Philosophy:Arbitrary inference

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Short description: Aspect of cognitive therapy

Arbitrary inference is a classic tenet of cognitive therapy created by Aaron T. Beck in 1979.[1] He defines the act of making an arbitrary inference as the process of drawing a conclusion without sufficient evidence, or without any evidence at all. In cases of depression, Beck found that individuals may be more prone to cognitive distortions, and make arbitrary inferences more often. These inferences could be general and/or in reference to the effectiveness of their medicine or treatment.[2] Arbitrary inference is one of numerous specific cognitive distortions identified by Beck that can be commonly presented in people with anxiety, depression, and psychological impairments.[3]

Arbitrary inferences tend to derive from emotional disturbances one experienced and gave a distorted meaning. Most of the time that distorted meaning involves blaming the self.[4] In the book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy a book by David D. Burns, a student of Aaron T. Beck, discusses more in detail the cognitive distortions. Burns explains arbitrary inference or "jumping to conclusions" with two of the most common examples of arbitrary inference: "Mind Reading" and "The Fortune Teller Error". When "Mind Reading" in arbitrary inference, one will believe other's are thinking negatively about them. When "Mind Reading," one is so convinced others are thinking negatively about them, they do not even bother confirming. This acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy when the person avoids or counterattacks the other person, and as a result creating a tension that would not exist had they not applied the inference. In "The Fortune Teller Error" one would imagine something failing or bad happening, and suddenly they are convinced it will happen, despite the irrationality of it. Similarly to "Mind Reading" it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.[5]

According to Beck (1967), a person goes through life with detrimental schemas and pessimistic point of view, they reinforce their harmful thoughts. People's prior beliefs also tend to reinforce that way of thinking, like when they focus on information that is in alignment with their belief and disregard equally relevant facts that do not align with their schemas.[6] These schemas that dominate the cognitive processes consist of 1) Feeling inadequate and faulty, 2) Believing all actions and experiences will lead to failure, and 3) The future is discouraging. Over time, these thought processes become automatic. Without time to reflect on the cognitive process, one believes that their illogical reasoning to their conclusion is valid.[7] Attributing the negative and distorted meaning of an event results in latent schemas that are later activated by events and influence how information from the event is processed.[8] When a person creates an arbitrary inference it intervenes and is seen as effective response to the event.[9]

In a 2003 study attempting to understand cognitive processes like arbitrary inference on depression, researchers compared 42 patients with chronic depression, 27 patients with major depressive disorder (non-chronic), and 24 patients that had never been psychiatrically ill before. The study included the Attributional Style Questionnaire, a ruminative response style questionnaire, the Schema Questionnaire, and the Dysfunctional Attitude Scale. While studies showed that both of the depressed groups were significantly elevated in every cognitive measure compared to the control group, the depressed group scored higher in the attributional style.[10]

Moreover, Beck has also studied the relationships between cognitive distortions and idiosyncrasies, where the inferences made could be based more on one's own personality rather than on a depressive state of emotions.[11]  This research shows that while common in those with depression, inferences can be made in any number of cases.  The main issue covered, however, is how these can negatively affect someone's personal schema when coupled with the already negative emotions brought about by anxiety or depression.

Cognitive Therapy for Arbitrary Inference Aaron T. Becks approach to helping people with arbitrary inference is to ask them questions about the inference. Beck Leads the people to think about the rationality of the automatic thoughts that happen when one is using arbitrary inference as an explanation to an event.[12][13] By studying what people thought of themselves when they were depressed, Beck and his associates were able to develop this form of therapy to offer a change in self-opinion.  

Moreover, different approaches have also been taken in cognitive therapy for these inferences, such as Cognitive Bias Modification (CBM).[14] This involves modification of Beck's original theory on depression, coming up with positive views and feelings for situations, as opposed to negative ones.  The point of the study was to show that simply thinking positively about something allows one to correctly attribute a situation, rather than ‘arbitrarily’ drawing false conclusions.

In Other Studies

Other scientists have also applied Beck's principle of arbitrary inference in studies on emotion in depressive patients.[15] These studies showed that, in support of Beck's model on depression, arbitrary inferences were some the most common thoughts during the exercises. This lends to the necessity of cognitive therapy, especially for couples, so as to lessen some of these thoughts.[16]

Studies done on CBM (Cognitive Bias Modification) have shown that changing the views one has on the world or on specific events can lead to a decrease in stress and an increase in confident performance.  Lester and associates research methods on how to adequately cope with stress or even reduce its effects, and in the scope of Beck's research on inferences, they concluded that positive thinking and correct attributions can lead one to live a healthier lifestyle.[17]

Some sources have also referenced this phenomenon in counseling, as one of the cognitive distortions proposed by Beck.[18]  Among others, arbitrary inference is one of the distortions that causes a person to misrepresent or misinterpret a scenario, which can especially cause problems among couples.

Beck's theories on depression, specifically about arbitrary inferences, have also been examined by researchers, to prove their validity or their usefulness.[19]  This research came before Beck officially published his theory of arbitrary inference in the 1970s, when his theory of cognitive therapy was still being argued.  Researchers examined his theory, along with those of Bergin and Ullmann, to test their applicable nature to the subject of cognitive therapy.  In doing so, Beck's thoughts were generally justified, with the research concluding that of the many distortions discussed in the studies, arbitrary inference was one of the commonly present distortions found in participants.  Since then, Beck's theory has been widely used, more so than Ellis’ Technique of Irrational Beliefs,[20] also called the ABC method or rational emotive behavior therapy.


One member of a married couple who does not receive a text back from his or her significant other promptly could conclude, "He or she must be cheating", or someone who has been feeling down on a rainy day could conclude, "I have seasonal depression".[21]

In media, using an arbitrary inference is a common hyperbolic way to express oneself, especially when feeling more anxious or depressed.  A person may receive requests to spend time with someone else, and in this state, they may assume it is because something is wanted, that they are going to be used.  There is little to no evidence that this is the case, but the person infers that it is so, regardless.

See also


  1. Dattilo, Frank. "Relationships - ACT" (in en-US). 
  2. Beck, Aaron T. (1979). Cognitive Therapy of Depression. Guilford Press. ISBN 9780898629194. 
  3. Engler, Barbara; Pomerantz, Andrew (2005). Personality Theories: An Introduction. Cengage Learning. ISBN 9780618496624. 
  4. Beck, Aaron; Greenberg, L.. Cognitive Therapy in Treatment of Depression. Boston, MA. p. 156. ISBN 978-1-4613-2641-0. 
  5. Burns, David D. (1980). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publisher Inc.. p. 36. ISBN 0380731762. 
  6. Stanovich, Keith E. (August 2013). "Myside Bias, Rational Thinking, and Intelligence". Current Directions in Psychological Science 22 (4): 259–265. doi:10.1177/0963721413480174. 
  7. Beck, Aaron T.; Alford, Brad A. (2009). Depression Causes and Treatment (Second ed.). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 9780812219647. 
  8. Beck, Aaron T.; Greenberg, L. (1984). Cogntitive Therapy in Treatment of Depression. Boston, MA. p. 156. ISBN 978-1-4613-2641-0. 
  9. Beck, Aaron T. (Fall 1997). "The Past and Future of Cognitive Therapy". The Journal of Psychotherapy 4 (4): 276–278. PMID 9292441. 
  10. Riso, Lawrence P.; du toit, P. L.; Blandino, Jaime A.; Penna, Suzanne; Dacey; Sean; Duin, Jason S.; Pacoe, Elizabeth M. et al. (2003). "Cognitive Aspects of Chronic Depression". Journal of Abnormal Psychology 112 (1): 72–80. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.112.1.72. PMID 12653415. 
  11. BECK, AARON T. (1964-06-01). "Thinking and Depression". Archives of General Psychiatry 10 (6): 561–71. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1964.01720240015003. ISSN 0003-990X. PMID 14159256. 
  12. Beck, Aaron T.; Greenberg, Ruth L. (1984), "Cognitive Therapy in the Treatment of Depression", Foundations of Cognitive Therapy (Boston, MA: Springer US): pp. 155–178, doi:10.1007/978-1-4613-2641-0_7, ISBN 978-1-4612-9648-5 
  13. Henker, Fred O. (June 1982). "Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy". Psychosomatics 23 (6): 676–677. doi:10.1016/s0033-3182(82)73375-4. ISSN 0033-3182. 
  14. Lester, Kathryn J.; Mathews, Andrew; Davison, Phil S.; Burgess, Jennifer L.; Yiend, Jenny (September 2011). "Modifying cognitive errors promotes cognitive well being: A new approach to bias modification". Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry 42 (3): 298–308. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2011.01.001. ISSN 0005-7916. PMID 21352718. 
  15. Blackburn, Ivy M.; Eunson, Kate M. (March 1989). "A content analysis of thoughts and emotions elicited from depressed patients during cognitive therapy*". British Journal of Medical Psychology 62 (1): 23–33. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8341.1989.tb02807.x. ISSN 0007-1129. PMID 2706195. 
  16. White, Bill (April 1997). "Cognitive Therapy with Children and Adolescents: A Casebook for Clinical PracticeA.A. Reinecke, F.M. Dattilio and A. Freeman (Eds). New York: Guilford Press, 1996. pp. 416. £32.50 (hardback). ISBN 1 572 30022 1.". Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy 25 (2): 213–215. doi:10.1017/s1352465800018452. ISSN 1352-4658. 
  17. Lester, Kathryn J.; Mathews, Andrew; Davison, Phil S.; Burgess, Jennifer L.; Yiend, Jenny (September 2011). "Modifying cognitive errors promotes cognitive well being: A new approach to bias modification". Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry 42 (3): 298–308. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2011.01.001. ISSN 0005-7916. PMID 21352718. 
  18. Mike Nawas, M. (August 1970). "Wherefore cognitive therapy?: A critical scrutiny of three papers by beck, bergin, and ullmann". Behavior Therapy 1 (3): 359–370. doi:10.1016/s0005-7894(70)80114-9. ISSN 0005-7894. 
  19. Mike Nawas, M. (August 1970). "Wherefore cognitive therapy?: A critical scrutiny of three papers by beck, bergin, and ullmann". Behavior Therapy 1 (3): 359–370. doi:10.1016/s0005-7894(70)80114-9. ISSN 0005-7894. 
  20. Bauer, Anne C. (September 2005). "Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Applying Empirically Supported Techniques in Your Practice". Psychiatric Services 56 (9): 1166. doi:10.1176/ ISSN 1075-2730. 
  21. "Thinking Errors in Depression" (in en-US).