Resilience - Chapter 5


Know Thyself Skill #2 of 3 - Avoiding Thinking Traps


There are eight major thinking traps that tax our resilience. We'll help you identify the two or three you make most often, and provide you with a few quick methods of getting out of the traps.

We will look closely at why people prefer inductive thinking, building general rules about the world, and how while this style usually serves us well in the world, it can lead us to fall into the thinking traps. We’ll look at some specific examples of induction gone awry -- representativeness and availability -- and consider some of the factors that keep our thinking traps in place.


Our brains only have about 1,500 cubic centimeters of processing capacity. Our five senses, however, are capable of taking in much more information than our brains are able to compute, so we need to simplify the information streaming in through our eyes and ears before we can use it. We cut corners and take shortcuts in our thinking to better handle the sensory load. Doing this means that we are not getting a direct readout on the world, so our thoughts and beliefs about the world are vulnerable to error. As it turns out, we make fairly predictable mistakes as we try to make sense of our world. Eight of these errors directly interfere with our resilience, with how we handle the setbacks and stresses in our daily lives.

The Eight Common Thinking Traps


The thinking trap of making assumptions without the relevant data is called jumping to conclusions. It’s the umbrella error since all of the thinking traps involve making an assumption of one kind or another.

Ticker-tape beliefs rarely come in neat one-sentence packages. Most often they cascade from one to another.

These are future-threat beliefs, and future-threat beliefs lead to anxiety.

If not in control of your thinking, you cannot be in control of your emotions.

People who habitually jump to conclusions respond impulsively to situations because they

act before they have full information.

Most of the intuitions we have do not require immediate action. Most intuitions, just like assumptions, can benefit from gathering more information. In fact, we suggest that you treat intuitions and jumping to conclusions in the same way. That is, by all means take them seriously, but treat them as theories, not facts. They are hypotheses to be tested. And when we test our assumptions, it’s valid to consider past experiences.

It’s a thinking trap when there’s little evidence to support the conclusion.

By counteracting the thinking trap, you gain control of your emotions and are less impulsive.


These folks see only the negative aspects of a situation. Because they sample from their environment in such a biased way, they often draw the incorrect conclusions.

Tunnel vision is most often directed toward negative outcomes, since being broadsided by an unexpected boon doesn’t carry the same survival threat as an unanticipated adversity. But some people develop styles that tunnel their vision for the positive. And while ABC dictates that such people will avert negative emotions, such as the anxiety and sadness, positive tunnel visioning creates problems of its own.

You focus only on those behaviors that mesh with your thinking. You screen in the information that is consistent with your beliefs and ignore the data that could disconfirm them.

The tunneling trap stems from our habit of preferring evidence that bolsters our theories about ourselves and the world around us.

The confirmation bias -- our preference for evidence that confirms our theories about the world. What we should do, if we were good scientists, is to set out to prove the rule wrong.


Most people who magnify the negatives and minimize the positives in their lives are not aware that they are in a thinking trap.

Unlike people with tunnel vision, magnifiers and minimizers have registered and can remember most of the events that have occurred, but they tend to overvalue some and

undervalue others.

This thinking trap will undermine your success at work and in your relationships. Magnifying the negative and minimizing the positive will lead to negative emotions and will destroy your enthusiasm for the things you do in life. How could you be excited about work, your relationship, your new hobby, if all you focus on are the mishaps and problems? Negativity is a mood kill, and negative moods tend to sap energy and effectiveness.

Moods are contagious, so if you are sullen, angry, or sad much of the time, your friends will catch it.

Negative people often are self-absorbed and lack the empathy required to maintain close relationships with others.

Magnifying the positive and minimizing the negative is equally destructive to your personal relationships and your health. Growth and change cannot happen unless you are able to take stock of a situation accurately.


Our habitual and reflexive way of explaining the events in our lives, and that a “personal” or “me” style is a known risk factor for depression.

Personalizing -- the reflex tendency to attribute problems to one’s own doing. If we view this thinking trap through the lens of ABC and the B–C connections, we’ll see why this style, with its typical beliefs about loss of self-worth, so often leads to sadness. In conflicts with friends or loved ones, personalizing will lead to beliefs of violating the rights of others and so to the emotion of guilt.

We think that if we attribute the cause of the problem to ourselves, then we grant ourselves the power to solve it.

You can differentiate people on whether they perceive the control of their lives as coming from within or from some outside force, such as others, luck, or circumstances. Clearly those who see control coming from within will possess greater self-efficacy, resilience, and increased motivation to seek and act on solution strategies.

Resilience comes when you believe that you have the power to control the events in your life, the power to change what needs changing -- and that belief is accurate.

There are two occasions when attributing the cause of a problem to oneself does not increase resilience. First, if you -- like personalizers -- only see the internal causes of a problem and systematically ignore the external causes, then your resilience will be lowered. Your thinking-style bias will enable you to see your contribution to the situation but will blind you to another person's. Why is this a problem? Because an effective collaboration, and bouncing back after failure, requires a full and accurate analysis of what went wrong. Because you personalize, you’ll miss those causes of the problem that are not due to you, and so you’ll take no steps to correct them. Resilience requires accuracy.

Second, self-efficacy, and therefore resilience, hinges on whether you believe the internal causes of the problem are changeable or not.

If you tend to personalize, track your beliefs closely to see whether you also tend to attribute problems to behaviors that you can control and change or to deep-seated aspects of your character that are immutable. The combination of attributing problems to things about yourself that are unchangeable is a double whammy, and it’s corrosive to resilience. It’s the combination of personalizing with another thinking trap called overgeneralizing.


Externalizing is the flipside of personalizing. Although personalizing undermines resilience, that doesn’t mean you simply should blame others whenever something goes wrong. This thinking trap -- externalizing -- has a cost as well. This style protects your self-esteem and keeps the self-doubts at bay. Externalizers fail to locate those elements of an adversity that are genuinely of their doing and within their control. They may be failing to hone their pitch and approach or the client lists they generate, because they can see only how others are letting them down. And again, seen through the lens of ABC, while externalizers avoid sadness and guilt, they instead find themselves prone to anger.


In this thinking trap you make always and everything explanations about yourself.

Overgeneralizing is not limited to the self. While personalizers who overgeneralize assassinate their own character, externalizers who overgeneralize assassinate the character of others.

When you externalize and overgeneralize, you attribute the causes of problems to other people’s character rather than to their behavior. This is not a winning motivational strategy.

When you overgeneralize to global characteristics in others, you’ve stripped them of control, at least in your mind, just as personalizers who overgeneralize strip themselves of control. Next time you catch yourself making one of these double whammies, ask yourself: Is there a behavior -- either mine or someone else’s -- that could have caused this problem? If so, that’s the behavior you’re going to want to alter for your own good.


Many of us are mind readers. We believe we know what those around us are thinking and we act accordingly. Some mind readers expect others to know what they are thinking. How often have you come home after a long and arduous day at work and been frustrated with your spouse for not being more sympathetic? This is perhaps one of the most common thinking traps relationship partners fall into, especially those with children. Just as personalizing and overgeneralizing tend to co-occur, mind reading has a common partner. People who mind read tend also to jump to conclusions.

Are there times when you fall into the trap of mind reading and treat others poorly or fail to rise to the occasion as a result? The next time you find yourself getting upset because someone failed to read your mind, or you believe you have read someone else’s, slow yourself down and ask the other person a question that will help clarify where the communication breakdown has occurred.


Emotional reasoning is drawing conclusions, false conclusions as it turns out, about the nature of the world based on your emotional state.

Anxiety is often a direct consequence of beliefs about a future threat. Our estimate of the level of threat is determined by our perception of three aspects of the situation: how dangerous the threat is, the probability that it actually will occur, and how close in time it is to us.

Why Do We Fall into Thinking Traps?

We could probably avoid the traps if we were more logical, but research shows that humans are poor logicians.

To understand the world, we usually have to piece together the general rules of how it operates by ourselves. Most of our thought processing involves using our intellects to detect patterns or rules about the world based on our experiences. This is a process of induction -- of building general rules from an accumulation of specific examples.

Our predecessors had to be skilled at inductive reasoning to survive. General rules about what was safe and what was dangerous were crucial. The problem is that we often apply inductive thinking to situations that require deductive reasoning (which reasons from the general to the specific).

Normally our inductive processes are useful -- they are valuable rules of thumb, or heuristics. We sometimes try to use them, inappropriately, in situations that call for deduction instead. And even when induction is the right process to apply, we often get it wrong.

Our mistaken beliefs about the world may cause us to underestimate the probabilities of real threats, leading us to fail to act in adaptive, preventive ways.

This is what the thinking traps are all about. Over time, using induction, we develop general rules about the world and ourselves. When we jump to a conclusion, we are applying that rule to a new situation. Personalizers have as the rule of thumb that they themselves are generally to blame for problems. For externalizers, it’s other people that cause them setbacks. And overgeneralizing is exactly the trap we fall into when we take one of our inductive rules and apply it where it doesn’t belong. We continue to fall into these traps because, by and large, induction is useful. But we should be more aware of our shortcomings -- that we may not have all the information in our reach -- and we should not be so confident that we have considered the problem comprehensively. Problems arise when we allocate our resources based on these mistaken judgments. Our resilience is diminished when we commit ourselves to action based on false belief.

Most of the resilience skills begin by breaking the situation into A, B, and C. You can choose a recent adversity from your life and work it through.

Simple Questions to Avoid Thinking Traps

You can ask yourself some simple questions to climb out of the traps you fall into.

If you tend to jump to conclusions, you know that speed is your enemy. Your goal should be to slow down. Then ask yourself what evidence you’ve based your conclusion on. Are you certain, or are you guessing?

When reviewing moments when you’re prone to tunnel vision, you need to refocus yourself on the big picture. Ask yourself: What is a fair assessment of the entire situation? What is the big picture? How important is this one aspect to the big picture? These questions will help you broaden your perspective beyond the tunnel.

If you find that you overgeneralize, you need to look more closely at the behaviors involved. Ask yourself: Is there a narrower explanation than the one I’ve assumed to be true? Is there a specific behavior that explains the situation? What does impugning my (or someone else’s) character buy me? Is it logical to indict my (or another’s) character and/or worth as a human based on this specific event?

Do you magnify the bad and minimize the good? If so, then you need to strive for balance.

Ask yourself: Were there any good things that happened? Did I do anything well? Alternatively, if you tend to dismiss the negative, ask yourself: Am I overlooking any problems? Were there any negative elements that I am dismissing the importance of?

If you are a personalizer, you need to learn to look outward. Ask yourself: 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?

On the flip side, if you habitually externalize, you need to start holding yourself accountable. Ask yourself: What did I do to contribute to this situation? How much of the problem is due to others, and how much is due to me?

Mind readers need to learn to speak up and ask questions of others. But first, ask yourself: Did I make my beliefs or feelings known directly and clearly? Did I convey all of the pertinent information? Am I expecting the other person to work hard at figuring out my needs or goals?

Finally, if you lapse into emotional reasoning, you need to practice separating your feelings from the facts. Ask yourself: Have there been times when my feelings didn’t accurately reflect the facts of a situation? What questions must I ask to know the facts?

Remember, you’ll fall into thinking traps most often when you’re dealing with a button-push adversity, so listen closely to your beliefs when you’re faced with stressors you know you’re susceptible to. Set the goal of detecting patterns in your thinking and noticing what your thinking traps do to your mood and behavior.

As you become better at detecting thinking traps, practice catching your thinking errors in real time and try to ask yourself some of the questions just noted as soon as you identify the trap you fell into. The better you are able to avoid these thinking traps, the easier it will be to hold yourself back from those inaccurate assumptions that are costly to your resilience.

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