After making a mistake or after something bad happens to you, have you ever become upset or afraid? Has anyone ever tried to comfort you by saying, “it’s not the end of the world” – perhaps even your therapist.
Of course it’s not the end of the world. You can’t deny that. Solid logic, right? Not really. The world-is-not-ending approach represents at least two bona fide logical fallacies (not that your consoler does not have your best interest at heart).
David Burns (1999), author of The Feeling Good Handbook, regularly uses the world-is-not-ending approach as a way to reduce readers’ fears or anxieties. Other therapists do it too.
In the classic “daily mood log” in The Feeling Good Handbook, there are three columns: the automatic thought, how that thought is a distortion, and then a “rational response.” In one case, a parent made a mistake that might make a daughter sick. The parent got scared, but the “rational response” stated that “it won’t be the end of the world if she does [get sick].” (p. 78)
If an individual really thinks the world will end (or that the individual will die), then of course telling them that’s not going to happen is a rational response. But almost all cases even in therapy handbooks are not so black-and-white. Rarely does someone really think the world will end, but they might think their small corner of the world will get worse.
I know therapists don’t really think their clients believe the world will explode or something. And I know some clients do catastrophize their issues…
Nonetheless, to exaggerate someone’s position to such an extreme (from “things will get worse” to “the world will end”) and then to easily refute that extreme (i.e., tell them the world will not end) is classic straw man fallacy.
Logical fallacy #1: Straw man fallacy
The other inherent bias in the world-is-not-ending approach is that it dichotomizes reality into two black-and-white possibilities: either the world ends or life goes on as normal. This dichotomizing is called either-or thinking or all-or-nothing thinking. It is one of the top ten cognitive distortions noted by David Burns himself.
Logical fallacy #2: False dichotomy or either-or fallacy
In addressing anticipatory anxiety over a yet-to-be-experienced scary situation, David Burns wrote…
“If you flub, you can thank your lucky stars, because this will give you the golden opportunity to discover that the world doesn’t come to an end after all. Life goes on even if you’re not successful all the time.” (p. 314)
My main point is that there are many possibilities in between end-of-world and life-as-normal. For a therapist to ignore those in-between possibilities is the either-or fallacy. Maybe you’re afraid of one of those in-betweens, such as not paying your rent if you flub the job interview.
Of course, if your fear is keeping you from eating or sleeping over a prolonged period, then therapy would seem helpful including a fear-reducing phrase like “come on it won’t be the end of the world.”
It may be a necessary evil to use a biased approach to make the client feel better. This wouldn’t be the first time that biased perceptions are the mentally healthy way to go (e.g., Taylor, S. E., 1989; Taylor et al., 2003).
But it is ironic that a therapy that calls all-or-nothing thinking a distortion can then turn around and encourage that same type of thinking. And for the sensitive client who has a rational fear and who can see past the false dichotomy, this approach may seem patronizing and may inadvertently disparage a client’s concerns.
I ran across my most recent example of this false dichotomy in a story of a teacher who got very angry at a child over the child’s math mistake. The teacher ripped the child’s paper in half, sent the child to the “calm-down chair,” and further berated the child.
In addressing the broader issue of making children cry at this school, the school head was quoted as saying that “children cry a lot” and that “it’s not the end of the world” (Taylor, K., 2016).
I can feel for those in charge – they don’t want one incident to tarnish what might be a good school overall. But I’m sure that parents of children who are mistreated by teachers know that it’s not the end of the world. That the world will keep on spinning is not relevant in addressing bad behavior.
(Side note: Even if children do cry a lot, to assume the frequency of crying reduces the seriousness of a particular crying incident may fall under another bias called the naturalistic fallacy or the is-ought fallacy.)
It’s great that the “it’s not the end of the world” approach can sometimes make a client feel better. It’s sad that this faulty logic can also sometimes disparage the valid concerns of mistreated individuals.
Burns, D. D. (1999). The feeling good handbook. New York: Plume.
Taylor, K. (2016, February 12). At success academy school, a stumble in math and a teacher’s anger on video. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/13/nyregion/success-academy-teacher-rips-up-student-paper.html
Taylor, S. E. (1989). Positive illusions: Creative self-deception and the healthy mind. New York: Basic Books.
Taylor, S. E., Lerner, J. S., Sherman, D. K., Sage, R. M., & McDowell, N. K. (2003). Are self-enhancing cognitions associated with healthy or unhealthy biological profiles? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 605-615.