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."

Author's Note: How Guessing Works

We make dozens of guesses every day, whether we realize it or not. Although I don't have much interest in mastering the beans-in-a-jar type of guessing, I find the concept of overcoming cognitive distortions to be intriguing, potentially beneficial and just plain smart.

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More Great Links


  • Baker, Jessica and Arshad Kudrolli. "Maximum and minimum stable random packings of Platonic solids." Physical Review. Dec. 15, 2010 (April 14, 2017)
  • Bode, S.; C. Bogler, CS Soon and JD Haynes. "The neural encoding of guesses in the human brain." Neuroimage. Jan. 16, 2012 (May 8, 2017)
  • Ezell, David. CEO and Clinical Director of Darien Wellness. Email interview April 10, 2017.
  • Grohol, John M. "15 Common Cognitive Distortions." Psych Central. 2016 (April 14, 2017)
  • Johns Hopkins Medicine. "Inside the Brain." 2017 (May 8, 2017)
  • Jolly, Stephanie. "Should You Guess on the PSAT, SAT or ACT?" Kaplan Test Prep. Sept. 22, 2016 (April 14, 2017)
  • Michaelis, Ben. Clinical Psychologist and Creator of Email interview April 12, 2017.
  • Peeples, Lynne. "Researchers have developed a new model that can estimate the number of objects randomly packed together." Scientific American. Aug. 4, 2009 (April 14, 2017)
  • Saltz, Gail. psychiatrist and the author of The Power of Different. Telephone interview April 12, 2017.
  • Schewe, Phillip F. "Packing it all in for the holidays: Scientists see how many polyhedrons can fit into a box." Dec. 20, 2010 (April 14, 2017)
  • Today I Found Out. "THE ORIGIN OF THE EXPRESSION "GUESS WHAT? CHICKEN BUTT!" July 6, 2016 (April 14, 2017)
  • White, Donna M. "Challenging Our Cognitive Distortions and Creating Positive Outlooks." Psych Central. 2016 (April 14, 2017)

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