Cognitive distortions are irrational thought patterns that distort reality and lead to negative thinking or emotions.
These patterns of thought are often deeply ingrained and can significantly impact an individual’s worldview and emotional well-being (Reber, 2019).
Cognitive distortions can become problematic when they are pervasive and negatively impact an individual’s daily life, influencing their behaviour and decisions. These maladaptive thought processes can be a considerable focus in various types of therapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, where the aim is to recognize and challenge these distortions.
Identifying and understanding cognitive distortions is therefore critical for both mental health professionals and individuals seeking to improve their mental health. Despite cognitive distortions being common, they are often unnoticed due to their habitual nature, highlighting the importance of education and self-awareness.
Examples of Cognitive Distortions
- All-or-Nothing Thinking: This is a cognitive distortion where individuals perceive situations in absolute, black-and-white categories. For instance, if a student does not receive an ‘A’ grade, they may believe they’ve entirely failed. This distortion restricts their ability to see the various shades of gray in between the extremes.
- Overgeneralization: In this cognitive distortion, one isolated incident is perceived as a never-ending pattern of defeat. An individual who gets rejected once might use it to forecast an eternal future of rejections. This overgeneralization often leads to heightened feelings of despair.
- Mental Filtering: Filtering involves magnifying the negative aspects of a situation while filtering out all positive ones. A good example is a person who receives numerous compliments on a presentation but dwells on a single, slightly negative comment. They thus perceive the entire event as negative.
- Catastrophizing: Here, individuals expect the worst-case scenario to occur. For instance, someone may assume their slight cough is a symptom of a serious illness. Such irrational fears can create significant anxiety and prevent plausible risk assessments.
- Personalization: In personalization, someone assumes an excessive amount of blame for an adverse event. For instance, a mother whose teen child starts experimenting with harmful substances might blame herself entirely, believing it’s all her fault. It’s, therefore, a self-centered distortion, ignoring external contributing factors.
- Mind Reading: This cognitive distortion involves assuming we know what others are thinking without any real evidence. For instance, if a friend doesn’t text back promptly, someone might assume, “They must be upset with me.” This leads to misunderstanding and unnecessary worry as it ignores other plausible explanations for their friend’s behavior.
- Labeling: Labeling involves assigning a harsh label to oneself or others based on a single incident. An employee who makes a minor mistake might tell himself, “I’m useless.” This cognitive distortion simplifies complex realities, contributes to poor self-esteem, and inhibits personal growth.
- Magnifying or Minimizing: In this cognitive distortion, an individual amplifies the negative aspects while minimizing the positive ones. A musician might magnify one slight pitch error during a performance while minimizing the applause and praise they received. This leads to a skewed perception of events, often resulting in undue stress and negativity.
- Emotional Reasoning: Emotional reasoning involves making decisions and arguments based on how you feel rather than objective reality. A person feeling low might think, “I feel like a failure; therefore, I must be a failure.” Emotion does not always reflect reality, and relying solely on it can result in poor judgment and self-deceiving biases.
- Should Statements: This cognitive distortion is characterized by imposing a set of unrealistic expectations on oneself and others. For example, a person might frequently think, “I should always be productive,” leading to guilt when they relax. It’s a rigid way of thinking that can create unnecessary pressure and disappointment.
- Control Fallacies: This distortion involves feeling as if everything that happens is either a direct result of our actions or completely out of our control. For example, a person may believe that their happiness is solely dependent on their partner’s mood. This distortion leads to powerlessness or unjust self-blame, hindering personal growth and resilience.
- Fallacy of Fairness: Here, an individual feels resentful because they believe they understand what is fair, but other people do not agree with them. For instance, an employee might feel overworked and underpaid, believing “It’s not fair that I work so hard but get paid so little.” This distortion can lead to unexpressed resentment and a perpetual feeling of being short-changed.
- Fallacy of Change: This cognitive distortion is characterized by expecting others to change if we pressure or encourage them enough. For instance, a person might believe that if they nag their partner enough, their partner will become more organized. This often leads to frustration and disappointment when others fail to meet these imposed expectations.
- Always Being Right: In this cognitive distortion, being wrong is unthinkable and any evidence to the contrary is dismissed. For example, a person might argue relentlessly to justify their point of view, rejecting any opposition. This can damage relationships and prevent personal growth by shutting down new learning opportunities.
- Heaven’s Reward Fallacy: This involves expecting all sacrifices and self-denial to pay off as if there were a cosmic scorekeeper. Someone might think, “I always put others’ needs before mine, yet I never get anything good in return.” This distortion can lead to resentment and disillusionment when the expected reward does not materialize.
- Blaming: This cognitive distortion involves pointing the finger at others for one’s personal dissatisfaction or issues. For instance, one can blame a colleague for a project failure, ignoring their own responsibilities. This can lead to damaged relationships and hinder personal growth.
- Global Labeling: Here, an individual generalizes one or two qualities or events into a negative global judgment. For example, someone might label a friend who cancels plans as “flaky” which overshadows all other positive attributes. It leads to an oversimplified perspective of people and situations.
- Fortune Telling: This distortion involves predicting the worst possible outcome without factual evidence. An father might predict his child’s poor performance in a competition before it even starts. This cognitive distortion denies possibilities and contributes to anxiety.
- Regret Orientation: Regret orientation is when one focuses on the fact that present circumstances were caused by past choices and often fantasize about how things could have been. Such as wishing to have gone to a different school, this can lead to dissatisfaction and prevent them from appreciating their current circumstances.
- What if: This cognitive distortion involves asking a series of questions about “what if” something happens, and not being satisfied with any of the answers. For instance, a person might continuously wonder, “What if I lose my job?” This can lead to constant worry and hinder happiness.
- Negative Filtering: This involves taking the negative details and magnifying them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For example, a person might focus on a single negative comment in a sea of compliments. This can lead to a pessimistic viewpoint and lower self-esteem.
- Over-categorization: This is when a person oversimplifies or reduces something or someone into a category or a classification. For instance, a student with one bad grade can result in viewing themselves as an academic failure. This can induce stress and dismiss the broader, more accurate view of themselves or the situation.
- Negative Prediction: This cognitive distortion involves an irrational belief in inevitable failure or disaster. For instance, a person might believe they’re sure to fail an exam despite studying. This can affect motivation negatively and heighten anxiety.
- Inability to Disconfirm: Here, an individual rejects any evidence or arguments which might contradict their negative thoughts. For instance, a person may deny that they are loved even when provided with clear demonstrations of affection. This distortion can persist negative perspectives and beliefs, rejecting change or improvement.
- Judgment Focus: This cognitive distortion is when a person sees themselves through a judgemental lens, frequently rating or comparing their actions or accomplishments to others. For example, someone might judge themselves for not buying a house at the same age as their parent did. This can lead to an unhealthy comparison, creating stress and self-esteem issues.
- Discounting Positives: In this cognitive distortion, individuals devalue or ignore positive experiences, insisting they “don’t count”. For example, a student who receives praise for their coursework might insist it was just “luck” not skill. This mindset undermines self-esteem and fosters negativity.
- Can’t Stand-itis: This is where a person sees discomforting situations as intolerable and feels they cannot stand it. For instance, when one faces a temporary power outage, they might think, “I can’t handle this!” This cognitive distortion can exaggerate minor inconveniences creating unnecessary distress.
- Stereotyping: This cognitive distortion involves generalizing characteristics to all members of a group. For example, believing that all lawyers are deceitful based on a single experience. This can lead to prejudiced attitudes and unfair judgement, fostering division or even discrimination.
- Dependency: This is when an individual believes that they cannot make it on their own and constantly need someone. For example, a person might think, “I can’t survive without my partner.” This can create an unhealthy reliance on others and can hinder personal growth.
- Negative Self-Comparison: This cognitive distortion involves comparing oneself to others and always falling short. If a neighbor gets a new car, for instance, one might feel inferior for not having a new car. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, and negatively impact self-esteem.
- Minimization: This involves belittling or undervaluing your own positive traits, achievements, or experiences. For instance, a person might dismiss their promotions at work as insignificant. This cognitive distortion can lead to lowered self-esteem and achievement.
- Self-Blame: This cognitive distortion involves habitually blaming oneself even when an event was largely out of their control. For example, a person might blame themselves for a friend moving away. This can heighten feelings of guilt and impede self-confidence.
- Negative Perfectionism: This involves setting unrealistically high, perfectionistic standards for oneself. A student might believe they are a failure if they do not always score 100%. This can set a person up for constant disappointment, contributing to low self-esteem and anxiety.
- Magical Thinking: This is where a person believes their thoughts can directly affect the world. For instance, if they think negative thoughts about a colleague, they might believe this leads to the colleague’s misfortune. This distortion can create unnecessary guilt and superstition.
- Dichotomous Thinking: This cognitive distortion involves viewing things in ‘either-or’ categories, with no middle ground. A person might believe that if they’re not thin, it means they’re fat, neglecting the spectrum of body types in between. Dichotomous thinking can lead to oversimplification of complex issues, creating a misguided perception.
Cognitive Distortion vs Cognitive Bias
Cognitive distortions and cognitive biases are fundamentally distinct concepts, although there is a degree of overlap between the two (Bem & De Jong, 2013).
Cognitive distortions refer to erroneous and irrational thought patterns that are thought to create and reinforce negative emotions and behaviors. They are primarily negative, encompassing various all-or-nothing thinking or catastrophizing patterns that warp one’s perception of reality (Miller, 2016).
On the other hand, cognitive biases, while they might distort one’s perception of reality, are cognitive shortcuts or heuristics we use to speed up our thought processes. These biases are not necessarily negative – they can be neutral or even positive, but they can lead to systematic deviation from objective standards of judgement (Kassin, Privitera, & Clayton, 2022).
For example, an individual experiencing a cognitive distortion might conclude, after failing a single test, that they are academically hopeless [Negative Filtering]. A cognitive bias, however, might be seen in an individual who pays more attention to news that supports their political beliefs and disregards contrary information [Confirmation Bias].
Importantly, while cognitive biases often impact our thought processes and can lead to flawed decision-making, cognitive distortions are heavily ingrained, automatic, and often contribute more significantly to serious mental health issues like depression and anxiety (Reber, 2019).
Finally, while both cognitive distortions and cognitive biases require an element of self-awareness and intervention to correct, this is generally a more involved process for cognitive distortions, owing to their deeply entrenched, habitual nature (Crisp & Turner, 2020).
In conclusion, both cognitive distortions and cognitive biases can significantly impact our perception and judgements, albeit in slightly different ways, and both require conscious effort to overcome.
5 Ways to Address Cognitive Distortions
Cognitive distortions, while pervasive, can be addressed through various strategies.
- The first and one of the most effective strategies is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and cognitive restructuring (Reber, 2019). CBT, often administered by a licensed therapist, consists of identifying and challenging these distortions, and replacing them with more accurate, balanced thoughts.
- Secondly, mindfulness and meditation can be effective by bringing your attention to the present moment (Hewstone & Stroebe, 2020). This can help you recognize when you’re falling into a cognitive distortion, observe the thought without judgment, and let it pass without affecting you.
- Thirdly, engaging in regular physical exercise can alleviate the impact of cognitive distortions. Research has shown that physical exercise can alleviate stress, enhance mood, and improve cognition – all of which can buffer against cognitive distortions (Kassin, Privitera, & Clayton, 2022).
- A fourth strategy is journaling. Writing about your thoughts and feelings can help you identify patterns and triggers of cognitive distortions (Miller, 2016). It can lend perspective and let you see your thoughts objectively.
- Finally, peer and social support can be crucial in managing cognitive distortions (Crisp & Turner, 2020). Humans are social creatures, and sharing our thoughts and feelings with trusted friends and family can provide a fresh perspective, validation, and advice on how to address these distortions.
In essence, addressing cognitive distortions involves self-reflection, professional support, and proactive strategies. The first step, however, is always awareness. You can’t change what you don’t recognize. After recognizing, these strategies can be incorporated into one’s daily life to navigate the challenge of cognitive distortions.
Cognitive distortions, often recognized as irrational or inaccurate thoughts, can significantly influence an individual’s emotions, mindset, and behavior. Understanding the difference between cognitive distortions and cognitive biases is vital, as each serves a distinct role in shaping our perception of reality. Various strategies, such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, mindfulness, physical exercise, journaling, and peer support, can be employed to counter these distortions. Increasing awareness of these distortions serves as the groundwork for initiating change, ideally fostering healthier thought patterns and improving overall mental well-being.
Reber, R. (2019). Psychology: The Basics. London: Taylor & Francis.
Miller, H. (2016). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Theory in Psychology. New York: Sage.
Kassin, S., Privitera, J. and Clayton, K. (2022). Essentials of Psychology.
New York: Sage. Crisp, R. J. and Turner, R. N. (2020). Essential Social Psychology. London: Sage. Bem, S., & De Jong, H. L. (2013). Theoretical issues in psychology: An introduction. London: Sage.
Hewstone, M. and Stroebe, W. (2020). An Introduction to Social Psychology. New York: Wiley.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]