What you believe is true isn’t always right

Hand wearing a white plastic glove, holding a syringe

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Adults tend to leap to conclusions without enough evidence to back them up. If they’re not careful, these assumptions can lead to bad decisions. Are you aware that what you believe is true isn’t always right?  

For example, some people claim the flu vaccine made them catch the flu. After all, they had the vaccine, and then got sick within a few days. So to them it seems obvious that the vaccine caused their illness. However, it’s a fact that flu vaccines do not cause the flu.

In actual fact, these people had caught a mild case of flu just before they were vaccinated. But they didn’t realise this, as they didn’t have any symptoms yet.

We think events are linked when they’re not

If they’d been tested for the flu virus before being vaccinated, they’d know they were infected.

But of course, they weren’t tested. So it’s hard to convince them of the truth. Therefore they continue to believe vaccine caused their flu.

But it didn’t. It was coincidence they had the vaccine at the same time they’d caught the flu. That makes it appear as if these two events are linked causally.

In fact there’s no connection at all.

Don’t jump to conclusions about causes

However these people’s belief is so strong that they can’t accept the real reason. And this can lead them to shun vaccines. In turn, this puts them or others at risk of life-threatening diseases.

These beliefs can ruin years of hard work by medics to eradicate or reduce deadly diseases. The problem is that a growing percentage of people are refusing to get vaccinated. That means disease rates in the general population may rise. Just look at the COVID-19 situation we’re currently experiencing. It’s become a matter of life and death.

So it’s important to know if two things are linked by cause and effect, or if they have nothing to do with each other. Being linked closely in time isn’t enough. There has to be some way that you can prove that the first event caused the second to happen.

So why do we fall victim to these thinking errors so easily? Why is it so hard to realise that what you believe is true isn’t always right?

Your brain takes short-cuts

Your brain is always trying to make sense of events. It looks for reasons to explain why things happen the way they do.

In addition, it likes to take short cuts to save time and effort. So if there’s a ready-made reason available, it’ll grab it. But the brain won’t always stop to check if it’s logical or correct. It simply leaps to conclusions and assumes it knows what happened.

Now you may not be aware that your brain is doing this. And it takes mental effort to challenge conclusions that seem obvious. So you don’t bother to question if these beliefs are true or not. You simply believe the first thing your brain tells you.  

When you’re stressed or rushed for time, you’re more likely to accept what your brain tells you, even if it’s incorrect.

You don’t have the time or mental space to sit and question if what you believe is true is correct. Your beliefs just seem so self-evident. 

And that’s when it’s easy to confuse causality with things that happen purely by chance. When two things happen one after the other, you assume the first caused the second. After all, it sounds reasonable.

But beware, you may be making a big mistake. There may be no real causal link which makes the first thing cause the second. It may be just chance that it happened that way. And that may lead to you blaming yourself unfairly

The brain leaps to conclusions

So the brain can leap to conclusions about what caused certain things to happen without looking for any real evidence. And that’s a problem if the two events are unconnected.

A silly example may make this clearer. You’re sitting underneath an apple tree. You blink your eyes, and immediately an apple drops onto your head. Did blinking make the apple drop onto your head?

After all, you blinked first, and the apple fell immediately after.

But it’s obvious that blinking can’t make apples fall from trees. There’s no causal connection between these two events. It was simply chance; the apple could have fallen at any time over the next half an hour. It randomly happened to fall just after you blinked. 

Question assumptions you make

The trouble is, you rarely stop to examine a conclusion such as, “My blinking made the apple fall.” So you may see two events that happen close together in time as being linked causally. But in reality they’re not linked by cause and effect. There’s no evidence for them being linked.

Let’s look at some real-life examples of how this confusion can lead to distress.

1 A burst of laughter explodes as you walk past a room full of managers. You feel denigrated and humiliated.

2 Someone across the lunch room looks disgusted when you say something. You go over to give them a piece of your mind.

3 You’re giving an important speech at a conference, and suddenly most people at the back walk out. You falter, stop speaking, and leave the stage in a panic.

4 You’re sitting in your GP’s reception area waiting for some test results. You see the doctor glance at you and look worried. Then she speaks in an undertone to a colleague behind the receptionist’s screen. You get up and leave because you can’t stand the tension. You never do go back and get those results.

Question assumptions you make

In each of the above examples, two events happened close together in time. And in each one, you’ve jumped to the wrong conclusion.

1 You assume your colleagues were laughing at you as you walked past the room. In fact, the office clown had just told a hilarious joke completely unrelated to you.

2 You’re furious the person across the room gave you a dirty look. However, when you tackle them, you realise they’d eaten a rotten prawn in their lunch.

3 Your assumption that your audience hated your speech is faulty. In fact, the smell of rotten gas had drifted into the back of the hall, but hadn’t reached you yet.

4 Your nervousness made you assume your GP was discussing your test results with a colleague. In fact, she was comforting an employee whose child had been hit by a car a few minutes ago. Luckily, your GP rang you a couple of days later to give you your results.

As you can see, we leap very easily to the wrong conclusions. We assume that one thing causes another, when they’re not even related.

Think of how many arguments are caused every day by this error in our thinking! And how much distress and anger could be saved if we took more notice of these short-cuts in our thinking. 

So be willing to question any conclusions you arrive at when you’re rushed or stressed. Chances are that your brain has cut corners and tried to save time and energy by ignoring the evidence. And remember, what you believe isn’t always right.   

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