Jumping to Conclusions


Much of our behavior is automatic. We breathe without thinking about it, and we blink without much conscious effort. We do lots of other things without an iota of thought. In this column, Naomi Karten explains how jumping to conclusions is yet another thing we do without thinking about it—for better or worse.

People jump to conclusions. You can tell them they shouldn't, but they do it anyway. Sometimes, they don't just jump; they take a running leap. Maybe you even do it yourself. I know I do.

Of course, it's not so odd that we jump to conclusions. We are meaning-making creatures. Without any conscious effort, we make meaning of or interpret what we observe or experience. This is a survival strategy. In hunter-gatherer days, it wouldn't have served us well to see a cheetah heading our way and to analyze methodically whether it was approaching us to be petted or to make us its lunch. If we didn't react immediately, we'd be a delectable morsel.

Still, I used to think we should be able to resist jumping to conclusions until I read The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. According to Taleb, it takes a huge amount of effort to see facts and withhold judgment about them. He maintains that our brains are incapable of seeing anything in raw form. We always interpret, often without being conscious of it. Avoiding interpretation is difficult because our brains function to a large extent outside our awareness, just like our breathing.

This means that we don't actually jump to conclusions, as if we start here and end up there. Rather, we take in input from the outer world and immediately interpret. As a result, not jumping to conclusions is exceedingly difficult and very tiring. Taleb maintains that since most of our interpreting takes place outside our awareness, the only way to keep from interpreting is to stay in a continuous state of active vigilance. You have to hang onto everything you see, hear, smell, and so on, and withhold any judgment whatsoever. And that is a very fatiguing process. Try it, and you'll see.

Even if we can't readily stop ourselves from interpreting, I believe we need to be more mindful of some of our interpretations once we've reached them, because that's where things fall apart. A lot of frayed nerves and ruffled feathers occur because people misinterpret each other's words and actions, and they act on the basis of those misinterpretations. They rarely stop to ponder whether there might be more to the situation than they realize. Therefore, it makes sense to me that, having made an interpretation, we ought occasionally to pause for a moment and question it.

Having said that, I have to admit that I continue to gain firsthand examples of what can happen when you don't question your interpretations. For example, I was invited to present a public workshop and I persuaded a friend of mine, Adam, to attend. I knew he'd have to cover both the workshop fee and his travel expenses himself, but I thought he'd find the material and discussions with other participants valuable. It took a bit of coaxing, but he agreed to attend.

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