Fallen into the fortune-telling trap?

Or perhaps caught yourself saying “should”?

Has “all or nothing” or a generalization trapped you?

If you answer yes to any of these questions then, here, red10 ‘s Hazel Howard explains the full set of Thinking Traps that are helpful to watch out for.

Originally Called Cognitive Distortions

Thinking Traps are unhelpful to us (or, their original name; cognitive distortions) as they can ‘take over’ our thinking processes.

These theories were first coined by Aaron Beck in the 1970s when he was studying treatment for depression. He noted from interviews that the thoughts of the patients were distorting reality towards negative thinking patterns, which were not helping them. He noted that these were most prevalent when situations were ambiguous.

Why does our brain allow itself to get trapped?

Our brain processes large volumes of information all the time as we try to establish what is happening around us. To make this more efficient, the mind takes short-cuts leading us literally, to jump to conclusions.

Our mind can convince us of one thing, that can sound perfectly rational to us, when in reality, it is completely untrue.
We all have a ‘map of our world’ and we use this as a reference point. We ‘rationalize’ why certain things have happened (often in non-helpful ways), taking us down a negative thinking pattern and we validate this to reinforce the belief based on our map.

It’s useful to know the Thinking Traps

Knowing the Thinking Traps is useful as you can watch out for them, in yourselves or others, and avoid the trap.

For instance, whenever you hear yourself say the word “should” – you can quiz yourself about what’s really going on in your thinking that has led you down the path of speaking to yourself like a critical parent with a wagging finger.

What’s the full list?

Let me share some of the traps you may find yourself falling into…

  1. Jumping to Conclusions/Mind-reading: when someone believes they know what someone else is thinking. We have probably all been guilty of this to some extent. We just know what the other person is thinking about us, don’t we? The answer is no. However, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we ‘just know’ someone doesn’t like us, we will behave in a way towards them that will reinforce that behavior in them towards us. Bingo. We have read the other person’s mind correctly… except we haven’t.
  2. Fortune Telling: very similar to Mind-reading, but we believe we can predict the future based on a similar experience we may have had before. We just know how things are going to turn out (and if cognitive distortion is playing its part, this will be towards a negative outcome) and when it does turn out to be not in our/other favour we rightly claim, ‘I knew this would happen’ or ‘I told you so’.
  3. All or nothing thinking: there is no middle ground. We gravitate to one extreme or the other. We validate one missed opportunity as the reason we can’t do something for ever. This leads to us limiting our beliefs about our ability to be able to do – or not be able to do – something.
  4. Either/Or thinking: falling into the trap of believing that the decision is binary, when in reality there are so many options to choose from.
  5. Selective abstraction: we only focus on the bad outcomes or negative in a situation. We fail to see the positives. This tends to be associated, although not always, with feedback. We focus on what didn’t go well – which may be only 10% of the feedback but that dominates the 90% of what did go well.
  6. Magnifying/Minimising: where we wholly exaggerate the importance of some small, insignificant situation and blow it out of proportion. We can also do the opposite and minimize the great achievement/outcome, somewhat diminishing the importance of something good that has been achieved. This factor is also known as catastrophising.
  7. Over-generalization: when something negative happens in a situation, we predict the same thing will happen again and again – even although it may have been a one off.
  8. Naming/Labelling: when we identify as something negative that has happened and attribute this to ourselves. We may label ourselves as an underachiever; even although we may have only fallen short on one occasion. We name ourself and this can then become our reality.
  9. Personalization: this is truly when we take everything personally. We assume all negative comments are directed at us. We also may take things to the extreme and assume we are to blame for other events around us such as our boss being upset – we wonder what we have done, when in fact it has nothing to do with us.
  10. Should Statements: we have our rules of how we and others should behave and these are firmly fixed. We then find ourselves – or others – forever falling short and disappointment / frustration / anger set in. This is a great tool for setting ourselves up for failure.
  11. Emotional reasoning: we take what we are feeling as the truth, even if all the evidence around us suggests otherwise. This often occurs in individuals who base decisions on their values. There may be lots of evidence to counter why something is the way it is, or someone has behaved the way they have, but we ‘just know’ it to be the case that this is the reason something occurred and nothing anyone can say will change our minds.
  12. Internal/External Control fallacies: Internal control is when we assume we are responsible for the emotions of others around us; External control is when we see ourselves as victims of our circumstances with no control over how we manage these.
  13. Fairness: this is when we judge fairness against our own map of the world. When things are deemed ‘fair’ against this judgement we can feel angry and resentful.
  14. I’m right and you’re wrong: this is when we set out to prove a point and stick to our beliefs that we are always right. Nothing anyone says or does will convince us otherwise. Again, it can damage relationships as the need to be right is greater than ensuring friendships are endured

And we can add a few more – that are called Cognitive Biases

As well as cognitive distortions, other cognitive biases have been identified by researchers Rachman and Shafran describe cognitive bias as “a particular style of thinking that is consistent, non-veridical, and skewed”.

Examples include:

  1. Confirmation bias – when whatever we hold true to believe, we look for and validate any situation against our preconceptions. This way, as above, we are never proved wrong.
  2. The ‘Dunning-Kreuger effect’ when the skills level of individuals don’t match their beliefs; this can be where unskilled individuals overestimate their own ability and experts to underestimate theirs
  3.  ‘Stereotyping’ which describes how we label individuals with certain characteristics without having actual information about them.

In Summary

The first challenge is to recognise when you are getting into these thinking traps.

They are not serving you or the relationships with those around you as they limit your beliefs. Challenge yourself – or ask your coach or a friend to challenge your thinking. Is it based on reality or your perception of reality?

We can all assume we know the answer – and we all like to be right. Sometimes, stretching our thinking in a different dimension, catching ourselves when we fall into one of these traps and re-thinking alternatives can serve us more helpfully and healthily.