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Disqualifying the Positive

In Therapy

A child who disqualifies the positive  rejects positive experiences by finding reasons to explain why they “don’t count.” The child can therefore maintain a negative belief or self-image in the face of contradictory evidence.

Some examples:

  • A child decides that a teacher’s attempt to reach out and help him is insincere because the teacher has given him bad grades in the past; if he was really sincere, he would have given good grades.
  • A child sees any enactment of discipline as offense or persecution and develops an “Everyone is out to get me” attitude while ignoring positive interactions with authority figures.
  • An improvement in school is written off as “luck” and the child maintains an image of himself as stupid and incompetent.
  • Small slights are held against other people, or friends are judged harshly for isolated negative incidents.
  • If a child wants to maintain a negative opinion of someone else, that person’s achievements are downplayed: “He only won because he cheated” or “She only gets good grades because she’s the teacher’s pet.”

In Critical Thinking

Disqualifying the positive is a specific application of a couple of closely related forms of spurious reasoning: special pleading and the ad hoc hypothesis.

Special pleading is basically elaborate excuse-making. If an argument or claim is shown to be spurious, one can come up with special circumstances that apply only to his specific argument in an attempt to salvage its truth. New considerations are introduced that were not named before the argument was refuted, and these considerations are often merely poor covers for the poor argument. Essentially, the claim is made “special” by virtue of these new considerations that don’t apply to other similar or analogous claims.

Special pleading shows up in arguments about facts and arguments about ethics.

  • Somebody insists that he has nightly commune with purple-skinned aliens from an undiscovered star system who teach him the secrets of the universe. A friend points out to him how unlikely the idea is and he says “You wouldn’t understand because you haven’t met the aliens. I have.”
  • A woman derides other women who watch soap operas. When caught engrossed in an episode of The Young and the Restless she declares “I’m different because I work hard all day and need to unwind sometimes.”
  • A politician regularly calls out members of the opposing party for corruption. After his own illicit entanglements are discovered, he explains that he’s different from those corrupt members of the opposition because “I’m doing everything I do for the greater good.”
  • An example from real life: a modern proponent of the idea that the Earth is flat, when shown pictures of the planet from space, dismissed them by simply saying “You don’t get it.”

An ad hoc (Latin for “for this”) hypothesis is quite similar: it is an after-the-fact attempt to explain why an idea is still true even after it has been neatly falsified. It can be distinguished from special pleading in that an ad hoc hypothesis doesn’t necessarily rely on the uniqueness of a certain person or situation. It is still used, however, to rationalize a situation to conform to one’s idea of how things are or ought to be in the face of contrary evidence. Ad hoc hypotheses are generally seen as a hallmark of poor science or even pseudoscience, as solid science goes where the evidence takes it.

  • A person believes he can read the minds of animals. His friend asks him to read her cat’s mind and tell her what the cat’s name is. He proposes “Fluffy.” As it turns out, the cat’s name is “Winky,” but our intrepid pet psychic explains that “Fluffy” is the name the cat uses for itself.
  • A man’s grandmother dies and he finds among her estate pictures of her as a young woman working at a rather unbecoming nighttime profession. “My grandma never would have done that,” he decides. “She must have been a photographer’s  model and never told anybody.”
  • A woman believes she has a chronic illness. She goes to doctor after doctor and each says she’s perfectly healthy. Rather than believe the medical evidence, she instead decides she must be the victim of a brand new disease completely unknown to science and undetectable to all current tests.
  • A person who markets himself as a prophet, able to see the future with startling clarity, makes a number of predictions that do not even come close to coming true. He explains his failure by saying that the spirits who provide his visions sometimes lie to him for reasons he doesn’t understand.

Bridging the Gap

A child who disqualifies the positive is essentially making ad hoc rationalizations for why her negative preconceived notion is true even in the face of contrary evidence. Unlike catastrophization, where a similar negative focus happens more-or-less unconsciously, disqualifying the positive is a systematic process of rationalizing positive experiences. The child has to recognize that the positive experiences exist, note them, and explain them away in order to maintain her negative views:

That teacher is always mean to me [the negative presumption]. She was nice to me last week [recognizing the positive], but that was just because she didn’t want me to tell the principal how terrible she is [rationalizing away the positive].

The child here is creating an ad hoc hypothesis to explain away data that would falsify her preconceived idea that the teacher always treats her poorly. Even when the teacher does something nice, it’s for bad reasons. Heads, I win; tails, you lose.

The process of disqualifying the positive is the same as the flat-earther or the moral hypocrite: evidence that should make the child change her mind is explained away so she can maintainher preferred outlook. Disqualifying the positive is simply a specific way to rationalize contradictory evidence; once a child understands the ways in which she disqualifies positive experiences, she should have little trouble understanding how people disqualify other types of disconfirmatory evidence to maintain their preconceived ideas.

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