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In Therapy

A child focuses on the worst possible outcome of a situation, or makes a mountain out of a molehill by allowing a small negative detail or a single piece of data become a major catastrophe.

Catastrophization crops up all over the place in teenage life.

  • A child does poorly on a single test at school and decides that her education is ruined and she’ll never amount to anything, or that her failure makes it likely that she’ll only fail in the future.
  • A child’s friend bails on her one night instead of hanging out and she thinks it’s because the friend hates her and wasn’t ever really her friend in the first place.
  • A child is dumped by her boyfriend and she considers or attempts suicide.
  • A small pratfall or foible in the lunchroom is turned into a disaster: “Everyone thinks I’m an idiot now! I’ll never have a social life again!”
  • A single run-in with authority, whether a teacher or the police, is turned immediately into an immutable pattern: “I must be a terrible person.”

In Critical Thinking

Catastrophization occurs at the crossroads of a couple of cognitive issues: confirmation bias and a poor grasp of basic probability.

Confirmation bias is the human tendency to only recognize information that confirms our preconceived biases, wants, or fears. It is the cognitive bias that makes adolescence so miserable while we’re in it and so idyllic once we’re past it. While we’re there, we focus on the negative, on the pain, on the raging hormones and emotions. Once we’re past it, many of us put on our rose-colored glasses and remember only the fun and high points of our “glory days.”

Confirmation bias leads people to criticize only the evidence that contradicts their preconceived notions while supportive evidence is accepted uncritically. It is active in all spheres of life from politics, religion, and beliefs about science to choice of brand-name products and sports teams.

  • A member of a particular political party might deride the actions of a corrupt member of the opposition while ignoring or making excuses for the same actions when performed by a member of his own party.
  • Someone who consistently buys Nike apparel (and thus has a brand loyalty) might remember the situations where non-Nike products failed or performed under par while forgetting or ignoring the situations where Nike products did the same.
  • A basketball fan watching a game might see and be angered by poor calls by the referees against his favorite team while not noticing (or even supporting) poor calls against the other team.
  • A person with a preconceived belief in the healing power of some folk remedy or tincture might remember the times she “got better” after using it and not the times that the illness continued after using it.
  • A person with a “lucky charm” might attribute good things to the presence of the charm while ignoring its presence during bad situations.
  • The “I was just thinking about you!” effect: if a person is thinking of his friend, and then she calls him on the phone, he might remember it and may even attribute it to some sort of supernatural power, but he won’t remember all the times he thought of her and she didn’t call, or she called while he wasn’t thinking of her.

While it isn’t technically a logical fallacy or cognitive bias, a poor grasp of probability can lead to all sorts of erroneous conclusions about the world. Many people (perhaps even most) really don’t understand the basic rules of probability that govern their everyday life, and this crops up in gambling habits, perceptions of current events, and interpretations of seemingly unlikely events from everyday life.

  • The “hot streak.” While gambling, people often think that a winning “run” predisposes one to win more in the future, when in reality past probabilities do not affect present probabilities.
  • “I’m due.” A gambler suffering a run of losses might think that, because his luck has been so poor for so long, the dice or the wheel is “due” to roll in his favor soon. This is, in a way, the opposite of the “hot streak.”
  • “The evening news effect.” When an improbable tragedy is reported on the news, people’s assessment of the probability of that kind of tragedy tends to go up even though the probability remains the same. After a tragic plane crash, an event with a 1 in 200,000 probability, people might be more afraid to fly even though their plane is no more likely to crash just because another plane crashed recently.
  • “The law of truly large numbers.” People often don’t grasp the import of massive scale. Using the phone-call example from above, the man attributing the serendipitous call to a supernatural force is ignoring the fact that he has thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of thoughts a day, and many of them involve people we know. Eventually, it is inevitable that a thought of a person will be followed by a call from that person. On a planet with six billion inhabitants, one-in-a-million chances happen six thousand times a day.

Bridging the Gap

When a child catastrophizes, she is ignoring the positive and choosing instead to focus only on the negative. This is perhaps a reflection of her fears (“What if she really isn’t my friend?”) or a poor self-image (“See, I knew I was stupid”). She engages in confirmation bias to ignore contradictory evidence in favor of only confirmatory evidence. All the times a friend was loyal and true are ignored after a single offense, as they would contradict the fear-fueled interpretation of betrayal and abandonment. All of the good grades on past tests go unremembered after a single failure as they would provide evidence to contradict a preconceived negative self-image.

Perhaps most dangerously, a teenager catastrophizing a breakup into suicidal feelings is ignoring the evidence from all around her that people survive breakups all the time and go on to lead happy, healthy lives with new partners, and instead focuses on the breakup itself and the negative feelings surrounding it as confirmatory evidence of any number of fears or issues: that she’ll die alone, that she’s not attractive, or that she isn’t worth anybody’s time.

Probability plays into this when the child ignores the larger picture to focus on a single event. In the course of a long friendship, at some point something negative will happen; it would be more unlikely for the friendship to be perfectly positive for its duration than to never have a speedbump. A child engaging in catastrophization, though, will regard the negative event as a new situation or a turning point denoting something different, or as evidence of the way something always was beneath the surface, instead of taking the inevitable in stride.

Likewise with relationships: not only is confirmation bias of fear and negative self-image at the root of a suicidal breakup, but the child also doesn’t understand that most people in most places go through many relationships, and odds are any given relationship will probably end in a split. While that fact doesn’t make it easier to deal with the emotions that go with a break-up, it puts things in perspective: the teen is likely to have a successful relationship eventually, but likely to have many unsuccessful ones as well.

Once a child understands how she can ignore contradictory evidence and misjudge the odds regarding her own life, she can begin to see how the components of catastrophization can lead to erroneous conclusions about money, medicine, or her general worldview. The same process of catastrophization that turns a pratfall into a far-reaching social disaster turns a single plane crash into a pattern of unavoidable tragedy.

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