Each of us has our own way of seeing the world, of explaining ourselves and the reality around us. We observe and receive data from the environment through our senses, and then give them meaning, interpret them and react to them.

But in interpretation a great deal of mental processes come into play: we use our mental schemes, our beliefs, our knowledge and previous experiences to give them meaning. And sometimes our interpretation is biased and distorted for some reason. One of the biases that we usually apply in our daily lives is arbitrary inference .

Cognitive Biases

Arbitrary inference is one of the different cognitive biases or distortions, which are understood as the type of error in which the subject interprets reality in a wrong way, as a product of beliefs derived from experiences or processing patterns learned throughout life .

For example, cognitive distortions are what cause prejudice and stereotypes to exist, or misunderstand the intentions of others towards us, or only consider one or two possible solutions to the same problem instead of thinking of intermediate or different solutions.

The individual generates an explanation of the world or of himself based on false premises , which may cause him to make several interpretative errors that may have consequences on his way of acting. Among these biases we can find selective abstraction, dichotomous thinking, personalization, overgeneralization, minimization or maximization, or arbitrary inference.

The arbitrary inference

When we speak of arbitrary inference we are talking about the type of cognitive distortion in which the subject reaches a certain conclusion about a fact without any data supporting that conclusion or even in the presence of information contrary to it.

The person in question does not use the available evidence, but quickly jumps to interpret the situation in a certain way, often because of his or her own expectations, beliefs or previous experiences.

For example, we think that someone wants to harm and discredit us because he or she has disagreed with our opinion, that we will fail an exam regardless of what we study, that a person wants to sleep with us because he or she has smiled at us, or that a particular number has a better or worse chance of winning the lottery than another because that number coincides with a birthday or anniversary.

Arbitrary inference is a very common error in most people, and serves as a cognitive shortcut that allows us to save the energy and time of processing information in a more detailed way. Sometimes it is even possible for us to reach a correct conclusion, but this would not have been drawn from the information available.

Influence on mental disorders

Arbitrary inference is a type of cognitive distortion that all of us can and do commit from time to time. However, its habitual appearance can bias our behaviour and our way of interpreting reality .

Along with the rest of cognitive distortions, arbitrary inference appears as a distortion involved in generating and maintaining maladaptive thought patterns in multiple mental disorders.

1. Depression

From the cognitive-behavioral perspective, specifically from Beck’s cognitive theory, it is considered that the cognitive alterations of depressed patients are generated by the activation of negative and dysfunctional thought patterns, these thoughts being due to cognitive distortions such as arbitrary inference.

These distortions in turn cause the problem to remain because they make alternative interpretations difficult. For example, a patient may think that he is useless and that he will not get anywhere even though there is information to the contrary.

Psychotic disorders

One of the best known symptoms of psychotic disorders is the existence of hallucinations and delusions . Although the latter may be more or less systematized, the fact is that different aspects that could contradict the subject’s belief are not taken into account and it is frequent that an intention or fact is arbitrarily inferred from another that does not have to have any connection. For example, the idea that we are being persecuted can be based on the observation of a subject who is nervous in the street.

Anxiety disorders and phobias

Anxiety is another problem that is linked to cognitive distortions such as arbitrary inference. In anxiety , panic arises in anticipation of possible harm , damage or situation that may or may not occur in the future.

As with anxiety, in phobias there is a stimulus, a group of stimuli or situations that cause us to panic. This panic may come from the belief that if we approach such a stimulus we will suffer harm. For example, arbitrarily inferring that if a dog approaches it will bite me.

4. Personality disorders

Personality is the relatively stable and consistent pattern of ways of thinking, interpreting and acting towards ourselves and the world. In many personality disorders, such as paranoid, there are biased interpretations of reality which may be due to processes such as arbitrary inference.

Solution through therapy?

Although arbitrary inference is not a disorder, in cases where it appears in a psychopathological context in which it creates or maintains the problem, it is necessary to reduce or eliminate the bias that this cognitive distortion causes.

Cognitive restructuring is often used as a method by which the patient combats thoughts derived from arbitrary inference and other distortions and learns not to perform such distortions. The aim is to help find equally valid alternatives to one’s own, to discuss what causes such thoughts or what they are based on, and to search for and contrast the available information.

Bibliographic references:

  • Beck, A. (1976). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. International University Press. New York.
  • Santos, J.L. ; García, L.I. ; Calderón, M.A. ; Sanz, L.J.; de los Ríos, P.; Izquierdo, S.; Román, P.; Hernangómez, L.; Navas, E.; Ladrón, A and Álvarez-Cienfuegos, L. (2012). Clinical Psychology. Manual CEDE de Preparación PIR, 02. CEDE. Madrid.
  • Yurita,C.L. and DiTomasso,R.A. (2004). Cognitive Distortions. In A. Freeman, S.H. Felgoise, A.M. Nezu, C.M. Nezu, M.A. Reinecke (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Cognitive Behavior Therapy. 117-121. Springer