False positives and false negatives

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Keeping a journal can help you to watch and challenge your inner dialogue.  Photo by Essentialiving on Unsplash

Are you the best judge of your own issues?  It’s possible that, often, you aren’t.  Rather than being a bad thing, this indicates that we are at our best when we feed into our social networks, and use perceivers other than ourselves to help assess situations.

When we worry, we are making assumptions, often unconscious, about how our world works.  Equally, when we are happy, we are making other assumptions about how our world works.  When either are proved wrong by experience, we can be thrown off balance, surprised, or even shocked.

FALSE POSITIVES

A false positive is when we think something is true, but it is not.  In medicine, it can mean a test falsely stating that a person is pregnant when they are not, or has an illness when they do not.

In life, it is when we come to a conclusion that a condition prevails, but that conclusion turns out to be wrong.  We may decide that someone is trustworthy, and then discover that they have breached our trust.  We may decide that we are incapable of doing something, and then discover that, when in the situation, we can do it.

FALSE NEGATIVES

A false negative is when we think something is not true, but it is.  In medicine, it can mean a test falsely stating that someone is not pregnant when they are, or does not have an illness when they do.

In life, it is when we conclude that a condition does not exist, but in time that conclusion proves wrong.  We may decide that someone is not worth befriending, and then discover that actually they are an excellent friend.  We may decide that life has no meaning, and then discover that, in the fullness of time, distinct meaning emerges.

WISDOM

One of the characteristics of wisdom is the ability to appreciate the risk of false positives and false negatives.

One could even argue that some forms of anxiety are born of a failure to appreciate the likelihood of false positives.  We decide that some state of affairs is true, and no amount of self-talk can persuade us that we are wrong.  We may decide that others wish us ill, when actually they wish us well, or are indifferent.  We may decide that we are trapped, when we are not.  The list is endless, the list of things which we make up in our minds, and become convinced of.

Similarly, one could argue that some forms of depression are born of a failure to appreciate the likelihood of false negatives.  We decide there is no meaning to life, and that everything is to no avail.  In reality, it may be that we have forgotten to tap into our inner sense of meaning, and have starved ourselves of what we actually like and respect.

I would add that I am not saying that this is the only interpretation of anxiety and depression.  They are also biological conditions, and are not always best explained by appeals to reason.  But sometimes it is helpful to remember how often we are wrong.  It can bring hope, because it reminds us that tomorrow something may come to us to change our perspective on everything, whether it is new information, new people, or new circumstances.

AN EXERCISE

Maybe think about beginning a journal, if you don’t already keep one.  It is a way of making your internal dialogue with yourself visible to you later on.  You will start to see, perhaps, how you view your life, what you hope, what you fear… and, importantly, it may help you to see which of your forward thinking is accurate, and which merely fearful or speculative.  One of the benefits of writing, is that it enables you to communicate with yourself over long stretches of time, and experience how you change.  It can be tremendously reassuring to know that you, and life, are as changeable as the seasons.  It means, in a way, that there is always hope, always adventure.

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SUMMARY

We all make assumptions about how we and our world work.

Sometimes we decide things are true when they are not; and sometimes we decide things are not true when they are.

Arguably, wisdom is the ability to allow for different perspectives on our conclusions, even when things seem certain.  When anxious, we can easily jump to false conclusions.  When depressed, we can easily lose hope, and wrongly conclude that everything has to be meaningless.  Wisdom knows that tomorrow may bring something completely different, and can challenge the suffering biases of mental illness.

Journalling, keeping a diary, is one way of getting in touch with our inner dialogue.  Reviewing what we write can help us to see that, in the fullness of time, the most anxious of fears can prove groundless, and the emptiest of days be followed by happy ones.

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