The Arbitrary Inference information handout forms part of the cognitive distortions series, designed to help clients and therapists to work more effectively with common thinking biases.
A brief introduction to cognitive distortions
Cognitive distortions, cognitive biases, or ‘unhelpful thinking styles’ are the characteristic ways our thoughts become biased (Beck, 1963). We are always interpreting the world around us, trying to make sense of what is happening. Sometimes our brains take ‘shortcuts’ and we think things that are not completely accurate. Different cognitive short cuts result in different kinds of bias or distortions in our thinking. Sometimes we might jump to the worst possible conclusion (“this rough patch of skin is cancer!”), at other times we might blame ourselves for things that are not our fault (“If I hadn’t made him mad he wouldn’t have hit me”), and at other times we might rely on intuition and jump to conclusions (“I know that they all hate me even though they’re being nice”). These biases are often maintained by characteristic unhelpful assumptions (Beck et al., 1979).
Different cognitive biases are associated with different clinical presentations. For example, catastrophizing is associated with anxiety disorders (e.g. Nöel et al, 2012), dichotomous thinking has been linked to emotional instability (Veen & Arntz, 2000), and thought-action fusion is associated with obsessive compulsive disorder (Shafran et al, 1996).
Catching automatic thoughts and (re)appraising cognitions is a core component of traditional cognitive therapy (Beck et al, 1979; Beck, 1995; Kennerley, Kirk, Westbrook, 2007). Identifying the presence and nature of cognitive biases is frequently a helpful way of introducing this concept – clients are often quick to appreciate and identify with the concept of ‘unhelpful thinking styles’, and can easily be trained to notice the presence of biases in their own automatic thoughts. Once biases have been identified, clients can be taught to appraise the accuracy of these automatic thoughts and draw new conclusions.
Arbitrary inference (also referred to as ‘arbitrary interpretations’ and ‘jumping to conclusions’) is one of the earliest and broadest cognitive distortions identified in cognitive therapy:
Arbitrary interpretation is defined as the process of forming an interpretation of a situation, event, or experience when there is no factual evidence to support the conclusion or when the conclusion is contrary to the evidence
Beck, 1963, p. 328
Arbitrary inferences are associated with a variety of faulty reasoning processes. These include biased interpretative reasoning, expectancy judgments (i.e., holding negative expectations about the future), or covariation biases (i.e., overestimating the association between a fear-related stimuli and aversive outcomes; Harvey et al., 2004). However, other researchers suggest this distortion is too general to be clinically useful (Rachman, 1983). Accordingly, some therapists prefer to focus on more specific cognitive distortions associated with arbitrary inference, such as mind-reading or fortune telling (Burns, 2020).
Arbitrary interferences have also been linked to a wide range of difficulties, including:
- Anger (Eckhardt & Kassinove, 1998).
- Addictions (Burns, 2020: Najavits et al., 2004).
- Anxiety (Blake et al., 2016).
- Bipolar Disorder (Kramer et al., 2009).
- Body dysmorphia (Buhlmann et al., 2015).
- Delusions (Lincoln et al., 2010).
- Depression (Blackburn & Eunson, 1989).
- Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (Puri et al., 2021).
- Perfectionism (Davis & Wosinski, 2012).
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD; Najavits et al., 2004).
- Psychosis (Dudley et al., 2016).
- Relationship difficulties (Epstein, 1986).
- Suicidality (Jager-Hyman et al., 2014).
Central to arbitrary inference is the failure to consider less distressing and more probable explanations for events and experiences. For this reason, people are particularly susceptible to making arbitrary inferences in ambiguous situations. For example, Beck and Alford (2009) provide the example of a medical intern who felt discouraged after being informed that all patients seen by interns would also be reviewed by residential staff. After receiving this news, the intern concluded that the senior clinicians must have doubted his professional ability – an interpretation which may have been unrelated to the policy decision.
While arbitrary inferences are typically self-referential (e.g., “I have a cough, so I’m going to develop cancer”) (Beck, 1970), they can also be allocentric. For example, Eckhardt and Jamison (2002) note that individuals who struggle with anger often make arbitrary inferences about the hostile motivations of other people – what they describe as a ‘hostile attribution bias’ (e.g., “he is trying to irritate by ignoring me”). For this reason, arbitrary inferences often play a role in relationship difficulties (Epstein, 1986; Beck, 1988).
Examples of arbitrary inference include:
- Inferences about ambiguous events (e.g., “I heard a bang – someone is breaking into my home”).
- Inferences about other peoples’ attitudes (e.g., “He must think I’m a loser”).
- Inferences about other peoples’ behavior (e.g., “My wife is late coming home – she’s having an affair”).
- Inferences about the future, i.e., ‘fortune-telling’ (e.g., “I’ll never feel any better about myself”).
People who make arbitrary inferences may have ‘blind spots’ when it comes to:
- Interpreting ambiguous events in a realistic manner.
- Considering alternative explanations for events and outcomes.
- Forming realistic expectations.
- Accurately judging other peoples’ attitudes and motivations.
As with many cognitive biases, there may be evolutionary reasons why people make arbitrary inferences. Gilbert (1998) suggests that arbitrary inferences may have been adaptive for early humans. For example, weighing up multiple interpretations is likely to have complicated decision-making in threatening situations. On the other hand, arbitrary inference may have functioned as a ‘better safe than sorry’ style of thinking, allowing for rapid judgments in high-risk situations.
Many people struggle with making arbitrary inferences, and it sounds as though this might be relevant to you too. Would you be willing to explore it with me?
Clinicians might begin by providing psychoeducation about arbitrary inferences and automatic thoughts more generally. Consider sharing some of these important details:
- Automatic thoughts spring up spontaneously in our minds, usually in the form of words or images.
- They are often on the ‘sidelines’ of our awareness. With practice, we can become more aware of them. It is a bit like a theatre – we can bring our automatic thoughts ‘centre stage’.
- In some circumstances, it is helpful to make arbitrary inferences. When we are under threat, jumping to conclusions can help us make quick decisions and snap judgments that help keep us safe. However, there are times when we need to think about things in a slower, more considered way.
- Automatic thoughts are not always accurate: just because you think something, doesn’t make it true.
- Automatic thoughts are often inaccurate in characteristic ways. One common type of bias in automatic thoughts is ‘arbitrary inference’: we sometimes reach conclusions without evidence to support them, even when the evidence might suggest the opposite.
- Signs that you are making arbitrary inferences include jumping to conclusions about the meaning of events (e.g., “that bang is someone breaking into my house”), what other people are thinking (e.g., “she thinks I’m a horrible person”), or what will happen in the future (e.g., “I will never feel any better”).
Many treatment techniques can be used to address arbitrary inferences:
- Decentering. Meta-cognitive awareness, or decentering, describes the ability to stand back and view a thought as a cognitive event: as an opinion, and not necessarily a fact (Flavell, 1979). Help clients to practice labeling the process present in the thinking rather than engaging with the content, for example by saying to themselves, “I’m making an arbitrary inference”, whenever they notice these thoughts.
- Cognitive restructuring with thought records. Thought records can be used to capture and re-evaluate arbitrary inferences as they occur. One traditional method is to evaluate the evidence for and against the automatic thought. Useful prompts include:
- “If you took the ‘arbitrary inferences’ glasses off, how would you see this differently?”
- “What evidence supports the conclusion you are making? What evidence does not support the conclusion?”
- “What are some of the other ways this situation could be understood? Which interpretation would be most helpful to you?”
- “Imagine you are an objective bystander. How would you see this situation differently?”
- “What would you say to a friend who reached this conclusion? How would you help them see the situation more accurately?”
- Cost-benefit analysis. Explore the advantages and disadvantages of the inferences the client makes. Are they helpful? What problems might they cause? Some clients may believe that arbitrary inferences are functional (e.g., “It’s better to be safe than sorry in uncertain situations”).
- Retrospective mismatch. Ask the client to recall other times when they have jumped to conclusions. Were these inferences correct, or were they inaccurate and unhelpful? Highlighting the mismatch between arbitrary inferences and reality can challenge the perceived accuracy of these judgments (Wells, 1997).
- Collecting data. Encourage the client to collect data that either supports or disconfirms their inferences. This might involve interrogating the environment (to re-evaluate inferences about the causes and meaning of events), taking a risk (to re-evaluate inferences about expected outcomes), and asking for feedback (to re-evaluate inferences about other peoples’ thoughts and judgments).
- Testing beliefs and assumptions. It can be helpful to explore whether the client holds beliefs or assumptions that drive their arbitrary inferences, such as, “My thoughts are always accurate”, “Assumptions and snap judgments are helpful”, or “It’s best to assume the worst”. If assumptions like these are identified, clients can assess the accuracy and helpfulness of these beliefs. Their attitudes towards healthier assumptions can also be explored, such as, “My thoughts are interpretations – not facts”, and, “It is best to think like a scientist and collect evidence before reaching a conclusion”. Assumptions can also be tested using behavioral experiments, including surveys (e.g., “Let’s see if other people would reach the same conclusion if they were in this situation”).
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