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Mind Reading

In Therapy

Mind reading is a subtype of the Thinking Error of jumping to conclusions. It occues when a child arbitrarily decides that someone thinks negatively of them or that someone’s intentions are negative.

This thinking error occurs during interaction with other people, and quite often there are alternate explanations for whatever behavior triggers the mind read, but these alternate explanations are either not conceived at all or ignored.

  • A child is walking down the hall at school and she thinks he sees someone looking at her funny. She concludes that the person must think she is ugly rather than thinking she might have just caught him about to sneeze.
  • A child accidentally drops his bookbag. Shortly thereafter, someone down the hall laughs. The child concludes that the person must have been laughing at him and thinks he is clumsy rather than thinking he might have been laughing at a joke someone else told.
  • A child’s father is in a bad mood after a bad day at work and is short with her when she tries to engage him. She decides that he must be angry at her instead of frustrated by work .
  • A child does poorly on a test at school. He figures the teacher must think he’s an idiot instead of understanding that the teacher has seen lots of bad grades from all kinds of different kids.
  • A boy asks a girl out to a dance. The girl has a poor self-image and so decides that the boy must only be doing it as some kind of really mean joke instead of believing that he’s being honest.

In Critical Thinking

Mind reading is a difficult Thinking Error to pin down. It can have elements of the appeal to emotion fallacy, but unlike emotional reasoning, it is not the core of the matter. Often the reason a child engages in mind reading is because his or her emotions run negative, but the process of the Thinking Error itself is different. Confirmation bias is at play here, as well, as in catastrophization: a predilection to see things negatively reinforces itself as the child picks out only negative details to decide what other people think or want.

The logical fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc (often just shortened to the post hoc fallacy) is often the key mechanism at work in mind reading. “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc” is Latin for “After this, therefore because of this;” it occurs when a person sees two or more things occur in a row and think that the first thing caused everything after it. The post hoc fallacy is problematic because causation cannot be inferred from a simple sequence of events. If a bird flies out of a tree and then moments later a car crash happens in front of the tree, there is no reason to assume that the bird leaving the tree caused the accident.

At the bottommost level, though, when a child mind reads, he or she is simply forming a new belief out of whole cloth, often with no evidence at all to back it up. This is not a formal (or even informal) fallacy of logic; it is simply, well, jumping to a conclusion. Often, in both mind reading and the real world, no further investigation is undertaken and the original evidence-free belief continues to be held without justification.

  • A man’s dog disappears and he assumes that bigfoot must have eaten it instead of assuming that it ran away.
  • A woman’s computer spontaneously crashes and she assumes she’s been attacked by malicious hackers instead of assuming that there was a hardware malfunction.
  • A man thinks bad thoughts about his neighbor, who later that evening finds out she has cancer. The man thinks that he caused the cancer rather than seeing that the two are unrelated.
  • A man leaves his driver’s license at home, and when he’s pulled over and can’t find it, he assumes it must have been stolen rather than think that he may simply have forgotten it.
  • A woman wakes up to find a flat tire on her car and assumes that some neighbor must have punctured it instead of assuming that she accidentally driven over a nail the night before.

Bridging the Gap

None of the preceding examples is a case of mind reading, but each and every one of them is an evidence-free assertion, a connection drawn between two things with no evidence to make that connection:

He coughed after he looked at me [a phenomenon is noticed]. He must have been talking about me under his breath [an explanation is posited and the two events are tied together causally].

That example serves nicely to show how a child engaging in mind reading both makes things up out of whole cloth and associates two events that do not necessarily have any association.

Because there is no single logical fallacy that covers all aspects and instances of mind reading, it can be slightly difficult to universalize the Thinking Error in a way that kids can really grasp. They must first be made aware of the importance of considering all of the evidence in a situation before coming to a conclusion. They must also understand that there’s neither harm nor foul in saying “I don’t know why that happened” instead of attempting to explain something in the absence of evidence. Once they can say “I don’t know” and take a more charitable view of the people around them, then the frame can be moved outward to include evidence for claims and beliefs in reality. Additionally, once the child understands that not everything that happens around them is caused by them, they can begin to understand how the same fallacy is used in real life to create other types of erroneous beliefs.

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