Jumping to Conclusions: When People Decide Based on Insufficient Information

Jumping to Conclusions

 

Jumping to conclusions is a phenomenon where people reach a conclusion prematurely, on the basis of insufficient information. For example, a person jumping to conclusions might assume that someone they just met is angry at them, simply because that person wasn’t smiling at them while they talked, even though there are many alternative explanations for that behavior.

People jump to conclusions in many cases, and doing so can lead to a variety of issues. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the concept of jumping to conclusions, and see how you can avoid doing it yourself, as well as how you can deal with people who do it.

 

Examples of ways people jump to conclusions

The following are examples of common ways in which people jump to conclusions:

  • Casual assumption. Casual assumption involves making a relatively minor, intuitive assumption, that is based on your preexisting knowledge, experience, and beliefs. For example, a casual assumption could involve seeing a restaurant whose windows are smudged, and immediately deciding that the food they serve must be bad.
  • Inference-observation confusion. Inference-observation confusion involves mistaking something that you inferred using logic, for something that you observed. For example, inference-observation confusion could involve seeing someone driving a fancy car, and believing that we observed someone who is rich, when in practice we merely inferred that that person is rich based on their car, rather than observed it.
  • Fortune telling. Fortune telling involves assuming that you know exactly what will happen in the future. For example, fortune-telling could involve thinking that you’re going to fail a test, because you struggled with some of the practice questions.
  • Mind reading. Mind reading involves assuming that you can accurately know what other people are thinking. For example, mind-reading could involve thinking that someone must hate you, simply because they didn’t seem enthusiastic when you told them “good morning”.
  • Extreme extrapolation. Extreme extrapolation involves taking a minor detail or event and using it in order to conclude something relatively major. For example, extreme extrapolation could involve seeing some smoke come out of a house window, and immediately assuming that the house is on fire.
  • Overgeneralization. Overgeneralization involves taking a piece of information that applies to specific cases and then applying it in other, more general cases. For example, overgeneralization could involve assuming that because you didn’t get along with one person from a certain social group, then you won’t get along with anyone else from that group either.
  • Labeling. Labeling involves making assumptions about people, based on behaviors or opinions that are stereotypically associated with a group that they belong to. For example, labeling could involve assuming that someone doesn’t like a certain hobby, simply because people of their gender don’t usually engage in it.

Note that there is sometimes overlap between these different forms of jumping to conclusions. Labeling, for example, can be viewed as a type of overgeneralization, and many forms of jumping to conclusions can be seen as types of casual assumptions.

Furthermore, keep in mind that the concept of jumping to conclusions isn’t limited to the forms described above, and people can also jump to conclusions in other ways.

Finally, note that while the concept of jumping to conclusions is most commonly associated with jumping to negative conclusions, people can jump to conclusions that are either positive, negative, or neutral in nature.

 

Why people jump to conclusions

The main reason why people jump to conclusions is that our cognitive system relies on mental shortcuts (called heuristics), which increase the speed of our judgment and decision-making processes, at the cost of reducing their accuracy and optimality. In some cases, people misapply certain heuristics, which causes them to take mental shortcuts that are too extreme, in a way that leads them to jump to conclusions.

Below, you will learn more about this concept, and about the general psychology of jumping to conclusions.

 

Jumping to conclusions as a cognitive bias

The concept of jumping to conclusions is generally seen as a cognitive bias, in cases where people jump to conclusions as a result of the imperfect way in which our cognitive system works, which can cause us to rush ahead and make intuitive judgments, without relying on sufficient information and a thorough reasoning process.

In general, jumping to conclusions is a natural phenomenon, and can actually lead to reasonable results in many situations, such as when we need to reach a decision quickly. This is why we repeatedly jump to conclusions in minor ways throughout our day, particularly when it comes to making observations or decisions that aren’t very important.

Jumping to conclusions in this manner involves the use of heuristics that allow us to assess situations and make decisions quickly, at the cost of increasing the likelihood that the outcome of our thought process will be sub-optimal. Usually, this speed-optimality tradeoff is worthwhile, especially if we only apply heuristics in proper situations and in a reasonable manner.

However, jumping to conclusions in this manner can become problematic when our heuristics are applied incorrectly, such as when they lead us to make a giant leap from a minor detail to a major conclusion, even though we have almost no evidence that supports our conclusion.

For example, jumping to conclusions is often a problem in medical fields, where practitioners frequently fail to properly validate an initial diagnosis or consider possible alternatives to that diagnosis (a phenomenon sometimes referred to in this context as premature closure).

Note: the tendency to jump to conclusions is associated with certain types of scientifically unfounded beliefs, such as belief in the paranormal and belief in witchcraft.

 

Factors affecting the tendency to jump to conclusions

Certain factors increase the likelihood that people will jump to conclusions.

For example, when people who hold some preexisting belief are presented with information relating to that belief, they are generally more likely to jump to conclusions and interpret that information as confirming their belief, compared to people who don’t hold the same belief.

Another factor that can affect the likelihood that people will jump to conclusions is the desire for closure and certainty. Such desire can mean that if someone has only partial information about something, they might jump to conclusions in order to achieve a sense of certainty, even if the conclusion that they reached is likely to be incorrect. However, it’s unclear whether or not this factor truly affects people’s reasoning on a large-scale, as research on the topic shows that there isn’t always a direct link between the need for closure and jumping to conclusions.

Overall, various factors could make people more or less likely to jump to conclusions. However, outside of a few main factors, such as the desire to confirm one’s preexisting beliefs, the exact role of such factors is difficult to predict, especially when it comes to individual cases.

 

Jumping to conclusions and mental disorders

People with certain mental disorders are sometimes prone to engage in jumping to conclusions, which can lead them to experience various delusions and paranoid thoughts. For example, a schizophrenic person might think that the government is spying on them, because they jump to conclusions after hearing their computer make a strange sound.

However, this does not mean that jumping to conclusions is necessarily indicative of a mental disorder, as people who have no disorders also display this type of reasoning, which is generally a serious problem only in extreme cases. Furthermore, there is some criticism of the research on the topic, which suggests that the relationship between these disorders and the jumping-to-conclusions bias is indirect, and could be explained, at least partially, by other factors, such as general cognitive abilities.

 

Jumping to conclusions as a logical fallacy

The concept of jumping to conclusions is generally viewed as a cognitive phenomenon, that causes people to jump to conclusions unintentionally. However, jumping to conclusions can also be seen as a logical fallacy in some cases, and specifically when people rely on arguments that involve jumping to conclusions, either intentionally or unintentionally.

People’s unintentional use of the jumping-to-conclusions fallacy is generally prompted by the jumping-to-conclusions bias. This means that the jumping-to-conclusions bias causes people to jump to conclusions when it comes to their internal reasoning process, which in turn causes them to use the jumping-to-conclusions fallacy in their arguments.

However, when it comes to the intentional use of the jumping-to-conclusions fallacy, it’s possible to present arguments that rely on this fallacy even when the person presenting the argument isn’t actually affected by the bias, and is fully aware that their argument is logically flawed. For example, consider the following statement:

“We shouldn’t listen to him; he’s a politician, an politicians never care about the common people.”

This argument contains the jumping-to-conclusions fallacy, since it takes one fact (the person in question is a politician), and uses it in order to justify an unfounded conclusion (that we shouldn’t listen to the person in question), based on overgeneralization of the group that the person in question belongs to. The person using this fallacy could either be jumping to conclusions unintentionally, as a result of their own jumping-to-conclusions bias, or they might be doing so intentionally, because they believe that it will help them persuade the audience to support their stance.

However, keep in mind that both in this case and in general, jumping to conclusions doesn’t necessarily lead to a conclusion that is wrong. Rather, it leads to a conclusion that is insufficiently supported, since it’s based on insufficient information, which means that the process used to reach that conclusion is unsound, even if the conclusion itself is right.

Note: the jumping-to-conclusions fallacy is sometimes also referred to by other names, such as the hasty conclusion fallacy, and the where there’s smoke there’s a fire fallacy.

 

How to avoid jumping to conclusions

The main way to avoid jumping to conclusions is to ensure that you conduct a valid, evidence-based reasoning process, instead of relying on intuitive judgments that are based on insufficient information. There are various techniques that you can use in order to accomplish this, including the following:

  • Slow down, and force yourself to think through a given situation instead of immediately accepting on your initial intuition as necessarily true.
  • Actively ask yourself what information could help you reach a valid conclusion, and how you can get that information.
  • Collect as much information as you can before forming an initial hypothesis.
  • Come up with a number of plausible competing hypotheses.
  • Avoid favoring a single hypothesis too early on.
  • Actively try to justify the reasoning process that you’ve conducted so far, and identify any potential flaws in your reasoning.
  • Question whether any observations that you made are actually inferences.
  • Question all your premises, and ensure that they are well-founded.
  • Actively ask yourself whether you might be rushing to form a conclusion too early.
  • Actively ask yourself whether your chosen hypothesis is the one that makes the most sense, given the available evidence.
  • Think about other times where you, or someone that you know, jumped to conclusions in a similar situation.

Furthermore, you can benefit from using various other debiasing techniques, that will allow you to think in a more rational manner and avoid jumping to conclusions; which techniques you should use will depend on your specific situation. For example, if your problem is that you jump to conclusions by assuming that you can tell what other people are thinking based on minimal evidence, then you will likely want to use debiasing techniques such as visualizing things from other people’s perspective.

Finally, note that in order to properly identify the nature of your jumping-to-conclusion problem, you should read through the information in this article, and especially through the part about the common ways in which people jump to conclusions. Doing so will improve your ability to understand how and why you jump to conclusions, which in turn will help you to choose debiasing techniques that are more effective in your particular case.

Note: a useful concept that can help you avoid jumping to conclusions in many situations is Hanlon’s razor, which suggests that when someone does something that leads to a negative outcome, you should avoid assuming that they acted out of an intentional desire to cause harm, as long as there is a different plausible explanation for their behavior.

 

How to respond to people who jump to conclusions

The main way to respond to someone who is jumping to conclusions is to point out the flaw in their reasoning, and specifically the fact that they have reached a conclusion prematurely, on the basis of insufficient information. You can achieve this in various ways, including by showing how little information they used to form their conclusion, pointing out what information they’re missing, and suggesting alternative conclusions that also make sense given what they know.

However, keep in mind that there are some differences in how you should respond to someone who is displaying an unintentional jumping-to-conclusions bias, compared to how you should respond to someone who is intentionally using the jumping-to-conclusions fallacy for rhetorical purposes.

Specifically, when responding to someone who is jumping to conclusions unintentionally, your main goal is to help them internalize the issue with their reasoning. You can accomplish this using the same techniques that you would use to avoid jumping to conclusions yourself, with necessary modifications.

For example, consider a situation where a friend of yours assumes that someone hates them, simply because that person didn’t smile at them during a conversation. You could help your friend understand that they’re jumping to conclusions here, by helping them come up with alternative hypotheses that could explain this behavior.

Conversely, when responding to someone who is jumping to conclusions intentionally, for rhetorical purposes, the main goal of your response should generally be to demonstrate the flaw in their logic. This means that you should focus on proving why the way that they reached a conclusion is flawed, by showing that there’s a problem with the premises of their argument, or by showing that their conclusion cannot be reasonably derived from those premises.

For example, consider a situation where your opponent in a debate jumps to conclusions, by claiming to know what you’re thinking based on what you’ve previously said on related topics, in an attempt to turn the audience against you. In this case, you could point out that your opponent’s version of your views is unfounded, and provide further evidence that demonstrates that the way they presented your stance isn’t in line with what you’ve previously said on the topic.

Finally, note that a technique that can be beneficial regardless of whether the person jumping to conclusions is doing so unintentionally or intentionally, is to ask them to fully justify their reasoning. When someone’s jumping to conclusions is unintentional, this can help them notice and internalize the flaws in their reasoning, and, when someone’s jumping to conclusions is intentional, this can help expose the flaws in their reasoning, and make their fallacious arguments harder to defend.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • Jumping to conclusions is a phenomenon where people reach a conclusion prematurely, on the basis of insufficient information.
  • People jump to conclusions in various ways, including by engaging in extreme extrapolation, overgeneralization, and labeling.
  • People often display a jumping-to-conclusions bias as a result of the imperfect way in which our cognitive system works, which can cause us to rush ahead and rely on intuitive judgments, instead of using sufficient information and a proper reasoning process.
  • You can reduce the degree to which you and others experience the jumping-to-conclusions bias by using various debiasing techniques, such as slowing down your reasoning process, collecting as much information as possible before forming an initial hypothesis, and coming up with a number of competing hypotheses for a given phenomenon.
  • People sometimes the jumping-to-conclusions fallacy intentionally for rhetorical purposes; if you recognize that someone is doing this, you should focus on proving why the way that they reached a conclusion is flawed, by showing that there’s a problem with the premises of their argument, or by showing that their conclusion cannot be reasonably derived from those premises.