This is one of "22
virus definitions" (thought-mistakes that cause ineffectiveness
and unnecessary negative emotions).
have found that our brains automatically seek evidence to confirm
rather than disconfirm an already existing conclusion
whether we have any stake in it or not.
When you allow yourself to come to a conclusion
that you arent very organized, for example, youll
see and remember everything you do that confirms your conclusion
even if you dont want it to be true. And youll ignore
times you were well-organized because they dont confirm
anything; they disconfirm.
When you decide your spouse is a slob,
youll notice and remember (clearly) all the times your
spouse acted like a slob, and youll ignore or explain away
all the times your spouse was neat and clean. This bias for confirmation
can ruin your mood far more often than is required or mandatory.
You get a flat tire and you think, The
day is ruined! Thats giving up. Thats defeatism.
Thats feeling helpless. Another version of this is, Things
are going badly. Whats wrong with that? Can you tell?
Instead of things have gone badly up to this point,
when you say things are going badly you are projecting the badness
into the future and defeating yourself ahead of time!
Coming to a conclusion prematurely alters
your perception to some degree at least it alters what
you notice and remember so what you see agrees with your
conclusions. Its a natural flaw of the human brain. And
telling people your conclusions makes it even worse.
In an experiment, people were asked to
determine the length of a line. One group was told to decide
how long the lines were in their heads; another group was told
to write it on a Magic Pad (pads for children that erase what
you write when you lift up the top sheet) and then erase it before
anyone saw it; and a third group was told to write their conclusions
on a piece of paper, sign it, and give it to the researcher.
Then the subjects were given information
indicating their first conclusion was wrong, and they were given
an opportunity to change their decision. Those who decided in
their heads changed their conclusions the easiest; those who
wrote it on the Magic Pad were more reluctant to change their
minds; and those who declared their conclusions publicly remained
most convinced their first conclusion was correct.
Their feeling of certainty was an illusion;
it wasnt related to their conclusions accuracy. It
was being influenced by another factor how publicly they
had made their conclusions.
Be careful about coming to conclusions
too quickly especially in public. Slow yourself down before
you conclude anything negative or pessimistic. Remind yourself
that your feeling of certainty might not mean anything. When
your conclusion is giving you negative feelings, skepticism can
make you feel better and act more sanely.
Confucius said wisdom was when you
know a thing, to recognize that you know it, and when you do
not know a thing, to recognize that you do not know it.
I was lying down for a nap yesterday and
noticed my back hurt. I immediately thought it was because Id
been sitting at the computer so much. This made me slightly despondent
because I had a lot of work I wanted to do on the computer.
Then I checked that explanation and realized
I really didnt know what caused my back pain. That uncertainty
opened the possibility that maybe its not sitting, but
how I sit (posture). The uncertainty, then, did two good things.
It made me feel less discouraged by the back pain, and more open
to seeking better answers than the first stupid thing that popped
into my head.
Uncertainty is good. We think thoughts
with more certainty than is justified, and we do it a lot. Awhile
back, a little story circulated on the internet that was supposedly
a radio conversation released by the Chief of Naval Operations.
Heres how it went:
Radio Number One: Please divert your course
15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.Radio Number Two:
Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to South to avoid
Number One: This is the captain of a U.S.
Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.
Number Two: No. I say again, you divert
Number One: THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER
ENTERPRISE. WE ARE A LARGE WARSHIP OF THE U.S. NAVY. DIVERT YOUR
Number Two: This is a lighthouse. Your
This incident never happened, but it illustrates
the value of uncertainty. The Navy captain concluded he was talking
to a stubborn and ignorant person who was willfully ignoring
an important order. He jumped to a conclusion quickly and his
anger narrowed his focus too much to reconsider. It is a similar
mistake we all make. Learn to suspend judgement. Learn to delay
coming to conclusions.
But, you might be thinking, if you must
know a lot before coming to a conclusion, you wont form
many opinions. Yes, thats right. You should do your best
against your own natural propensity to leave your
opinion undecided when you dont know enough to decide correctly.
When you feel bad, ask yourself:
1. What am I thinking that is giving
me these feelings?
2. Is this absolutely, positively
true? Ask the question of every negative thought. Do
I know for a fact its true?
Then your emotions will fit the reality
of your situation. You think things with more certainty than
is justified by the facts. That certainty can be discouraging,
upsetting, or demoralizing.
In 1940, Slavomir Rawicz was sent to a
Siberian prison camp for twenty-five years. He eventually did
the impossible and escaped. Then he did the impossible again
and walked 4000 miles through Siberia, across the Gobi desert,
and over the Himalayas, all as a wanted fugitive, and finally
made it to India and freedom. But all that was to come later.
While he was still imprisoned, he was asking around, seeing if
he could find anyone who might be willing to come with him.
If I could one day think up a plan
of escape, he asked a friend of his, would you come
No, his friend replied, I
would come with you if there was a chance, but the snow and the
cold would kill us before we could get anywhere, even if the
Russians didnt catch us.
Here was certainty about a demoralizing
conclusion and the conclusion was wrong. The Russians
didnt catch them, the snow and the cold didnt kill
them. In his excellent book, How
We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday
Life, Thomas Gilovich wrote,
Perhaps the most general and most important
mental habit to instill is an appreciation of the folly of trying
to draw conclusions from incomplete and unrepresentative evidence.
An essential corollary of this appreciation should be an awareness
of how often our everyday experience presents us with biased
samples of information.
Have you ever drawn conclusions from incomplete
evidence? When I was making cold calls for radio interviews,
I made about fifteen calls for every interview I landed. When
I called, I usually left a voice mail.
Theyd call back and grill me. When
I first started doing it, this made me feel bad. So what did
I do? I looked into my thinking to find mistakes. I used the
most powerful mental tool known to Man: The
Antivirus For The Mind. These are some of the thoughts I
This is too hard.
Im never going to make it.
Nobody is interested.
Nobody cares about improving their
I cant take the strain.
After I wrote them down, I realized these
conclusions werent necessarily true. My negative feelings
subsided and my success rate improved (I came across better because
I was in a better mood).
When I first started public speaking, I
had to do the same thing. My explanation for why I couldnt
be a public speaker was false
helplessness: Im constitutionally shy, always
have been, always will be. I was overgeneralizing (thought-mistakes often
overlap with each other). I thought, Im a shy person
rather than Im shy in certain circumstances.
Or better yet, Im only nervous because it is unfamiliar.
Since I was nineteen, I wanted to give
public speeches, but I knew I couldnt. Some people can,
I thought, and some cant. I was one who couldnt.
Thats a permanent explanation an overgeneralization.
Permanent explanations can
defeat you as completely as a 90 foot wall of concrete. You can
see this very clearly in true-life survival stories. It is interesting
to see what people do in their minds that helps them make it
out alive. One common denominator is they do not overgeneralize. They dont decide it
They dont say Nothing has worked yet, so nothing
will ever work. They retain a glimmer of uncertainty about
their own pessimistic assumptions, and so they keep trying, and
that is what saves them.
It would be equally instructive to know
what went through the minds of those who didnt survive.
No doubt some of them made pessimistic overgeneralizations that
prevented them from taking actions that might have saved them.
People make all-or-nothing
assumptions about their own attitude. They are just
not a cheerful person. Or they cant become a perfectly
cheerful person so they dont do anything that would improve
their moods a little.
I remember Martin Seligman saying we dont
really need to cultivate pessimism, however useful it may occasionally
be, because each person has ups and downs, and during the downs
gets plenty of pessimistic views of their life.
Temporary pessimism might be useful, which
means you dont have to be positive all the time. In fact,
it might be a bad thing if you were.
If you think you should never be in a bad
mood, thats all-or-nothing thinking. It's also musterbating
(using shoulds and musts).
I would bet many positive people feel that they must
be positive all the time, and that somehow when theyre
in a bad mood or grumpy or pessimistic, it is bad and wrong and
The idea that it is okay and maybe even
GOOD to be pessimistic once in awhile is an optimistic view of
pessimism. You can even feel good about feeling bad. You can
be positive about being negative!
If you cant change the thing itself,
you can still change how you deal with it, how you respond to
it, what you do with it. Some things are not changeable, but
you can still do something about it (to compensate).
Anyway, as interesting and entertaining
as all this may be, I've gotten off the point a little. We're
talking about the thought-mistake "bias for confirmation."
Whatever you think or conclude or decide, it can have an influence
on what your perceive in the future, and THAT can have an influence
on how motivated or demoralized you are. So pay attention to
what you are concluding and never conclude something negative
or discouraging unless you are one hundred percent certain of
it, and that will rarely be the case.
See the complete list of definitions: The 22 Virus Definitions.