Mind Reading and Predictive Thinking

by Monica Ross

The next unhelpful thinking style I often cover with my clients after mental filtering is jumping to conclusions. Jumping to conclusions has two parts to it—mind reading and predictive thinking. With mind reading, we assume we know what someone else is thinking or that we know the reasoning behind someone else’s actions. We can all I think relate to this one.

Think of the friend or colleague that took forever in responding to your text or email. As the minutes, hours, maybe even days go by some have the tendency to read into the nonresponse.

The thought process might go something like “Well I must have said something the last time we talked that rubbed them the wrong way.” Or perhaps “Well they obviously aren’t considerate enough to take the time of day to respond to a simple text or email, why do people have to be like that?”

Some of our negative thinking traces back to negative beliefs we have about ourselves, other people, and the world. In both situations we are making assumptions about what we believe to be true about others, which are really tied to what we believe to be true about ourselves.

In this example, the negative thought or core belief about oneself could be traced to “I never know the right thing to say in social situations.” Maybe that thought boils down to simply “I’m awkward,” if we had to think of a two word sentence.

The negative thought about others could be “Other people are rude and inconsiderate.” Or even “People have a tendency to not really care about other people.”

It could go deeper than that “People don’t really have a tendency to care about me.” Which could go even to something like “I don’t have value.” The incredible part about all of this is that we go around carrying these thought distortions just under the surface.

It's hard sometimes in using these examples in my posts because just in that simple text exchange or non exchange that I mention above there is likely an entire backstory.  So in coming up with examples, there will always be a simplification of scenarios, but one gets the gist.  A person might walk into therapy with issues in their personal, professional, social, romantic life and not at that point know the beliefs that subconsciously fuel the choices they make.

Let’s go to predictive thinking, the assumption being made when a person uses predictive thinking is that such and such event or future occasion is going to go wrong. For example, the thought “I just know I’m not going to win custody over my children in this divorce.”

Or “Every man that I have been with has cheated on me in the past; the chances are this one will too.” Or “I have a bad feeling about this test, I always do poorly on standardized testing, I’m sure I’ll bomb this standardized test too.”

In all instances, the thoughts are leaning towards a negative outcome. I wonder sometimes if it’s a way of telling ourselves don’t get too caught up in the idea that this could turn out the way that I want it to turn out.

It’s as if saying, if I were really caught up in the idea that things could go right here, I could be taken by surprise. I could be called the fool if things end up going wrong. So why don’t I just start from the outset with the baseline negative prediction and hedge my bets?

Okay, so how do we get out of jumping to conclusions, of mind reading and predictive thinking? We collect evidence for and against our thoughts and we look for alternative ways of looking at the situation. In session, this usually takes place with something that I work on with my clients called a thought record.

What evidence do I have that I am socially inept or awkward—objectively speaking-- evidence for and against? What evidence to I have that other people are rude and inconsiderate on the whole? What ends up happening is those thought records start looking something like this.

Well there was that time I hosted that party. Or in my professional life I successfully lead a team of project managers, which takes a certain level of ability to be social. Or the other day, a woman held the door open for me when she saw that I had a handful of things to carry.

There was that time that my boss asked me if I needed to take any extra time off when they found out that my family member passed away—whatever the thing is. The idea being that we often collect opinions about ourselves or other people that are not based on fact.

Some people this resist this idea. They have gone for so long substituting opinion for fact that they come to believe the opinion. The danger in that is that we live out our lives based on these things, we shape our thoughts and behaviors based on the interpretations we have of other’s thoughts and behaviors and so on. My point being in all this that if we know psychologically the propensity for this, why not change it up a bit?

Why not look at things in an alternative way? Why not predict the absolute best about ourselves and other people? Meh the person who didn’t respond has other stuff going on, maybe they didn’t see it, they’ll get back eventually or not at all and either way it’s okay.  Maybe I'll reach out again and maybe I won't.

Going back to the previous example, a person might ask themselves "How much of what I said in that social situation of which I’m making out to be awkward was about what I actually said and how much of it was possibly about how someone else interpreted what I said? If I rub someone the wrong way, is it more about what I say or how the other person chose to receive what I say?"  Good question.

Psychology isn’t a perfect science. I consider myself more of an artist than a scientist. I've said that before.  There is an art to being human. So, would we in session look for opportunities with this client to do psychoeducation around behavior in social situations? Probably.

There always seems to be some strain of truth to some of the negative thoughts we have about ourselves, it’s just that more often than not we get carried away in them and lean toward the extreme side of things. I posted a TED Talk the other day on my facebook page about this tendency toward negative thinking. You can find it here.