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In Therapy

Magnification occurs when a child assigns more importance to something than it actually deserves, or exaggerates a thing’s importance. Its opposite is minimization.

  • A child might exaggerate the effect of a single arrest until it becomes all-consuming.
  • A date that goes badly might discourage a child from dating again because they all might be like that.
  • A neglected child might magnify the amount of time his parents spend around him: “They’re there more often than you think.”
  • A child giving a speech in class might dwell on and magnify the tiny mistakes that only she noticed.

In Critical Thinking

Magnification is, like so many other Thinking Errors, a failure to look properly at the evidence that is present. Contrary to others, disqualifying the positive, for example, in this case evidence is not ignored; scanty evidence is played up as something significant.

This is problematic because a proper accounting of the facts rests on a proper accounting of all of the evidence. A claim cannot be substantiated if the evidence for it is meager; likewise, a well-established idea cannot be overturned if the contrary evidence is weak. One must accord proper weight to all evidence to reach a rational, thought-out belief. Moreover, even a single piece of good evidence is rarely a good basis for solid belief. Multiple pieces of evidence for the same claim are before someone commits to a belief in the claim.

  • A fringe physicist thinks that modern theories are wrong and that his personal “theory of everything” is correct. His only evidence to support his claim is a poorly-researched paper that was rejected from half-a-dozen scientific journals, but he claims his paper will bring modern science to its knees.
  • A man claims to be able to levitate objects with his mind. He’s never been tested under controlled conditions, but he has a friend who saw him do it once, and he claims the eyewitness testimony as conclusive proof that he does indeed have telekinesis.
  • The prosecution in a trial is attempting to convince the jury that the defendant is guilty of murder based on  blurry surveillance camera footage that might show somebody wearing a shirt that looks  like one the defendant owns, but to them it is proof positive of guilt.

Bridging the Gap

When a child engages in magnification, his meager evidence (of his own failure, of his parents’ attention) is being played up in order to convince others (or even himself) that something is true. The child either wants it to be the case or is perhaps afraid that it is the case, or maybe he truly does simply believe that a single data point is enough evidence from which to draw a valid conclusion.

My dad watched a football game with me once [finding a single piece of evidence]. He’s around pretty often [weighting the evidence to reach the desired conclusion].

Teaching this Thinking Error requires a lesson in seeing things for what they are and taking a wider look at the full range of evidence. If a child is magnifying the small mistakes in her speech, she needs to take a step back and look at the good parts of the speech, the positive audience reaction, and so forth so she can have a better view of what really happened. In the same way, any claim anywhere that is backed up by a light load of evidence can be examined by looking at the full range of evidence for and against it. If the weight of the evidence is against the claim, whether it’s the claim that most dates probably go poorly or the claim that fairies take lost teeth from under pillows, the claim should be abandoned.

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