Let’s start by clarifying what cognitive distortions are. The short and direct answer is that cognitive distortions are errors that occur in one’s thinking process. They happen automatically, became cognitive patterns due to the context in which we grew up and developed psychologically and emotionally. We’ve learned them somehow and they have become our automatic responses to the outside world and can even be detected in the relationship we have with ourselves. One more thing, they are independent of our intelligence level. Smart people can exhibit cognitive distortions. It’s not a matter of lacking intelligence, but rather being blind to something attached to us so well, that the need to observe it does not enter our awareness unless something specific happens. I would say that we start paying attention to our thought patterns either when we deliberately choose to go through a personal development process in a cognitive-driven manner or when the way we live our lives does not satisfy us anymore and try to search for ways to change it. Once we learn that by changing our thinking we can trigger desirable changes in our lives, we focus on improving our cognition.
Why should we learn to identify and manage cognitive distortions? The answer is quite simple. The way we think guides the way we relate to others, the world and the way we perceive ourselves. When these relationships rest on distorted premises, they lack authenticity and mislead us while engaging in social interactions or when we perceive ourselves. Self-image and the image of the world around us may be distorted by these automatic thoughts. In short, the way we perceive reality is deformed by the occurrence of cognitive distortions. And why would one want to look at the world or themselves through a distorted lens? We can adjust this perception by identifying and managing cognitive distortions.
I also find it useful to mention here the difference between cognitive distortions, cognitive dissonance, and cognitive bias.
Cognitive distortion – Error in the thinking process, automatic thought, erroneous thought pattern. Different from logical fallacies.
Cognitive dissonance – Occurs when two opposing thoughts reside in the same mind, generating inner conflicts and psychological distress. Cognitive dissonance is resolved by choosing one thought, idea, value or belief over the other.
Cognitive bias – Effects of our simplified patterns in information processing. They have to do with human limitations in what regards mental processing. It’s rather a subconscious process that generates them. May be also guided by cognitive distortions. They can sometimes lead to a positive outcome (for example, they can shorten the time for decision making).
So here are ten of the most encountered cognitive distortions. They are often the subject of reformulation in cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy processes.
Also known as polarized, black-or-white or all-or-nothing thinking. This cognitive pattern focuses on the extremes and excludes everything that’s in-between. Things are either good or bad, children are seen as either smart or stupid, obedient or naughty, relationships are either perfect or a waste of time. Using the black-or-white system, when dichotomous thinking is on, one cannot see the gray areas. No nuances exist in a dichotomous mind. And we need nuances. Life is filled with them. We only seldom find pure contexts in the natural world, so we need to see and know how to work with nuances.
Consider this pattern as taking the isolated and making it the rule. It’s like everything would fall into only one category and nothing lives aside that group. Often verbalized through terms like “always”, “never”, “everytime”, “everybody”. Examples: “All newspapers print lies”. This kind of formulation excludes the possibility of an honest newspaper. “You never do anything nice for me. You’re always late for dinner”. You’ve just dismissed any nice gesture the other one might have exhibited in the past towards you and you’ve also generalized a behavior that may not be the rule when it comes to being punctual for dinner.
The Mental Filter
It refers to defining a context through only one aspect and filtering out everything else. We usually filter the positive from a context and keep the negative. We then tend to define the whole context by using the negative aspect, which may have not been determinant for the situation. Let’s say you give a public speech at the end of which you get many comments, good and critical. The negative mental filter would make you consider only the bad feedback and see the whole presentation as a failure.
Disqualifying the positive
This pattern resembles the mental filter, but this time you don’t filter out the positive, but consider it to be a result of chance and hazard. For example, when one would get a good result on a test. They would rather say that the exam was easy or the teacher was generous when grading the papers, rather than seeing it as the result of one’s learning efforts and intellectual abilities.
Jumping to Conclusion
This cognitive distortion refers to reaching a conclusion while having little or no evidence at all. This type of pattern has two subtypes: Mind-reading – where one assumes a person will react in a certain way before an event occurs (“I know that my boss wanted me to leave the room so he could talk to the other managers about firing me.”) and Fortune-Telling – where one assumes things will unfold in a particular way (“I know this relationship will end anyway, so why should I bother.”).
Magnification and Minimization
Refers to considering things as having greater or less importance or meaning than they actually have. We usually tend to magnify the negative, the threat, the failure, the shortcomings and minimize the positive, the comfortable, the success and resources.
Magnification means exaggerating the importance of certain aspects of a situation. When we consider the worst possible outcome as being the most valid result, we talk about catastrophizing, as a subtype of magnification or augmentation. “The plane didn’t land at the expected time. What if there’s been an accident?”
Minimization implies assigning less significance to an aspect even though the evidence would show that these things bear more importance than that. Example: Minimization of danger. “There’s no use in locking my front door at night. This is a quiet, crime-free neighborhood.”
Assuming that if we feel in a certain way about something, then that’s something specific for that context. Considering that our feelings or emotional responses to certain situations or things must show a characteristic of that thing or situation. “I’m afraid of skiing, therefore it must be a dangerous sport.”
Also, when we feel overwhelmed by the prospects of a task, we tend to see that task as extremely hard or complicated and thus decide there is no sense in starting it at all. “I feel overwhelmed, so it must be complicated.”
Has this happened to you? Once somebody assigned you a task or manifested an expectation – a teacher, a parent, a partner – you felt compelled to respond to it, even though you didn’t quite see the purpose in relation to your own structure, goals or life? Does the imperative formulation echo in your mind giving you the impression that you have to do it?
If yes, then you’ve experienced the effect of “Should” statements. “You should be married by the time you’re thirty”, ” A good brother should always help his little sister”, “Good children obey” etc.
These “shoulds”, especially when they don’t represent our own goals, aspirations, desires or dreams, act as a stress factor in our lives. It’s the “tic-tac” you hear, although feel you shouldn’t, the guilt that comes with not fulfilling the expectations others have of you. Cutting the “shoulds” from our lives could mean less stress and also allowing ourselves to live by our own standards, not what the world “thinks” we should be, become or do.
Means judging ourselves or others based on one’s behavior, rather than what is characteristic to that person. The behavior IS the person, versus the behavior, is just something the person did. Example: “I made a mistake. Only losers make mistakes”. “Loser” is, therefore, a label.
Personalization or Blaming
It’s about placing the whole responsibility onto one single source (that usually had nothing or little to do with the results of a situation). When we place responsibility exclusively on ourselves, it’s personalization and when we assign it to others, it’s blaming.
“It’s all my fault that you didn’t pass the exam. I shouldn’t have kept you so long on the phone yesterday.” – Personalization.
“It’s all your fault that I’m sad. You never consider my feelings when you make such decisions.” – Blaming.
Now that you have seen the list above, I imagine that you understand how all of these “little monsters” that (can) exist in our head can cause us to have a flawed perception of reality in what regards ourselves or others.
There are several ways that help manage these cognitive distortions, but the first step is always identifying them. Being able to identify, analyze, diminish or eliminate cognitive distortions is an important part of Critical Thinking, a skill that I strongly support and recommend.
Article Updates: Featured Image updated March 18th, 2018.