You see your partner walking through the door with a shopping bag that seems too small to hold what you asked for from the supermarket. Immediately, you accuse your partner of failing to follow through on this simple chore. As it turns out, though, you were the one who’s in error. The items in the bag actually do contain everything you requested, but it was so well-packed, it seemed inadequate for the job. Now you’ve got to apologize, but the lack of trust you created with your suspicion has caused a tiny dent in your relationship.
People jump to conclusions all the time, whether in romantic relationships or in just ordinary day-to-day interactions. You see a stranger apparently cutting in front of you on the sidewalk and so you become instantly annoyed. A more careful look makes it clear that the person wasn’t being rude at all, but was just trying to hold the hand of her child who was in danger of being lost in the crowd. The subject line of an email from a friend of yours appears to be canceling the dinner you two were planning. You’re aggravated and a little bit hurt. However, after you open the email, you realize that he simply wanted to confirm. It’s a good thing you didn’t shut the email in disgust and not show up at the appointed time.
As it turns out, jumping to conclusions not only can interfere with your relationships, but if it is a severe enough pattern, can be harmful to an individual’s mental health. You might be surprised to learn that the cognitive tendency of jumping to conclusions, abbreviated as “JTC,” is implicated in social anxiety and delusional disorders in what researchers call the “Threat Anticipation Model.” In new research by University of East Anglia (UK)’s James Hurley and colleagues (2018), JTC interpretation bias is tested as a process that leads people to assume, wrongly, that a situation presents them with physical, social, or psychological harm. In other words, you’re confronted with an emotionally ambiguous situation and automatically conclude that the situation will come out badly for you, because other people are out to hurt you. Putting this everyday tendency into a clinical context, then, you can see that if you see people who mean you no harm as having evil intent, your mental health (if not relationships) will be negatively impacted.
There is a standard test used to measure JTC, and it involves presenting you with a series of probabilistic choices to make (judging which of two jars a colored bead came from). People who score high on the JTC measure are ready to make their decisions about the bead’s source before they actually have enough data to justify that decision. In the Hurley et al. study, 8 men and 4 women (average age 39.4 years old) were drawn from a community mental health center and given training intended to reduce their JTC tendencies. Of the 12 participants, 5 had a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, 3 had psychotic disorder, 3 had schizoaffective disorder, and 1 had delusional disorder. Their diagnoses were made approximately 10 years prior to the intervention and 11 of the 12 individuals were taking antipsychotic medications. In addition to having these clinical diagnoses, the participants also had elevated scores on a measure of social anxiety. Their tendency to hold inflexible beliefs were also assessed, as these could contribute to JTC by priming individuals to make decisions consistent with their existing views.
The specific training method focused on JTC indeed served to reduce the tendency to reach premature conclusions, as well as belief inflexibility in 9 of the 12 participants. Paranoia was reduced in 6 of the 12, and one person’s social anxiety was alleviated by the training. An alternate cognitively-focused training method was compared to the JTC-focused intervention, but it was not as effective in modifying JTC specifically. The JTC intervention, developed by King’s College (London)’s Helen Waller and colleagues (2011) is known as the “Maudsley Review Training Programme” (MRTP).
If this ingrained cognitive bias can be reduced in individuals with clinically diagnosed disorders, it stands to reason that the approach could also be beneficial to individuals who do not have these disorders but nevertheless approach their interactions with a negative bias. Looking now the MRTP, see how you might benefit from this 5-step method:
1. Think about times you jumped to the wrong conclusions. Thinking your partner failed to follow through on your wishes and assuming the parent was being rude are just two instances that people can encounter during their daily lives. What about you? When was the last time you accused your partner of some flaw or failing that turned out to be an unfair criticism? When might you have turned right instead of left because you didn’t read a sign carefully enough?
2. Test your ability to see the whole picture. In the MRTP, participants see part of a picture, one bit at a time (e.g. seeing the handle of a jug prior to seeing the rest of it). They had to guess what the entire picture represented. Participants were then instructed to look at more parts of the picture before deciding what it was.
3. See how easily you are fooled by illusions. Back in Introductory Psychology, you might have been given the “Mueller-Lyer” illusion in which you see two double-headed arrows. One set of arrows faces out and the other faces inward. The two lines are actually the same length, but you are fooled by the arrows into thinking the one with the outward-facing arrows is longer. If you rush to judgment, you’re more likely to be fooled by the illusion; by learning to take your time, you will be able to overcome this visual trick.
4. Ask yourself if you are too quick to form an impression of a person. In the training, participants see a picture of a person who is described as looking at them and staring. Through training, participants learn to change their immediate judgment (e.g. they’re being looked at critically) to consider other options (the person is actually watching a TV screen behind your head).
5. See how many times other people jump to conclusions in movies or television that depict the tendency in a humorous way. Remember the classic episode of “Friends” when Ross told Rachel they were on “break”? It took years for this rift to be resolved, all due to mistaken suspicions that the characters had of each other. By watching other people suffer negative consequences of jumping to conclusions, you can see the logical flaws that your own thinking might contain.
To sum up, solid relationships with others depends on solid evidence. Allow yourself to take the time and willingness to suspend judgment, and your relationships will be all that more fulfilling.