Heuristics for Spotting Distorted Thinking: “It Would Be One Thing If… But…”

I have a whole bunch of heuristics I use to notice distorted thinking. I’ve covered some of them here. Today, I wanted to highlight the speech pattern “It would be one thing if X, but Y,” typically used to describe why someone’s behavior is objectionable.

The language can vary a little:

“I know that she needs to do X, but Y seems like a bit much.”

“It wasn’t just X, it was Y!”

“I’m a reasonable person. I’d be okay with X. But he went so far as to do Y.”

Here’s a passage from one of my favorite books, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

There is a principle in human perception, the contrast principle, that affects the way we see the difference between two things that are presented one after another. Simply put, if the second item is fairly different from the first, we will tend to see it as more different than it actually is. So if we lift a light object first and then lift a heavy object, we will estimate the second object to be heavier than if we had lifted it without first trying the light one. The contrast principle is well established in the field of psychophysics and applies to all sorts of perceptions besides weight. If we are talking to a beautiful woman at a cocktail party and are then joined by an unattractive one, the second woman will strike us as less attractive than she actually is.

When I hear the “It would be one thing if X, but Y” language, I think that the other person is, usually subconsciously, taking advantage of the contrast principle to try to make something seem worse than it actually is. The speaker is trying to seem reasonable, and communicate that of course he’s not looking for something to get upset about. After all, he would have been fine it were just X.

Why is this a sign of distorted thinking?

Because the speaker is trying too hard. If there weren’t some doubt, or some defensiveness, he probably wouldn’t be unconsciously employing persuasive tactics. Watch out for moments when you’re trying to convince yourself of something.

If the person who is using this language is fully aware of the effects and is consciously talking this way to try to convince the listener that the situation is ridiculous, that’s a slightly different situation, but one that also makes me a bit suspicious.

(If the context is clearly storytelling, along the lines of “You’ll never believe the crazy thing that happened to me, haha”, then this construction doesn’t worry me.)

It’s also notable that this construction doesn’t have to demonize another person.

“It would be one thing if the train were just late. Everyone knows that happens. But it happened on the one day it was raining the hardest it has in months!”

I would assume that whoever just said that is looking for a justification that it’s okay to feel however he feels about the situation.

Usually not a big deal, but something I like to keep track of. Try looking out for this construction in yourself. And in me :-), since I know I do it sometimes.

It would be one thing if I weren’t aware of it and I just went around using this construction all the time. But I do like it use it every once in a while. Sometimes it’s just the best way to describe what’s going on!