The Psychologist’s Fallacy: Why It’s Wrong to Assume that Your Interpretation is Right

The Psychologists Fallacy

 

The psychologist’s fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when an external observer assumes that their subjective interpretation of an event represents the objective nature of that event. For example, the psychologist’s fallacy occurs when a psychologist assumes that their interpretation of why a patient acted the way that they did must be true.

Essentially, a person displays the psychologist’s fallacy when they see something happen and assume that they can perceive and interpret everything that is happening in a perfectly accurate manner, even though that’s not necessarily the case. Accordingly, the psychologist’s fallacy is an informal fallacy, since it’s an error in reasoning that is based on the flawed premise that one’s interpretation of an event necessarily represents the exact nature of that event.

Since the psychologist’s fallacy plays a role in a variety of everyday situations, it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the psychologist’s fallacy, see examples of how it affects people, and understand what you can do in order to counter its use by others, as well as what you can do to avoid using it yourself.

 

Examples of the psychologist’s fallacy

The best-known example of the psychologist’s fallacy is a situation where a psychologist observes a person, and assumes that their interpretation of why that person acted the way they did must necessarily be true. This issue was first described by philosopher and psychologist William James, who was the one to propose the existence of this fallacy:

“The great snare of the psychologist is the confusion of his own standpoint with that of the mental fact about which he is making his report. I shall hereafter call this the ‘psychologist’s fallacy’ par excellence.”

— William James, in Principles of Psychology, Volume I (1890).

Another example of a way in which people display the psychologist’s fallacy is a phenomenon known as intersubjective confusion or confusion of standpoints, which occurs when a person fails to account for the fact that others perceive events in a different way than they do, since they mistakenly assume that other people’s experiences are identical to their own.

For instance, this might happen if you assume that you know exactly why a person decided to undertake a certain course of action, because after thinking of the reasons why you might act this way, you assume that the other person must be motivated by the same reasons. Similarly, this might also happen if you assume that someone will enjoy a certain gesture on your part, because you personally would enjoy having someone make that gesture for you.

Finally, another example of a way in which people display the psychologist’s fallacy is a phenomenon called attribution of reflectiveness. This occurs when you incorrectly assume that just because you are reflecting on someone’s mental state and actions while observing them, then that means that they must also be reflecting on their own mental state and actions during that time.

For instance, this might occur if you see a person doing something inconsiderate, such as standing in the middle of a busy hallway or making an offensive joke, and then automatically assume that they must be aware of the fact that they’re being inconsiderate, just because you are aware of it.

Of course, all this doesn’t mean that your interpretations of events are necessarily wrong. Rather, the psychologist’s fallacy simply means that you shouldn’t automatically assume that your interpretation of events is necessarily right, and that you should actively seek evidence which can be used in order to support your interpretation.

 

How to counter the psychologist’s fallacy

The main way to respond to someone using the psychologist’s fallacy is to point out the flawed premise behind their argument, and namely the fact that they shouldn’t assume that their interpretation of an event is necessarily right. This can be the case whether they explicitly make a claim regarding their interpretation being perfectly objective and accurate, as well as if they only imply that this is the case.

In addition, there are several other things that you can do in order to support your argument against a person who is using the psychologist’s fallacy:

  • Point out issues in their observation. You can do this by providing evidence which proves that their observation of the event was flawed in some way, which disproves the idea that they were able to perfectly observe it.
  • Suggest alternative interpretations. You can do this by outlining alternative interpretations of the event being discussed, which contradict the original interpretation, and which call into question the accuracy of that interpretation.
  • Demonstrate why their objectivity is flawed. You can do this by providing evidence which demonstrates that they’re not as objective as they claim, which would hinder their ability to assess the situation accurately, especially if they use their supposed objectivity to justify why their observations are accurate.
  • Explain why it’s impossible to be perfectly objective in general. You can do this by discussing the various biases and influences that humans are naturally vulnerable to, even when they are supposedly distant from a specific situation.
  • Explain why objectivity doesn’t guarantee accuracy. You can do this by explaining that even if someone is perfectly objective, that doesn’t mean that they’re aware of all the relevant information which pertains to the topic being discussed, which means that their observations aren’t necessarily accurate.

With regard to pointing out the difficulty with being perfectly objective, you can explain that although being an external observer can make one less vulnerable to certain cognitive biases, such as those which people experience as a result of being emotionally close to a source of conflict, this doesn’t mean that an external observer’s point of view is necessarily entirely unbiased. There are two main reasons for this:

  • Being an external observer doesn’t protect people from certain cognitive biases. For example, one bias that external observers are just as vulnerable to as the people experiencing an event is the egocentric bias, which causes people to rely too heavily on their own point of view when they try to see things from other people’s perspective.
  • Being an external observer can make people more prone to certain cognitive biases. For example, one bias that external observers might be more prone to is the empathy gap, which makes it difficult for people to interpret the thoughts and actions of those who are in a different mental state than they are.

As such, despite the fact that being an external observer can make a person more objective in some ways, the observer’s ability to perceive and interpret events is still subjective and imperfect, to some degree.

Finally, note that when you respond to someone who is using the psychologist’s fallacy, you can always ask them to justify their reasoning, and to support their assertion that their observation of the event is objective and accurate. Doing this will either encourage them to use substantive and reasonable evidence to support their argument, or it will expose the flaws in their reasoning, both of which are positive outcomes.

 

How to avoid using the psychologist’s fallacy

It’s important to avoid using the psychologist’s fallacy yourself, in situations where you assess the thoughts and experiences of others. The main way to accomplish this is to keep in mind several important facts when passing judgment on others:

  • You are not perfectly objective. When interpreting events, your opinion will always be somewhat subjective, because there will always be various factors that affect your thinking, such as your past experiences and your present motivations. This can be the case even when you feel that you are relatively distant from the situation.
  • Your perception is flawed. When interpreting events, you will always be constrained by your imperfect cognitive system, which is vulnerable to various biases and limitations. This can be the case even when you are almost perfectly objective with regard to the situation at hand.
  • You don’t have all the information. When interpreting events, you will always be constrained by the fact that you don’t have all the necessary information which pertains to the situation at hand. This can be the case even in situations where you feel that you have all the pertinent information.

Note that there are various things you can do in order to address these issues, in order to improve your ability to interpret events.

For example, you can sometimes reduce the degree to which you are affected by subjective considerations, by identifying them and taking them into consideration in your thought process. Similarly, you can sometimes reduce the degree to which you are affected by cognitive biases, by using various debiasing techniques.

However, none of these things will ever guarantee that your interpretation of events is necessarily right, which is a crucial fact to keep in mind. Essentially, you can only ever increase the degree to which you are certain that your interpretation is the right one, sometimes to a very high degree, but you can never confirm it entirely, at least from a theoretical perspective.

Finally, note that this doesn’t mean that your observations regarding external events are necessarily wrong, and it’s entirely possible for your observations to be right, despite the limitations which are mentioned above. Rather, this means that you shouldn’t simply assume that your observations are necessarily right, especially in situations where you lack sufficient evidence in order to support them.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The psychologist’s fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when an external observer assumes that their subjective interpretation of an event represents the objective nature of that event.
  • Essentially, a person displays the psychologist’s fallacy when they see something happen and assume that they can perceive and interpret everything that is happening in a perfectly accurate manner, even though that’s not necessarily the case.
  • For example, the psychologist’s fallacy might cause you to assume that you know for certain why a person acted a certain way, or to assume that you know exactly what they were thinking while they were doing it.
  • To counter the use of the psychologist’s fallacy, you can point out the issues with this type of reasoning, suggest alternative interpretations for the event at hand, demonstrate why the observer’s objectivity is flawed, explain why it’s impossible to be fully objective, and explain why objectivity doesn’t guarantee accuracy.
  • When assessing the experiences and thoughts of others, you can avoid using the psychologist’s fallacy yourself by remembering that you are not perfectly objective, that your perception is flawed, and that you don’t always have all the pertinent information in order to make an assessment.