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.At about 11 a.m. on the second day of the workshop, as I was introducing a new topic, Adam stood up, went to the back of the room, leaned against the wall, and closed his eyes. Being a veteran jumper to conclusions, I let my inner voice immediately take over: Adam is unhappy with the workshop. He regrets attending. He's angry with me for talking him into it. He can't even stay awake. But he's too kind to walk out on me, so he's propping himself up against the wall in hopes of staying awake.

Even as I was presenting to the group, this inner voice was presenting to me. But I didn't stop after reaching my conclusion about Adam's behavior. I went to the next step and contemplated what I'd do about the situation. Should I say something to him? Should I apologize for cajoling him into attending? Should I wait until he says something so I don't embarrass him?

At the lunch break, Adam bolted from the room, further confirming my interpretation, but also sparing me from having to face him.

When I returned after lunch, Adam was already in the room, energetically talking with several classmates. Someone commented that he hadn't joined them for lunch, and asked him if he was all right. I couldn't help but hear the conversation. (OK, I listened in.) "I'm fine," he told them, "I just needed to take a nap. I slept badly last night, so this morning was a struggle. But I really didn't want to miss a word of it."

He didn't want to miss a word of it? Then why was I so certain that he was miserable? Why was I positive he hated the class? Why was I convinced he was angry with me? After all, I know what I saw, and facts are facts—except that facts aren't facts when they are based on false interpretations of available information.

In this situation, I was fortunate. Through a fluke of timing and proximity that enabled me to overhear a conversation, I quickly learned how wrong I was. I have to wonder how often I, and any of us, make misguided interpretations and never have the opportunity to learn the error of our ways. I suspect this happens often.

Perhaps we have a responsibility to try harder to challenge our interpretations. Not all the time, obviously, but just occasionally, such as when something we observe seems significantly at odds with what we expected, or when a mistaken interpretation could have serious consequences, or when we find ourselves obsessing over the matter.

In these situations, we might try to consider alternative interpretations that could account for the situation. We might ask questions of others to help us confirm or reject our interpretation. Or we could replay the situation in our minds to gauge if we might be mistaken about the circumstances that led to our interpretation.

I'm getting better at noticing some of my conclusions and seeking additional information to confirm or deny my interpretation. It's a worthwhile exercise.

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