Advice From a Psych Major: Recognizing When You Are Falling For a Fallacy

Everyone thinks differently.  That is part of what makes the world such an interesting place to live in.  But thoughts tend to fall into certain patterns, both healthy and unhealthy.  I am going to attempt to remedy some of your communication woes by listing and explaining some of the common fallacies that some people fall prey to. 

First of all, what is a fallacy?  The definition of a fallacy is “a misconception resulting from incorrect reasoning.”   I will be covering some of the most common irrational beliefs that negatively influence relationships. 

1. Perfection.

 This is the irrational belief that you need to be perfect in order for other people to like you.  For example, you are the first person in your family to go to college.  Your parents are ecstatic that you got accepted, and have wished you well, saying, “Make us proud, honey!”  You return home after your first semester away, terrified at the thought of explaining why you got a “C” in one of your classes. 

Even though flaws are part of what makes us appealing as individuals, a person who subscribes to this fallacy holds themselves to an insanely high personal standard in order to be seen as valuable. 

2. Approval. 

 The person who falls for the fallacy of approval believes that they direly need to achieve the approval of others, even to the point where they will sacrifice their own happiness and principles.  For instance, you really, really want to get your hair cut short for this summer because you think it would look fantastic, but you leave it in your same, long style that you have had it for years because your boyfriend says he wouldn’t like it short. 

3. Shoulds. 

This is the inability to distinguish between what is and what should be.  People who subscribe to this fallacy are often trying to change things that are relatively unchangeable, believing instead that what they want to be true should be true.  You might hear them say, “It shouldn’t be so cold out today; I wanted to go to the pool.” 

4. Overgeneralization.

This is the tendency to apply a few small instances as a general rule to define the big picture.  For example, “I failed a test, I must be stupid.”  Or, “You’re always late!” when the person has in fact only been late twice. 

This fallacy can be especially damaging in relationships when one person uses it against the other. For instance, “You always react like this!  Why do I tell you anything?” has the potential to spark a huge defensive spiral and an ugly argument. 

5. Causation. 

This is the false belief that our emotions are caused by other people, and that we cause emotions in others.  In reality, only you have control over your own emotions.  You cannot blame others for making you mad, sad, etc.  What gives an event its emotional weight is the importance that you attribute to it in your own mind.  On the same token, you cannot be blamed for the way others feel either. 

6. Helplessness.

This is the irrational thought that you have no control over your own destiny, that you are just a victim of the world, and forces beyond your control have put you in the situation you are in.  For example, “It’s a man’s world, and I just have to accept it.”  Or, “I just can’t learn about cars, I don’t have the mind for it.” More likely, the case is that you won’t learn about cars because you don’t want to.  And there is nothing wrong with that, as long as you recognize it. 

7. Catastrophic Expectations.

This is when you believe bad things will happen as a result of your actions, even when the chance of bad things happening is very slim.  “Oh my gosh, I’m going to be five minutes late today…  I’m going to get fired!” Or, “If I speak up and try to explain my position, this argument will only get worse.” 

So now that you know the most common fallacies and the irrational thinking they are based on, how do you keep yourself from falling for them in the future?  Certainly it will take practice, but the hardest part is simply recognizing these false beliefs in yourself.  Once you recognize what you are doing, you can then take action toward changing your response to a situation.  Whereas once you might have thought, “This light shouldn’t be red, I’m late, and going to get fired,” you can now remind yourself that you cannot control the color of the traffic light, and if you are five minutes late your boss probably won’t even notice, let alone fire you. 

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