Everyday absolutisation

On retreat this summer, Willie Grieve asked a question well worth asking: “What would be a Middle Way first aid kit?” A question that I take to mean, what are the most immediate applications of it in a variety of everyday situations? I didn’t really have an effective answer to this question at the time, but I wonder if I’ve found at least one possible answer now after stumbling on a series of very simple, practical videos by Senseability.

These videos describe six basic types of thinking error and also then go on to offer ways of addressing them – all in an extremely accessible format. This could be described as ‘critical thinking’, or indeed as ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’. To make it into practical Middle Way Philosophy, all one needs to add is the recognition that all six of these errors are different types of absolutisation.  Here’s the first video, that introduces them:

The six errors introduced here are as follows. For each one I’ll give the label used on the video, plus some other labels in terms of biases or fallacies, plus what it absolutises:

  1. All or nothing: false dilemma or false dichotomy. Absolutises a limitation on the number of options and/or boundaries between them.
  2. Over-generalisation: sweeping generalisation fallacy. Absolutises one or a few examples into a universal truth about a whole category.
  3. Mind reading: projection. Absolutises an idea we have about someone else or their motives by assuming it must be true.
  4. Fortune-telling: forecast illusion, or pessimism/optimism about oneself. Absolutises a particular idea about what will happen to use in the future by assuming it must be true.
  5. Magnification/ minimisation: ad hominem. Absolutisation of a view of oneself as good or bad regardless of the arguments. Anything else might also be magnified or minimised as a general feature of absolutisation.
  6. Catastrophising: slippery slope. Assuming one bad event will necessarily lead to a worsening situation.

It’s worth noting that all of these also have opposites. In the case of 1 and 5 two extremes are already noted in the presentation, so it’s already obvious that a Middle Way is needed. In the case of 2, the opposite would be denying generalisation, in 3 denying all knowledge about others, in 4 and 6 denying all knowledge of the future.

The next video gives some example of these thinking errors without comment. It’s a helpful exercise to ask yourself which is occurring in each.

The third video suggests solutions to these thinking errors.

Here are the five solutions suggested on the video, all of which could be helpful for quite a wide range of absolutisations.

  1. Consider the evidence
  2. Is there an alternative?
  3. What would you say to a friend who was thinking like that?
  4. What is the likelihood?
  5. Is there a more helpful way I can think about this?

All of these strategies in some way prompt wider awareness beyond the absolutised belief you’re holding onto.

Of course, these responses to everyday absolutisation are only a start to the practise of the Middle Way. There are a great many more biases and fallacies (these all being discussed in my book Middle Way Philosophy 4: The Integration of Belief). In order to make strategies like these effective in the longer term, you may also need longer-term integration practices such as meditation, the arts and (a fuller training in) critical thinking. But this is a first aid kit. It might help patch you up in the face of immediately overwhelming absolutisations so you can then start to think in a longer-term way.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

One thought on “Everyday absolutisation

  1. Thanks for this very helpful piece. As someone who’s undergone substantial Cognitive Behaviour Therapy in the past (for social anxiety), I recognise many of these thinking errors. A significant part of my CBT was learning to:
    1st, recognise a situation that would seem to trigger an anxiety attack.
    2nd, note the emotions (and subsequent physical sensations) that emerge.
    3rd, identify the originating unhelpful thoughts.
    I would then put the thoughts ‘on trial’, whereby alternatives are posited and the evidence for and against each is analysed. After this process it is usually possible to construct a more balanced, less certain perspective.

    I have often heard CBT come under attack, and it’s possible that it has been over prescribed, but I found it to be extremely helpful. It does, however, take a lot of effort from the ‘patient’ and anyone expecting a quick fix after a few consultations will be disappointed. Quite soon after being involved with the Middle Way Society, it struck me that CBT is a kind of integrative practice, and this post (which is kind of describing CBT as I experienced it) seems to confirm that.

    This site (http://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/unhelpful.htm), which was recommended by my practitioner, is quite useful – and the particular page I’ve linked lists 12 cognitive distortions with suggested questions one can ask to challenge them.

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