids that they might be disappointed. And I overlooked the fun we all had as the boy played the driving game.
Personalizing (and Overgeneralizing): I took the games’ lousy design to be my fault. Had I been a more resourceful and quick-thinking grown-up, I would have successfully prevented these problems.
Externalizing: I resented my husband for introducing our daughter to arcade games in the first place.
Mind Reading: I felt sure the kids were absolutely crushed.
Emotional Reasoning: Feeling powerless and frustrated made me think less clearly.
So how do we avoid these eight “thinking traps” in the moment? Shatté and Reivich offer simple questions that help us avoid each of them:
Jumping to Conclusions: What evidence are you basing your conclusion on? Are you certain, or are you guessing?
Tunnel Vision: What is a fair assessment of the entire situation? What is the big picture? How important is this one aspect to the big picture?
Magnifying and Minimizing: Were there any good things that happened? Did I do anything well? [Alternatively, if you tend to dismiss the negative, ask: Am I overlooking any problems? Were there any negative elements that I am dismissing the importance of?]
Personalizing: Did anyone or anything else contribute to this situation? How much of the problem is due to me and how much is due to others?
Externalizing: What did I do to contribute to this situation, if anything? How much did others contribute, if anything?
Overgeneralizing: Is there a narrower explanation than the one I’ve assumed to be true? Is there a specific behavior that explains this situation? What does impugning my character (or someone else’s) buy me? Is it logical to indict my character and/or worth (or another person’s) based on this specific event?
Mind Reading: Did I ask questions of others or make assumptions about their thoughts? Did I make my beliefs or feelings known directly and clearly? Am I expecting the other person to work hard at figuring out my needs or goals?
Emotional Reasoning: Do my feelings accurately reflect the facts of the situation? What questions must I ask to distinguish fact from feeling?
The challenge, of course, is keeping these questions in mind when you’re seized by emotions. Fortunately, making a habit of identifying the ABCs of difficult moments — noting the thinking traps you most often fall into — is the most effective way to develop more rational and accurate thinking in the heat of the moment. Keeping a record of challenging moments you face — and unpacking the ABCs so that you can observe how inaccurate Beliefs may have led to un-resilient Consequences in your behavior — is a key recommendation.
Other steps detailed in The Resilience Factor are specifically designed to help maintain resilience in the heat of the moment. I’ll be looking at them in future posts.