Jumping to conclusions is a dangerous habit

Here's a question for you. A bat and a ball together cost €1.10. The bat costs €1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?


Many people quickly jump to the conclusion that the answer is 10 cents. It's not – the answer is five cents (it's true – just think it through and do the sums).


This example is used in a study about jumping to conclusions by renowned psychologist Prof David Dunning. It may seem like a harmless example of how we can all jump to erroneous conclusions, but it's important to remember there can be real psychological costs to this all-too-human tendency.


Dr Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), gives some examples in a textbook on depression. A patient riding on an elevator had the thought, ‘‘He [the elevator operator] thinks I’m a nobody.’’ The patient then felt sad. On being questioned by his psychiatrist, the patient realised there was no factual basis for this thought.


Beck points out that people are especially prone to jumping to conclusions when the cues are uncertain and ambiguous. He mentions how an intern became discouraged when he received an announcement that all patients treated by the interns should be subsequently examined by resident physicians. When he heard this news, he thought, 'The chief doesn’t have faith in my work'.


As Beck notes, he personalised the decision, even though there was no evidence his performance had anything to do with it.

Importantly, the intern jumped to a negative conclusion without considering whether there might be alternative explanations that were more likely. When asked whether there might be other possible explanations, the intern recalled a previous statement by her boss that he wanted resident physicians to have more contact with patients as part of their training.


'The idea that this explicitly stated objective was the basis for the new policy had not previously occurred to her', writes Beck.

Can you relate to the above examples? Can you recall times when you jumped to negative conclusions only to then discover an altogether more innocent explanation? I can – quite simply, all of us jump to conclusions from time to time.



Some people have a persistent problem in this regard. In his research, Dunning found that 'jumpers' are more likely to be overconfident; likely to make more mistakes; and more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and medical myths (for example, believing the moon landings were faked and that health officials are actively hiding a link between cell phones and cancer).


When gambling, Dunning notes, "jumpers" are more likely to make riskier bets with less chance of winning.


The difference between jumpers and non-jumpers, Dunning notes, isn't in their automatic reactions to situations. Basically, everyone has the same initial automatic thoughts. However, non-jumpers then pause and think things through, as opposed to buying into their automatic thoughts. In contrast, jumpers tend to go with their initial thoughts, not engaging in reflective thinking to the same degree.


'Put another way', says Dunning, 'jumpers were more likely to accept the conclusions they made at first blush without deliberative examination or questioning.'


Importantly, this is something that can be changed. In one experiment conducted by Dunning, viewers watched a video of a male jogger complimenting a female artist. She ignores him. She only notices him when he’s screaming at her, but he runs off before any communication can take place. She leaves a note explaining she is deaf. The video ends with the man feeling embarrassed.


Participants were then asked to document and reflect on times when they made wrong and hasty judgements. This and other interventions reduced over-confidence and made people less likely to jump to conclusions.


To repeat, all of us occasionally jump to conclusions, but it's a habit worth breaking, because it can contribute to low mood, anxiety, and anger.


So, the next time someone doesn't answer a message you left, or your daughter doesn't return home on time, or your boss says he wants to talk about something – don't jump to negative conclusions. Pause, consider alternative explanations, and accept the uncertainty of it all.

(First published in Southern Star on 11/4/2024)