Absolute thinking predicts mental illness

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2018

Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi explains absolute thinking:

The term cognitive miser, first introduced by the American psychologists Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor in 1984, describes how humans seek the simplest and least effortful ways of thinking. Nuance and complexity is expensive — it takes up precious time and energy — so wherever possible we try to cut corners. This is why we have biases and prejudices, and form habits. It’s why the study of heuristics (intuitive ‘gut-feeling’ judgments) is so useful in behavioural economics and political science.


In a recent research article in Clinical Psychological Science, I and my collaborator, the neuroscientist Tom Johnstone at the University of Reading in the UK, examined the prevalence of absolutist thinking in the natural language of more than 6,400 online members in various mental-health chat groups. From the outset, we predicted that those with depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation would have a more absolutist outlook, and that this would manifest in their style of language. Compared with 19 different online control chat groups on topics from cancer to parenting, the prevalence of absolutist words was approximately 50 per cent greater in depression and anxiety groups, and approximately 80 per cent greater in the suicidal-ideation group.

Previously, the best-known linguistic markers for mental-health disorders had been an excessive use of first-person singular pronouns such as ‘me’, ‘myself’ and ‘I’, with a reduced use of second- and third-person pronouns. This pattern of pronoun use reflects the isolation and self-focus common in depression. Negative-emotion words are also a strong linguistic marker for mental-health disorders, however researchers have reported that pronouns are actually more reliable in identifying depression. We find that the prevalence of absolutist words is a better marker than both pronouns and negative-emotion words.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    Are we setting up a correlation-causation fallacy here?

    Also, I question whether bounded rationality fully explains bias and unreasonableness. Certainly it’s behind some of it, but what about when people expend huge amounts of energy and anger to cling to untenable positions? I daresay that denial and intellectual narcissism have a far greater role.

    Bounded rationality is, at least, rational. Within bounds. It’s a cut-rate, corner cutting rationality, which is the very opposite of an overinvested and deliberate anti-rationality.

  2. Wang Wei Lin says:

    So much for the truth….which tends to be absolute.

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