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Stinking Thinking and Expectation Bias

“Whatever your mind believes influences you positively or negatively.”

Luskin's Learning Psychology Series, No. 10

Stinking Thinking and Expectation Bias

The words “stinking thinking” may sound a bit pejorative or even a little funny, but there isn't anything funny about proven tactics designed to negatively influence your thoughts and actions by using words and phrases to bias your expectations and influence your behavior.

It is important to be aware that Stinking Thinking (ST) techniques can be used unintentionally or insidiously by colleagues at work, by disturbed individuals trying to provoke a situation, by family members, or by others for various reasons in the world around us. The techniques of ST may be used in mass media, in organizational management, or by advertising firms to create bias in and influence personal decision-making and/or the nature of relationships and judgment in situations by creating intentional pre-formed expectations.

This article identifies and describes some of the ST tactics of manipulators who attempt to influence or control behavior or to establish thoughts and create expectation bias in others. It examines how a person may fall into the habit of using ST to their advantage or disadvantage depending on whether it is calculated use or not. Although, my view is that, consciously or unconsciously, ST is intentional.

In an interview, Dr. Bob Wright, CEO of Wright Graduate University and leader in programs teaching Transformational Leadership, defined Stinking Thinking for me as “involving tactics that can be intentionally used to establish expectation bias in order to control or manipulate situations and affect decision-making.” He said, “The behaviors displayed in ST range from overt forms of bullying to more subtle efforts to cloud clear and objective thinking.”

He elaborated that, “Manipulators, power-seekers, or those who are insecure may consciously apply Stinking Thinking techniques and explained that ST represents an important theory to explore when studying the psychology of media effects in the conduct of business and life.” Stinking thinking strategies are fundamental to behavior manipulation.

Operational Definition of Stinking Thinking

ST language fosters a bad way of thinking that makes you believe you will fail, that bad things will happen to you, or that you are not a very good person (Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus© Cambridge University Press and Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus© Cambridge University Press).

There Are Not 50 Shades of Grey: St Is Black and White

ST situations that fall short of perfect are presented as a total failure. Polarizing perceptions to establish black-and-white thinking with no room for shades of gray is another tactic in expectation bias. Manipulators frame people and events as good or bad, smart or stupid, brave or cowardly. It is important to be aware of efforts to embed black-and-white judgment into our behavior because most activities and events in life are too complex to be reduced to the level of an "either-or" judgment. Manipulators try to do this by creating an all or nothing bias.

Defeat can be fostered by using absolute words such as “always” or “never” to create expectation bias. This method of negative influence is characterized by broad, general conclusions based on a single incident or piece of evidence. Absolute statements use words such as all, every, none, never, always, everybody, and nobody.

You can neutralize absolutes and support your statements by using words such as may, sometimes, most, or often. Instead of saying all, it is more appropriate for us to use words like some or most, to be more accurate and make it easier for others to take your statement seriously. Think about the negative, misleading, and inaccurate effects of overgeneralization.

Having a bad hair day? Don’t let a single detail unduly influence or negatively impact your day’s productivity. Those who pick out one annoyance and dwell on it exclusively may skew and influence their own perceptions of many other things.

Beware of others who focus on one negative element in a situation to the exclusion of everything else. Hyperfocus can embed bias and reinforce unrealistic expectations. Exaggerating the importance of problems and shortcomings is another way of managing expectations and influencing outcomes. This hyperfocus on negative elements has been called “the binocular trick.”

Threats Designed to Intimidate or Control

Rejecting positive thinking by insisting that a positive example “doesn't count” is another way of negatively biasing and diminishing expectations. It can also be a form of bullying. Overpowering another’s point of view is classic Stinking Thinking.

How often have you heard phrases like, “What part of no don’t you understand?” or “That idea won’t fly,” or “Only an idiot would say that!” These verbal bullets are fired to challenge another’s confidence and limit creative or lateral thinking. They are threats designed to intimidate and control.

Mind-reading and fortune-telling use similar control techniques that cause one to jump to conclusions. Answering too quickly is a tactic for taking control and establishing power by preempting critical thought. It allows the perpetrator to interpret things according to their own self-interest and supply conclusions when there are insufficient facts to support any balanced conclusion.

Chicken Little worried that the sky was falling after an apple fell on her head. Catastrophic thoughts often start with the words “What if?” What if I injure myself playing sport? What if this plane crashes? What if I lose my job?

Such catastrophizing creates anxiety and can result in inhibiting behavior. The Chicken Little school of thought occurs when your imagination unreasonably focuses on the potential for tragedy and disaster. Tunnel vision is the ability to consider that the light at the end of the tunnel may not be an oncoming train.

Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

People tend to assume that negative emotions accurately reflect the way things really are: “I feel terrified about going on airplanes. It must be very dangerous to fly.” Or, “I feel guilty. I must have done something seriously wrong to make me feel this way.” Or, “I feel angry, and this proves that I’m being treated unfairly.” Using negative emotional reasoning can weaken the will, so you abdicate control: “I may as well eat this cookie, I can’t seem to lose weight anyway.”

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda…

Should statements is another technique to be aware of. Whether they are directed against you, others, or the world in general, should statements may lead to baseless guilt, blame, anger, and frustration. “I should have sold that item when I had the chance.” “He shouldn't be so stubborn and argumentative.” “The company should take care of that.”

The blame game is an old and very common method of putting “poison in the well.” Beware of the accuser who may assign blame to create expectation bias, and explore whether the allegation is actually rooted in fact or merely an effort to establish negative expectations, instill doubt, or undermine.

Stinking Thinking is a weapon of Influence that can cause us to react automatically with a bias that destroys our normal, rational decision-making processes. Psychologists call these easily triggered behaviors “fixed-action patterns,” and if you know the triggers, you can predict with reasonable likelihood how a person will react.

These weapons of influence are intentionally applied in media, in work, and in personal situations. That means it is important to understand the psychology involved and to think critically to avoid being vulnerable to these techniques of negative manipulation. What we are discussing may also be defined as attitudinal change, but it differs in that attitudinal change theory may also be applied in many positive ways for personal and public benefit. Repetitive themes are another way to establish automatic behavior patterns and may increase the risk of mind control.

The best way of reducing the prevalence and effectiveness of compliance tactics on the unaware is to let people know about them. Increased public understanding and awareness of the nature and uses of Stinking Thinking and Expectation Management are important. It requires that you ask yourself if your decisions are the result of someone trying to pull your mental or emotional strings, or the result of your own clear and reasoned thinking.

Understanding expectation bias is fundamental to being able to think clearly. Subtle language can influence your behavior.

Contributors: Thanks to Dr. Toni Luskin and Andrea Rambo for your help in preparing and posting this article.


Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus© Cambridge University Press.

Robbins, A. (2007). Awaken the Giant Within [Audio Recording]. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism (1st ed.). New York: Random House.

Wright, J., Wright, B. (2013). Transformed; The Science of Spectacular Living (1st ed.). Nashville: Turner Publishing Company.

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