On Cognitive Distortions

by Quaerendo8 min read25th Mar 20182 comments



Follow-up to: On Defense Mechanisms

In my previous post, I suggested that rationalists examine the concept of defense mechanisms: self-deceiving ways of coping with the anxiety caused by internal conflicts. Psychologists argue that defense mechanisms are often inferior to constructive coping techniques (e.g. meditation, systematic problem-solving, positive reinterpretation) in terms of personal adjustment.

Defense mechanisms can make us do weird things. We bury distressing thoughts in our subconscious minds and we deny that there is anything wrong. Even when we acknowledge a problem, we often rationalize our own behavior with ad-hoc excuses, or blame other people. Sometimes we unleash pent-up frustration onto innocent bystanders and act in immature ways. Other times, we hide our true feelings by acting contrary to them or by focusing on the abstract aspects of the situation. We try to "cancel out" guilt with atonement, and compensate for our perceived shortcomings in exaggerated ways. We identify with accomplished people and fantasize about our wishes without taking action.

But wait, there's more! A related concept is that of cognitive distortions.

As you might guess, a distorted cognition is a thought that is based on insufficient evidence and is therefore likely to be an exaggeration or misperception of reality. More specifically, cognitive distortions are automatic thought patterns that are usually slanted in a negative direction. The theory propounded by psychologists like Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck and David Burns is that our cognitions (thoughts) influence our emotions (feelings), which influence how we respond to a situation. This can create a feedback loop whereby inaccurate perceptions of reality cause people to experience negative psychological states like stress, anxiety, depression or low self-esteem, which then reinforce the irrational thoughts.

Whereas defense mechanisms have their genesis in Freudian psychoanalytic theory (where uncomfortable emotions are caused by tensions between the id, ego and superego), the theory of cognitive distortions is based in the more modern cognitive paradigm of psychology. Two promoters of the cognitive approach in therapy, Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, pinpointed negative self-talk and catastrophic thinking as common causes of maladaptive responses to stress (see chapter four in Weiten, Dunn & Hammer, 2015). Ellis created rational-emotive behavior therapy to help his clients change their appraisals of stressful events in order to change their emotional reactions from negative (angry, agitated, dejected, disgusted etc.) to more calm and hopeful. The key premise of this approach is that our emotional distress is not caused directly by stressful situations, but by the way we think about these situations.

As John Tagg writes,

The surprising thing is that very often our feelings seem to contradict what we would expect just by observing our actions and environment: we can be sad when eating a delicious meal and happy while trudging through the rain on a cold day.

This shows the power of thought that we take for granted. Ellis argued that catastrophic thinking is based on irrational assumptions (in other words: cognitive distortions). For example, "I must have love and affection from certain people"; or "I must perform well in all endeavors"; or "other people should always behave competently and be considerate of me"; or "events should always go the way I like". To reduce this kind of thinking, one must learn how to detect it and how to dispute the underlying irrational assumptions. For example, if you get ghosted by a date, pay attention to your appraisal -- if you find yourself believing that "my weekend is ruined and I'll be forever alone", replace it with a more balanced belief: "this is unfortunate but I'll salvage the weekend and find someone dependable one day."

The above example is a miniature instantiation of cognitive restructuring, which is a core component of Beck's cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). One of Beck's students, David D. Burns, popularized CBT and identified numerous species of cognitive distortions.

Below are listed some of the most common cognitive distortions, so that you may better identify them in your own thinking (and perhaps help others).

1. Mental filtering: selectively ignoring certain kinds of evidence, especially the positive aspects of a situation. Examples: Arnold received a lot of feedback on his report, most of which was positive, yet he obsesses over one bit of criticism. Bianca thinks her boyfriend is insensitive for not listening to her once, although he had done nice things for her that same day.

2. Dichotomous thinking (also called "black-and-white thinking" or "all-or-nothing thinking" or "splitting" or "polarized thinking"): evaluating things in extreme terms with no middle ground, using words like "always", "never", "every" and so on. Examples: Charles feels like if he is not perfect, then he must be a total loser. Dana used to love a certain band, but after one bad song she now hates them.

3. Overgeneralization: reaching a hasty and broad conclusion based on limited evidence or a single event. Examples: Evan went on one unsuccessful date and expects that he'll never find a partner. Fiona did not get the job she interviewed for, so she thinks "I screw things up every time!"

4. Disqualifying the positive: discounting or dismissing positive experiences as unimportant, or possibly even negative. Examples: Greg was congratulated by his colleagues on giving a good presentation, but he feels like this praise is undeserved. Heloise was skeptical when her mother visited her out of the blue with flowers -- she thought, "maybe Mom just wants something from me."

5. Jumping to conclusions: going beyond that which is warranted by the evidence, especially in the case of mind reading (assuming one knows what another person is thinking) and fortune telling (predicting that something bad is going to happen). Examples: Ian is nervous at a party because he infers that everyone is secretly laughing at him. Jasmine is certain that she will fail her exam, even though she has studied.

6. Magnification and minimization: exaggerating the negative aspects and inappropriately downplaying the positive aspects of a situation or of ourselves. Catastrophizing is a type of magnification whereby one attaches too much weight to the worst possible outcome. Examples: Kyle has a habit of making mountains out of molehills, like fearing that a typo in an email will get him fired. Lilly thinks that all of her friends are great but that she personally has no accomplishments.

7. Personalization: assuming personal responsibility for something beyond your control, especially a negative event. Examples: Mark feels like he is a bad father because his daughter is doing poorly in school. Nadine feels guilty about the fact that her dog got run over by a (stranger's) car.

8. Labeling: assigning a negative term to a complex person or event, such that situational errors are attributed to innate character. Examples: Oliver failed one mathematics test and now calls himself a loser. Patricia's date showed up ten minutes late, so she labeled the person "irresponsible".

9. Emotional reasoning: assuming that one's current feelings reflect the true nature of things. Examples: Quincy experiences jealousy when his partner talks to other men, so he believes that his partner is cheating. Rose thinks "I feel ugly and boring, therefore I must be ugly and boring."

10. Should-statements (also called "shoulding and musting"): making unrealistically rigid demands that you or others should, must, and ought to meet even when, in the current situation, these will likely result only in guilt, disappointment, frustration or shame. Examples: Steven feels like he should not have made as many blunders in the chess game. Tina believes that she must carry out her job in a particular way in order to please her boss.

11. Blaming: when personalization is applied to other people, i.e. holding someone responsible for something that was not their fault. Examples: Ulysses is stuck in an unhappy marriage, which he blames wholly on his spouse. Vivienne assumes that the lack of birthday wishes from her friend was intentional rather than accidental.

12. Always being right: to prioritize being right to the detriment of other considerations, such as listening or respecting others' feelings. Examples: William has a tendency not to ask himself what he can learn from others' opinions. Xenia insists on winning every argument, even when it makes her loved ones feel awful.

In addition to these cognitive distortions, there are a number of so-called "fallacies", like the fallacy of control (assuming an unrealistic amount of control), the fallacy of change (assuming one's happiness depends on other people changing), the fallacy of fairness (assuming that life is or should be fair according to one's own definition), and the fallacy of motives (also known as "heaven's reward fallacy"; assuming that a sacrifice should be rewarded).

Some reader might be thinking, "This is all nice and dandy, Quaerendo, but I cannot relate to the examples above... my cognition isn't distorted to that extent." Well, let me refer you to UTexas CMHC:

Maybe you are being realistic. Just for the sake of argument, what if you're only 90% realistic and 10% unrealistic? That mean's you're worrying 10% "more" than you really have to.

I'll end with a few questions for discussion, to which I do not know the answers:

  • To what extent can we combine the ideas of defense mechanisms and cognitive distortions into a unified theoretical framework? Would that be a category error?
  • What is their relationship to cognitive heuristics and biases, logical fallacies, etc.?
  • Besides CBT, what else can we do in our daily lives to mitigate these effects?


The primary sources I used for the theoretical section of this post were the textbook by Weiten, Dunn & Hammer (2015), "Psychology Applied to Modern Life: Adjustment in the 21st Century" (which I reviewed on my personal blog), the Wikipedia entry on cognitive distortions, the "Stress Management and Reduction" website of the University of Texas's Counseling and Mental Health Center, and this page from Harley Therapy London.

The explanations and examples of the cognitive distortions were inspired by a number of authors: John Tagg (1996); John M. Grohol (2017); Kassey Vilches (2018); and Adam Sicinski (no date).


2 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:00 PM
New Comment

One of the key things that David Burn advises is to write thoughts down. This is supposed to make it easier to identity distortion and it's also the advice of posts like Paper Trauma. Regardles of the actual technique you use when you write things down, it forces you to be specific about what you think which makes it easier to identify distortion.

Talking about your thoughts with other people has similar effects. Social feedback helps us to spot our own distortions. That's especially true when you are speaking with capable individuals who have standards where you approve upholding those standards.

When there's an area of your life where you don't write your thoughts down and haven't spoken with anybody else about that area it's likely full of cognitive distortions.

Some reader might be thinking, "This is all nice and dandy, Quaerendo, but I cannot relate to the examples above... my cognition isn't distorted to that extent." Well, let me refer you to UTexas CMHC:
Maybe you are being realistic. Just for the sake of argument, what if you're only 90% realistic and 10% unrealistic? That mean's you're worrying 10% "more" than you really have to.

Not intending to be overly negative, but this is not a good argument for anything and also doesn't answer the hypothetical question of not relating to the examples. It sounds like, "You're not perfect along this dimension, so you should devote energy to it!" -- which is definitely not the case.

I appreciate the list of distortions; such lists are nice raw material.