Jumping to Conclusions: The Psychology of Biased Thinking

Do you jump to conclusions? Why do we have a tendency to form conclusions before giving ourselves a chance to think things through?

We tend to jump to conclusions about people and situations before we have all of the facts about them. While jumping to conclusions allows us to make quick decisions, it’s not always ideal. In psychology, jumping to conclusions is considered a cognitive bias.

Learn about the psychology of the human tendency to jump to conclusions.

Jumping to Conclusions

In psychology, jumping to conclusions is attributed to association bias: We pre-emptively judge people and situations as “good” or “bad” based on quick mental associations we make during a first impression.

Example 1: You Make an Unwise Purchase

Imagine you’re shopping for your next car. When you see one model’s high price tag, you jump to the conclusion that it must be the best option. This is because throughout your life, you’ve associated high prices with top quality. Due to this association bias, you skip researching the car’s potential downsides before purchasing it. Several months into owning the car, you discover that its engine is prone to overheating and its hardtop often fails to retract.

Example 2: You Stereotype Someone

Imagine you’re hiring for a new position at your workplace. You’re struck by how many tattoos one of the candidates has. You jump to the conclusion that they must be rebellious because throughout your life, you’ve associated tattoos with troublemakers. Because you jump to this conclusion, you fail to notice many of the candidate’s job-related and interpersonal strengths.

(Shortform note: Psychology research reveals that we may not be aware of some of our association biases. In Biased, psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt explains that the culture we grow up in shapes our implicit bias, or the unconscious bias we form when we associate a group of people with “good” or “bad” traits. Eberhardt elaborates that implicit, antiblack bias is a pervasive problem in the US. For example, there’s a harmful stereotype that Black girls aren’t good at math. Imagine you’re a math teacher who has formed an implicit association bias between “Black girls” and “poor math performance.” If you fail to recognize and correct this bias, you might underestimate your students’ abilities and hinder their learning.)

The Evolutionary Origin of Our Tendency to Jump to Conclusions

Although this habit of jumping to conclusions often leads us to act against our best interests, we have this tendency for a reason. According to Bevelin, early humans who formed quick associations were more likely to find food—and avoid becoming food. For instance, they’d associate the rustle of leaves with the image of a lurking predator. Any time they heard rustling leaves, they wouldn’t wait to confirm the source of the disturbance. Instead, they’d jump to the conclusion that a predator was lurking nearby, and they’d quickly hide or reach for their weapon.

The Dangers of Binary Thinking

While Bevelin emphasizes the evolutionary roots of quickly jumping to conclusions, the types of conclusions we quickly jump to are also rooted in our distant pasts. We tend to sort people and experiences into the extreme binaries of “good” or “bad,” and we have this tendency because it was the most efficient way for our ancestors to identify potentially life-threatening stimuli

Today, binary thinking often leads us to overlook nuances when making decisions. For instance, you might jump to the conclusion that your political party is “good”; therefore, every policy it proposes is “good.” While voting in an election, you may fail to scrutinize your party’s policies and notice ones that you actually disagree with.

A Solution: Question Your First Impressions Using Backward Thinking

Bevelin argues that, fortunately, you can counteract your tendency to jump to conclusions by questioning your first impressions. Doing so prevents these first impressions—which are often incomplete or wrong—from guiding your conclusions and decisions. 

According to Bevelin, Charles Munger offers a specific strategy for questioning your first impressions: a rational thinking technique called “backward thinking.” This strategy prompts you to search for information that discredits your first impressions. It pushes you to base your conclusions on factual evidence, rather than your biased first impressions.

Let’s apply Munger’s strategy to the earlier example of the tattooed job candidate. To engage in backward thinking, look for evidence that discredits your assumption that the tattooed candidate is rebellious. For instance, inspect the candidate’s resume for evidence that they’re responsible, and ask their references to describe the candidate’s personality traits. 

(Shortform note: Daniel Kahneman’s psychology research illuminates what happens in your brain when you question your first impressions using a strategy like backward thinking. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman explains that our mind has two systems: one (“System 1”) that automatically reacts to stimuli, and another (“System 2”) that slowly deliberates. According to Kahneman, we can avoid making irrational mistakes if we have our System 2 question System 1’s biased assumptions. Backward thinking is a way to give your System 2 time to evaluate whether you should accept the thoughts and feelings your System 1 generates.)

Jumping to Conclusions: The Psychology of Biased Thinking

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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