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Mental Filter

In Therapy

The mental filter thinking error occurs when a child focuses on small, negative aspects of something so that his vision of all of reality is darkened.

  • A child dwells on the line he dropped in the play he was in weeks before, and remembers the entire play as a failure because of that single missed line.
  • A child realizes that he got a problem wrong on a math test after he turns it in. He focuses so much on that single problem that he begins to think he got the rest of the problems wrong too and he’s a total idiot.
  • A child has a single small zit on her face. She easily covers it up with makeup, but she’s so bothered by it that she thinks everyone can see it and think she’s ugly. She worries about it so much it affects her entire life.
  • A child’s birthday party went well except when his Uncle Rob had a little too much to drink and told a dirty joke to the girl he has  a crush on. Even though she otherwise had a good time at the party, he dwells so much on Uncle Rob’s off-color joke that he feels his entire life is ruined.

In Critical Thinking

Two fallacies are at work in the mental filter Thinking Error. The first is the composition fallacy, when a part of something is thought to be indicative of the whole. The second is the fallacy of misleading vividness, when a single detail or event is described in such vivid terms that, even if it is an exceptional event, someone may be convinced it is problematic.

The fallacy of composition occurs basically any time the qualities of a part of something are claimed to be the qualities of the entire thing. This fallacy is fairly esoteric but it shows up when people are making generalizations about collective entities.

  • A sales clerk at Sears is rude, so somebody assumes that the entire company is rotten.
  • A man has a run in with an aggressive pitbull and assumes that the entire breed is dangerous.

The fallacy of misleading vividness uses detailed descriptions and vivid imagery to misleading the listener into agreeing that the object or situation being discribed is indicative of a general pattern when, in reality, it is not. Misleading vividness shows up regularly during everyday conversation as people try to convince others of their viewpoints by describing their own personal experiences in exhaustive detail. Basically, an exceptional tale is told, but the storyteller’s embellishments make the story seem more important than it actually is. The listener, if convinced, relies not on the whole scope of data, but on the single, well-told anecdote to make a decision or form a belief.

  • A man tells his friend he is going to buy a BMW when he gets the money. His friend recounts a terrible wreck he saw on TV wherein a BMW collided with a bus full of schoolchildren and killed most of them, so nobody should ever buy a BMW.
  • A woman wants to buy a new brand of perfume, but she remembers a newsreport she read of another woman who had a severe allergic reaction to that perfume: she broke out in hives, had a massive asthma attack, and had to be rushed to the hospital and intubated.  She decides not to buy that perfume.

Bridging the Gap

When a child engages in the mental filter Thinking Error, she is focusing on and embellishing a small negative detail of her life until her entire head is fileld with negativity. She goes over and over it in her mind, replaying it and making it worse every time, and eventually it becomes so vivid that she becomes convinced that that single detail reflects the shape of her whole life. She creates a sense of misleading vividness in her own mind, and then decides that that single, exceptional detail applies to the entirety of her life.

I can’t believe my retainer fell out of my mouth when I was talking to Jason yesterday [the negative detail]. He must have gotten slobber and bits of food all over him. It was so disgusting [focus and embellishment]. He’ll never go out with me now. My life is over [applying the single part to the whole].

A child using her mental filter is in a very negative headspace. She probably doesn’t want to be pulled out; she’s so obsessed with whatever tiny bit of negativity she’s found that it’s become her whole existence. Nevertheless, if she can be shown that a wider view of her life presents a more positive picture than the one inside her head, she can learn to recognize similar processes at work elsewhere in her life.

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