How Guessing Works

Overcoming Cognitive Distortions
Sometimes it can be hard to guess what another person is thinking. DMH Images/Getty Images

Another area where people often guess incorrectly is in reading other people's emotions (or their own). This is called cognitive distortion, inaccurate thoughts that often encourage negative thinking. Unfortunately, we all fall victim to thinking errors to a degree. Two examples are polarized thinking (everything is either "wonderful" or "terrible") and jumping to conclusions [source: Grohol]. To illustrate, therapist Ezell offers the following example of how thinking errors affect guessing: A boy walks into a room, sees a girl and reads the expression on her face as "she doesn't like me."

"The primary cognitive distortions involved here are polarized thinking, overgeneralization and jumping to conclusions," Ezell says. "Polarized thinking has him assuming she has an opinion — how does he know she even had a feeling one way or the other? Overgeneralization has him thinking girls have negative reactions — possibly based on history, but also driven by self-esteem issues. Jumping to conclusions, or mind reading — we never know what anyone is really thinking. We can guess but we will never know."

So, the boy's guess that the girl doesn't like him is entirely based on inaccurate assumptions and intuition. "Catching these automatic thoughts —what we have been calling guesses — and running them through an evidence-based process — will help us understand other people and in turn, ourselves," Ezell says.

The process has a lot to do with resisting snap judgements, evaluating real information and taking a more positive approach. For example, human instinct is to assume that someone doesn't like us if they cast a less-than-friendly look in our direction, when in fact it could have been completely unintentional, and merely the result of a difficult day or other encounter.

"Jumping to conclusions is defined as making interpretations without actual evidence," explains licensed mental health counselor Donna White in a blog for Psych Central. "If you find yourself engaging in this type of thinking, take a step back and ask yourself 'do I really know this to be true?' If the answer is 'no', then focus on the things that you know to be true."

Although it might seem inconsequential to get the wrong idea about a mere glance or other misguided guess, it can actually have lasting repercussions. "The problem with guesses is that our brain doesn't remember it's a guess. We accept our guesses as facts," Ezell says. "If we could maintain that memory of that thought not being totally accurate we would be in a much better space. But that is what people who are self-aware do. They know when things are true, they know when things are hypotheses and they know when things are purely a guess."

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