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Thinking traps and how we make sense of the world

Automatic thinking is a very helpful way of making sense of everything that’s going on in the world. As we go through life we’re bombarded with information, from sounds, sights, smells, movements, and so on, from many different places.

Imagine yourself walking down the street, or driving a car. You have to make decisions and judgments in a split second – there simply isn’t time to think carefully or deliberate about what’s happening. To greatly simplify it, we have to go through a number of stages

'Perceive- what is it?' pointing to 'Interpret- do i like it?' pointing to 'Act - what shall i do?'

What is it?

Your senses work hard to pick up information all around you, and we tend to pay attention to things that are important or relevant to us – there’s just too much information for us to take notice of all of it. This probably isn’t a conscious decision – most of this is ‘automatic’.

Take a moment to stop and listen. What do you hear? You can probably hear a lot of different things that you usually don’t pay any attention to, for example, traffic, birds, machinery, your breathing, people talking, and so on.

Do I like it?

This is a critical stage. Our decision about something being good or bad, safe or unsafe, is often based on our previous experience, or something someone else told us, or even something we learned so far back, that we don’t even remember when.

Depending on our decision at this point, we make a decision that affects our behaviour.

What shall I do?

At each of these stages we:

  • draw on our past experience,
  • draw on our knowledge about the world,
  • make predictions about what might happen,
  • and we can make thinking mistakes.

Watch this brief video from the Guardian:

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

This demonstrates just how easy it is to make a thinking error, and how our background ideas can contribute to this thinking.

Thinking errors are made by everyone – as we’ve already seen – they’re the result of having fast and automatic processes take care of much of the mundane and everyday decisions in life.

Thinking errors are also very common in people who have depression – in the next Step we’ll look specifically at thinking errors in depression, and try to understand how they have the effect of keeping depression going.

Don’t forget to mark this Step complete before you move to the next.

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding Depression and Low Mood in Young People

University of Reading