Filosofy on Friday – Arbitrary inference

Arbitrary Inference:

I’m on an information biasing roll, continuing last week’s theme of thinking errors in cognitive-behavioral therapy. Today we look at arbitrary inference, also known as jumping to conclusions. Here, a person makes a judgement about a situation which is not  supported by the facts. The judgement is arbitrary because it is not based on evidence or sound reasoning. It is also typically biased by the person’s previous experiences and expectations.

Of course, we all tend to jump to conclusions on occasions, but here we are concerned about when it happens on a frequent basis and leads to emotional distress. Often the distress will last for many hours, as the person ruminates over the event. The trigger event – or, more accurately, the erroneous judgement of the event – is like a stone tossed into the cognitive pool, creating ripples that in turn cause other localised disturbances as memories of  events from the past with similar characteristics become activated.

[A little thought experiment…

How many garden birds can you name?

Once you begin to name the first one or two, you will find that others quickly come to  mind. Birds you haven’t thought of for a long time come fluttering into your brain. What a wonderfully efficient machine it is!]

Thus the emotional reaction is not only in response to the immediate situation, it is also fueled by these other memories. We have all been in situations where our own or another person’s reaction appears to be disproportionate to the triggering event. In CBT terms, it could be that schemas (or “core beliefs”) have been activated – these typically have a hot line to our emotional centres.

A classic example of arbitrary inference is when you are walking down the street and someone you know is coming towards you from the opposite direction. This person then crosses to the other side of the street without acknowledging you. How do you feel? According to the tenets of CBT, your feelings about this situation will be driven by your thoughts…

“How dare he ignore me like that!” – leading to anger.

“I wonder why he crossed the road?” – leading to puzzlement.

“I must have done something to upset him” – leading to sadness or regret.

All of these thoughts are equally valid (or indeed, invalid) but what to believe? There is clearly important information missing. Often, when there is a gap in our knowledge, our imaginations are more than capable of filling in the details – with great creativity, our minds produce beautifully colored and luxuriously textured beliefs that seem plausible, contoured to our expectations. How incredible is that? However, there are other explanations for the event…

The person may not have seen me.

They were feeling bad themselves and did not want to talk to anyone.

As with all thinking errors, arbitrary inferences are the products of biases in information processing. The first step is helping people to recognise the biases. The second step is helping them to redress the balance. And sometimes the conclusion will be true – someone will cross the road to avoid you. Are you going to let that ruin your whole day?


Commentary by Professor Eugene Malaberry, B.Sc., M.Phil., Ph.3 [Chair of Cynical Psychology, University of Assidity]

I am compelled to take issue with my learned friend Dr Derek Lee on the subject of arbitrary inference. In my experience, never mind jumping to conclusions, Dr Lee can barely jump off a cardboard box. He professes – (but, as you can see, unlike my good self, he is no Professor!) – to have some knowledge of cognitive-behavioral therapy and a nodding acquaintance with philosophy – (i.e., about as much acquaintance as the nodding dog in my car).

His bumbling attempts to describe arbitrary inference have only served to make me more confused. I’ve no idea why he had the bird-brained idea to bring garden birds into it. My conclusion is that Dr Lee puts the “nit” in cognitive. And if he doesn’t like it, I’m happy to go to arbitration.


5 thoughts on “Filosofy on Friday – Arbitrary inference

  1. I have no clue what the issue was with Prof. Malaberry, but on Wednesday I lived through a perfect example of what you’re talking about. Someone close to me made some assumptions about my behavior based on an erroneous idea of what submission in marriage should be like, an idea they learned from a very conservative, religious background. And the issue has cropped up repeatedly through the years. It works just exactly like you explained. I totally get it.

  2. That’s lovely. You are most welcome. Be quick – you just reminded me I need to change my foto of the week. More thinking errors to come. I’m starting the first of my self- confidence workshops today. Need to add some finishing touches. Lastminutefilosofer. com!

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