Jumping to conclusions: How assumptions can impact our mental health
A career in public safety amplifies our natural human tendency to anticipate danger, which can be complicated when it expands beyond work
“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” — Alan Alda
If you’re a fan of the movie Office Space, you probably remember a scene in which Tom, the older, disgruntled office worker, explains his million-dollar idea for a “jump to conclusions” mat: “You see, it would be this mat, that you’d put on the floor, and it would have different conclusions written on it that you could jump to.”
While Tom’s idea would certainly not have made for a fun or exciting game, had it actually been available in stores, it might have served one important purpose: pointing out to people how commonly we, well, jump to conclusions.
In the fire service, we have arson investigators who gather evidence to determine cause and origin of fires. In law enforcement, detectives gather evidence to determine if crimes were committed and by whom. As humans, we have an “internal investigator” who plays a similar role. When confronted with comments or behavior we don’t understand, this internal investigator goes to work, seeking evidence, trying to create a scenario that ties together the limited facts we have.
Arson investigators and police detectives are generally quite good at their investigative processes. Unfortunately, our internal investigator is rarely as accurate. Instead, we jump to conclusions. We make assumptions for which there is little evidence. And that in turn negative affects our mental and emotional wellbeing.
How It Happens
Let’s say you haven’t heard from your friend Bill lately. You start to replay your last interaction. “Is he upset with me? Did I forget to follow up? Or could he be in some kind of trouble?” You send a text to check in. If you don’t hear back, you’re likely to conclude Bill is angry or that something else is wrong.
Or let’s say your battalion chief seems to be ignoring you ever since you sat for the captain’s exam. “She must have evaluated me negatively in the assessment center,” you think. “Now she’s avoiding me because she knows I’m going to be disappointed in the results.” You attempt to approach her, but she brushes you off—more mental evidence to support your assumption.
Another thought may be of a loved one driving to visit family. “Please drive safe and text me when you arrive,” you tell them before they leave. But hours go by without a word, and when you call, there’s no answer. It’s all too easy to take this as evidence that something tragic happened.
Assumptions Are Convincing
In his book The Four Agreements, Miguel Ruiz sums up assumptions: “The problem with assumptions is we believe they are the truth. We could swear they are real. We make assumptions about what others are doing and thinking—we take it personally—then we blame them and react by sending emotional poison.”
Our tendency to make assumptions or jump to conclusions isn’t all bad—and it’s also not our fault. Our brains are hardwired to perceive danger and negative or aggressive intent from other beings—it’s what helped keep us from being eaten by predators in our hunter/gathering days. In modern times, saber-tooth cats are no longer chasing us, but our danger-radar has not evolved fast enough, so we continue to imagine danger even when it doesn’t exist.
Most of the time this is not a huge problem. But sometimes we get caught in patterns of overthinking, or ruminating. We replay scenarios repeatedly in our minds, imagining the worst-case outcome. Rather than helping us solve the problem, this kind of thinking activates stress hormones and the “flight-or-flight” response. This response inhibits our ability to think rationally and creatively.
In public safety, we often refer to this as hypervigilance: We constantly look for things that could go wrong and assume that they will. If you do not control your thinking, evidence will continue to grow, and you will miss living in the present moment. Hypervigilance can lead to depression and anxiety, as well as physical effects such as hypertension and diabetes.
Fast-forward a couple of days or a week. You finally connect with Bill; he was under deadline pressure at work and didn’t have time to chat. Your battalion chief calls you to her office to tell you you’ve made the captain list. When you express surprise and say you thought she had been avoiding you, she apologizes for being distracted because she’s dealing with a health issue. Your traveling loved one was on the phone when you called. “Evidence” destroyed.
Break the Cycle
What can first responders do to stop ruminating and combat negative, assumption-based thinking? It takes conscious effort, but it is possible to train your brain to react differently.
Dr. Kevin Gilmartin, author of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, stresses the importance of developing an identity to combat hypervigilance. When we are connected to others and draw purpose from multiple areas in life, we are less likely to feel isolated and defensive and imagine the worst.
Another important tactic involves asking questions. Be curious when confronted with a situation. When possible, gather real evidence rather than just making assumptions.
Some people find it helpful to think through the worse-case scenario, even write it down. I call this the “what’s the worst that could happen” game. Then, take it a step further. Think about how you would cope if the worst did happen. What strengths do you have to draw on? Have you faced similar situations and if so, what happened? Much of our fear is built on uncertainty and dread; accepting that something bad might happen but envisioning your way through it can help the brain stop ruminating.
Finally, when you find negative thoughts and assumptions swirling endlessly, try engaging in an activity that stimulates a different part of your brain. Intense physical activity, listening to music, playing with your children, painting—all of these can help your mind let go and promote feelings of positivity and wellbeing.
A career in public safety amplifies our natural human tendency to anticipate danger and assume the worst. We must be aware of when this behavior crosses a line from being prepared to being trapped by fear and negativity. Perhaps it will help to imagine Tom’s “jump to conclusions” mat—and remember why his colleagues called it “the worst idea they’d ever heard.”