Cognitive distortions (+ 5 key insights)

In this article, we will learn about cognitive distortions and discuss the different types of cognitive distortion.

What are cognitive distortions? 

Cognitive distortions are the negative biases in thinking that are theorized to represent vulnerability factors for various different mental health disorders. Cognitive distortions refer to irrational, inflated thoughts or beliefs that distort a person’s perception of reality, usually in a negative sense. 

Cognitive distortions are common but can be really difficult to recognize when you don’t know what to look for. 

Most of the cognitive distortions occur as automatic thoughts. They are habitual that the person often doesn’t even realize s/he has the power to change them. Most of the people who have cognitive distortions grow to believe that’s how things are.  

Cognitive distortions can take a serious toll on a person’s mental health, causing increased and severe stress, depression, and anxiety. If left unchecked, these automatic thought patterns can become entrenched and may negatively influence the rational, logical, and creative way of decision-making and problem-solving behavior.

What are the types of cognitive distortions?

Below is the list a few cognitive distortions that might hinder a person’s cognitive processes and ultimately his/her perception of reality:

  • Polarized thinking
  • Overgeneralization
  • Catastrophizing
  • Personalization
  • Mind reading
  • Mental filtering
  • Discounting the positive
  • “Should” statements
  • Emotional reasoning
  • Labeling
  • Jumping to conclusions
  • Magnification

Polarized thinking

Polarized thinking, also referred to as all-or-nothing as well as black and white thinking, is a kind of cognitive distortion where people habitually think in extremes. It is extremely unrealistic and often unhelpful because most of the time reality exists somewhere in between the two extremes.

An example of polarized thinking is when a person is convinced that you’re either destined for success or doomed to failure, that people in their lives are either evil or angelic, and so on

Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization is a cognitive distortion when people overgeneralize, they reach a conclusion about one event and then incorrectly apply that conclusion across the board. For instance, you make a low score on one math test and conclude that you’re hopeless at math in general.

You have a negative experience in one relationship and develop a belief that you just aren’t good at relationships at all. It has been associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders.

Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing is a type of cognitive distortion thinking that leads people to dread or assume the worst when faced with the unknown. When people catastrophize, ordinary worries can quickly escalate. For instance, an expected check doesn’t arrive in the mail. A person who catastrophizes may begin to fear it will never arrive, and that as a consequence it won’t be possible to pay rent and the whole family will be evicted.

It’s easy to dismiss catastrophizing as a hysterical over-reaction, but people who have developed this cognitive distortion may have experienced repeated adverse events — like chronic pain or childhood trauma — so often that they fear the worst in many situations.

Personalization

One of the most common errors in thinking is taking things personally when they’re not connected to or caused by you at all. You may be engaging in personalization when you blame yourself for circumstances that aren’t your fault or are beyond your control. Another example is when you incorrectly assume that you’ve been intentionally excluded or targeted. Researchers have associated personalization with heightened anxiety and depression.

Mind reading

When people assume they know what others are thinking, they’re resorting to mind reading. It can be hard to distinguish between mind reading and empathy — the ability to perceive and understand what others may be feeling. To tell the difference between the two, it might be helpful to consider all the evidence, not just the evidence that confirms your suspicions or beliefs.

Fortune Telling

A fortune-telling-type thinker tends to predict the future and usually foresees a negative outcome. Such a thinker arbitrarily predicts that things will turn out poorly. Before a concert or movie, you might hear him or she say, “I just know that all the tickets will be sold out when we get there.”

Mental filtering

Another type of cognitive distortion is mental filtering which can be described as the tendency to ignore positives and focus exclusively on negatives. Interpreting circumstances using a negative mental filter is not only inaccurate, it can worsen anxiety and depression symptoms. Studies have shown that having a negative perspective of yourself and your future can cause feelings of hopelessness. These thoughts may become extreme enough to trigger suicidal thoughts.

Discounting the positive

Similar to mental filters, discounting the positive also involves a negative bias in thinking. People who tend to discount the positive don’t ignore or overlook something positive. Instead, they explain it away as a fluke or sheer luck. Instead of acknowledging that a good outcome is the result of skill, smart choices, or determination, they assume that it must be an accident or some type of anomaly.

When people believe they have no control over their circumstances, it can reduce motivation and cultivate a sense of “learned helplessness.”

“Should” statements

When people find themselves thinking in terms of what “should” and “ought” to be said or done, it’s possible that a cognitive distortion is at work. It’s rarely helpful to chastise yourself with what you “should” be able to do in a given situation. “Should” and “ought” statements are often used by the thinker to take on a negative view of their life. These types of thoughts are often rooted in the internalized family or cultural expectations which might not be appropriate for an individual. Such thoughts can diminish your self-esteem and raise anxiety levels

Emotional reasoning

Emotional reasoning is the false belief that your emotions are the truth — that the way you feel about a situation is a reliable indicator of reality. While it’s important to listen to, validate, and express emotion, it’s equally important to judge reality based on rational evidence. Studies have also found that emotional reasoning is a common cognitive distortion. It’s a pattern of thinking that’s used by people with and without anxiety and/or depression.

Labeling

Labeling is a cognitive distortion in which people reduce themselves or other people to a single, usually negative, characteristic or descriptor, like “drunk” or “failure.” When people label, they define themselves and others based on a single event or behavior. Labeling can cause people to berate themselves. It can also cause the thinker to misunderstand or underestimate others. This misperception can cause real problems between people. No one wants to be labeled.

Magnification

Magnification is exaggerating the importance of shortcomings and problems while minimizing the importance of desirable qualities. A person who is addicted to pain medication might magnify the importance of eliminating all pain and exaggerate how unbearable their plan is. 

Minimizing

The same person who experiences the magnifying distortion may minimize positive events. These distortions sometimes occur in conjunction with each other. A person who distorts reality by minimizing may think something like, “Yes, I got a raise, but it wasn’t very big and I’m still not very good at my job.”

Control Fallacies

Control fallacies can go two opposite ways: You either feel responsible or in control of everything in your and other people’s lives, or you feel you have no control at all over anything in your life. For example, you couldn’t complete a report that was due today. You immediately think, “Of course I couldn’t complete it! My boss is overworking me, and everyone was so loud today at the office. Who can get anything done like that?” In this example, you place all control of your behavior on someone else or an external circumstance. This is an external control fallacy.

The other type of control fallacy is based on the belief that your actions and presence impact or control the lives of others. For example, you think you make someone else happy or unhappy. You think all of their emotions are controlled directly or indirectly by your behaviors.

Fallacy of fairness

This cognitive distortion refers to measuring every behavior and situation on a scale of fairness. Finding that other people don’t assign the same value of fairness to the event makes you resentful. In other words, you believe you know what’s fair and what isn’t, and it upsets you when other people disagree with you. 

The fallacy of fairness will lead you to face conflict with certain people and situations because you feel the need for everything to be “fair” according to your own parameters.

But fairness is rarely absolute and can often be self-serving. For example, you expect your partner to come home and massage your feet. It’s only “fair” since you spent all afternoon making them dinner. But they arrive exhausted and only want to take a bath. They believe it’s “fair” to take a moment to relax from the day’s chaos, so they can pay full attention to you and enjoy your dinner instead of being distracted and tired.

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FAQs related to cognitive distortions

What are the 10 cognitive distortions?

Below is the list of a few cognitive distortions:

  • Polarized thinking
  • Overgeneralization
  • Catastrophizing
  • Personalization
  • Mind reading
  • Fortune telling
  • Mental filtering
  • Discounting the positive
  • “Should” statements
  • Emotional reasoning

What are the 15 cognitive distortions?

Below is the list of a few cognitive distortions:

  • Polarized thinking
  • Overgeneralization
  • Catastrophizing
  • Personalization
  • Mind reading
  • Fortune telling
  • Mental filtering
  • Discounting the positive
  • “Should” statements
  • Emotional reasoning
  • Labeling
  • Magnification
  • Minimizing
  • Control Fallacy
  • Fallacies of fairness

What are the 12 cognitive distortions?

Below is the list of a few cognitive distortions:

  • Polarized thinking
  • Overgeneralization
  • Catastrophizing
  • Personalization
  • Mind reading
  • Fortune telling
  • Mental filtering
  • Discounting the positive
  • “Should” statements
  • Emotional reasoning
  • Labeling
  • Magnification

What causes cognitive distortions?

Cognitive disorders are caused by a variety of factors. Some are due to hormonal imbalances in the womb, others to genetic predisposition, and still others to environmental factors. Common environmental causes of cognitive disorders include a lack of proper nutrients and interaction during vulnerable stages of cognitive development, particularly during infancy.

Other common causes of cognitive disorder include substance abuse and physical injury. When an area of the brain that determines cognitive function is damaged, either by the excessive use of drugs, by alcohol, or from physical trauma, those neurophysiological changes can result in cognitive dysfunction.

Is cognitive distortion a mental illness?

Cognitive distortion in itself is not a mental illness however, people with mental illness have cognitive distortion. Moreover, cognitive distortion can lead to mental health illnesses.

What are the 4 steps of cognitive restructuring?

Cognitive restructuring is a useful technique for understanding unhappy feelings and moods and for challenging the sometimes-wrong “automatic beliefs” that can lie behind them. As such, you can use it to reframe the unnecessary negative thinking that we all experience from time to time. 

Cognitive restructuring was developed by psychologist Albert Ellis based on the earlier works of others and it’s a core component in cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive restructuring has been used successfully to treat a wide variety of conditions, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addictions, anxiety, social phobias, relationship issues and stress. Follow the steps below to use the cognitive restructuring technique:

Calm yourself 

If you’re stressed by the thoughts you want to explore, you may find it difficult to concentrate. Try to use meditation and deep breathing to calm yourself down if you feel particularly stressed about something

Identify the situation

Start by describing the situation that triggered your negative mood.

Analyze your mood

Write down the mood, or moods, that you felt during the situation. 

Here, moods are the fundamental feelings that we have, but they are not thoughts about the situation. The difference between moods and thoughts is that you can usually describe moods in one word while thoughts are more complex.

Identify automatic thoughts

Now, write down the natural reactions, or automatic thoughts, you experienced when you felt mood.

Find Objective Supportive evidence

Identify the evidence that objectively supports your automatic thoughts. Your goal is to look objectively at what happened and then to write down specific events or comments that led to your automatic thoughts.

Find objective contradictory evidence

Next, identify and write down evidence that contradicts the automatic thought.

Identify fair and balanced thoughts

By this stage, you’ve looked at both sides of the situation. You should now have the information you need to take a fair, balanced view of what happened. If you still feel uncertain, discuss the situation with other people or test the question in some other way. When you come to a balanced view, write these thoughts down.

Monitor your present mood

You should now have a career view of the situation and you are likely to find that your mood has improved. Write down how you feel.

Next, reflect on what you could do about the situation. By taking a balanced view, the situation may cease to be important and you might decide that you don’t need to take action. Finally, create some positive affirmations that you can use to counter any similar automatic thoughts in the future.

In this article, we started with what are cognitive distortions and then talked about a variety of different types of cognitive distortions.

If you have any questions or comments please let us know.

Reference:

Burns, D., Patterns of Cogntive Distortions (1989). The Feeling Good Handbook. Harper-Collins Publishers. New York.

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