Mental Filtering: Definition and Examples

mental filtering examples and definition, explained below

Mental filtering is a type of negative thinking pattern where a person focuses only on the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive. It is also known as cognitive filtering, negativity bias, or selective abstraction. 

For example, let’s say a student receives a positive report card with good grades in most subjects, but one subject has a lower grade. 

The student focuses only on the lower grade and ignores the good grades, feeling disappointed and overwhelmed rather than proud and happy for their accomplishments. They’ve fallen victim to mental filtering, distorting the reality into a more negative version.

In mental filtering, individuals filter out certain parts of a situation, magnify the negative, and dismiss the positive, leading to negative emotions and stuck patterns.

Those who exhibit negative thinking tend to perceive situations with a pessimistic perspective, seeing the glass as half empty instead of half full.

chrisEditor’s Note: This article is a study guide for psychology students. If you are experiencing mental filtering that is negatively affecting your life, please talk to a trained and registered therapist.

Definition of Mental Filtering

Mental filtering is a cognitive distortion or negative thinking pattern whereby an individual selectively focuses on and magnifies the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive or more realistically balanced aspects. 

According to Wang and colleagues (2023),

“…mental filtering is defined as users ignoring the positive parts of the event and focusing on the negative aspects of the event” (p. 8).

In his research, Kelly (2019) states:

“I personally struggle with my “mental filter,” a cognitive distortion in which I focus on a single negative detail, such that a realistic appraisal of events is darkened” (p. 1292).

From a cognitive psychology perspective, mental filtering is a type of cognitive processing involving selectively attending to and processing certain information over others (Fortinash & Holoday-Worret, 2014).

This process plays out as “filtering out” certain aspects of an experience or situation while distorting the perception of the remaining elements.

Mental filters partly develop through cognitive patterns, past and present experiences, and emotional responses to situations. 

They can lead to negative emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, such as anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and helplessness. 

Chronic mental filtering can result in a well-worn neural pathway that can further reinforce the negative thinking pattern and thus contribute to more significant mental health problems, requiring significant therapy and personal work to carve new paths in the mind (Rnic et al., 2016).

10 Examples of Mental Filtering

  • Exam Results: A student who earns mostly A’s on their report card but receives a single B becomes convinced they are a bad student rather than celebrating their overall success (sometimes, it’s our parents who also impose this mindset on us!).
  • Social Gatherings: Someone may feel like an outcast during a social gathering, focusing only on their awkward interactions instead of the fun conversations they engaged in. To address this, we often need to refocus our attention of a broader range of inputs – enjoyable and otherwise – rather than just the uncomfortable aspects of the experience.
  • Romantic Relationships: An individual going through a tough patch in a romantic relationship may only focus on the negative aspects, disregarding the positive ones, which can be very unfair to the partner who is suddenly framed in a skewed and negative light!
  • Stressful Work Situations: A worker who has a challenging day at work may only focus on the negatives, disregarding the positive aspects of their job. They may want to wait a week or so to calm down and re-center their thoughts before marching into their boss’s office to hand in that resignation letter.
  • Physical Fitness: Someone who is unhappy with their physical condition may filter out the progress they have made in their fitness journey, only thinking about setbacks. One way to address this is to focus on how far you’ve come rather than how far you have to go.
  • Rejection or Failure: When someone faces rejection or failure, they might filter out the times they succeeded and only focus on the negative outcomes. Journalling to consciously reflect on a wider range of experiences can help.
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): A person with GAD can selectively filter out positive events and focus only on the negative possibilities of a situation. They’ve often forged this anxious path in their minds so often that they need to actively force their brain to think in different patterns for a while.
  • Focusing on your Weaknesses: Someone who perceives themselves as socially awkward may focus solely on their social weaknesses and not acknowledge their communication skills or other great parts about their personality.
  • Eating Disorders: Individuals with an eating disorder may obsess over the negative thoughts related to their body and diet while dismissing the positive aspects of their health.
  • Chronic Pain: An individual with chronic pain might focus only on the discomfort, ignoring any positive experiences they have had throughout the day.
chrisComprehension Checkpoint: Can you think of other situations in which a person may fall into a mental filtering or negativity bias mindset? You may choose situations from your own life.

Causes of Mental Filtering

Mental filtering can be caused by various reasons, including personalization or blame, past trauma, social and cultural context, personality traits, or attention biases.

There are several causes of mental filtering:

1. Personalization or Blame

A person may automatically assume responsibility for negative events and blame themselves for perceived inadequacies or shortcomings while filtering out positive aspects of the situation.

For example, a student gets a B+ on their Math exam and thinks they are a failure even though they perform well in all other subjects.

2. Past Trauma or Negative Experiences

Mental filtering can also result from past negative experiences, such as abuse, neglect, or harsh criticism, leading to a focus on threats and negativity.

If a person who has experienced past violence might only focus on the negative aspects of new social relationships and opportunities instead of acknowledging any positive experiences.

3. Social and Cultural Context

Stereotypical and negative representations of specific races, genders, or socioeconomic status can reinforce mental filtering patterns, where positive aspects of these groups are filtered out, and negative aspects are amplified.

So, a woman in a male-dominated industry may filter out her achievements and successes and focus solely on the negative experiences of sexism and gender discrimination.

4. Personality Traits

People with certain personality traits, such as perfectionism or anxiety, may be more susceptible to mental filtering because they tend to ruminate on negative thoughts.

For example, a person with anxiety might filter out positive social interactions and dwell on small negative experiences.

5. Attentional Biases

Attentional biases refer to selective attention to environmental cues, and mental filters can develop due to observing only negative cues.

So, an individual might be driving in traffic and focus only on a few examples of bad drivers while ignoring the majority of safe drivers on the road.

Consequences of Mental Filtering

Mental filtering is a cognitive distortion with several negative consequences, including increased anxiety and depression, low self-esteem, damage to relationships, and even limited growth (Gebka, 2016).

Here are some examples of the consequences of mental filtering:

  • Increased anxiety and depression: People who experience mental filtering often focus on the negative aspects of a situation while disregarding or minimizing the positive. This can lead to increased anxiety and depression.
  • Low self-esteem: Mental filtering can also impact self-esteem, as a person focuses solely on negative aspects of a situation. People who engage in mental filtering may ignore positive aspects of themselves and their lives, leading to a poor sense of self-worth.
  • Damage to relationships: Mental filtering can negatively affect relationships. By focusing solely on negative aspects of interactions, individuals may overlook the positive, damaging interpersonal connections and causing conflicts.
  • Limited growth: This cognitive distortion can also limit growth. Those who focus only on the negative aspects of situations may miss opportunities that could lead to personal or professional growth.
  • Unhealthy self-talk: Mental filtering can lead to unhealthy self-talk. If individuals only think negatively, they might form negative thinking patterns and talk negatively about themselves.
chrisComprehension Checkpoint: Can you think of any other possible negative consequences of mental filtering that you’ve experienced in your own life?

Strategies to Overcome Mental Filtering

Overcoming mental filtering is possible with the help of mindfulness techniques, cognitive behavioral therapy, and self-reflection.

Here are some of the most common strategies:

1. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness involves focusing on the present moment and accepting thoughts and feelings without judgment.

This technique can help individuals become more aware of their thoughts and learn to identify and challenge mental filtering when it occurs. 

Practicing mindfulness through meditation and breathing exercises can help individuals become more present and aware of their thoughts and emotions (Keng et al., 2011).

2. Cognitive Restructuring

This common technique is used in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help individuals identify and challenge negative thoughts. 

During cognitive restructuring, they learn to identify negative thinking patterns and replace them with more realistic and positive perspectives (Crum, 2021).

This can involve questioning negative self-talk, reframing negative situations, and focusing on positive aspects of a situation.

3. Gratitude Journaling

This practice involves writing down things that individuals are grateful for regularly. Individuals can train themselves to see the good in any situation by focusing on the positive aspects of their lives. 

Keeping a daily gratitude journal can help individuals shift their focus from negative to positive, which can help reduce mental filtering (Komase et al., 2021).

4. Positive Self-Talk

Positive self-talk involves intentionally positively talking to oneself. This can include affirmations or reminding oneself of past successes (Walter et al., 2019).

By focusing on positive aspects of oneself, individuals can counteract negative self-talk and reduce the tendency to filter out positive experiences.

5. Professional Help

Mental filtering can be a challenging cognitive distortion to overcome on one’s own. If individuals are finding that mental filtering is negatively impacting their daily lives, it might be helpful to consult with a mental health professional. 

A therapist can help teach individuals coping skills and provide guidance on identifying and managing mental filtering. 

They may also recommend specific therapies, such as CBT or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), known for their effectiveness in treating cognitive distortions like mental filtering.

Conclusion

Mental filtering is a common cognitive distortion characterized by selective attention to negative aspects of a situation while disregarding or minimizing positive ones. 

Mental filtering can have negative consequences, including increased anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, impaired relationships, and limited personal growth. 

However, there are several effective strategies to overcome mental filtering, including mindfulness, cognitive restructuring, gratitude journaling, positive self-talk, and seeking professional help when needed. 

By learning to identify, challenge, and reframe negative thought patterns, individuals can overcome mental filtering and develop a more positive and balanced outlook on life.

References

Crum, J. (2021). Understanding mental health and cognitive restructuring with ecological neuroscience. Frontiers in Psychiatry12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.697095

Fortinash, K. M., & Holoday-Worret, P. A. (2014). Psychiatric mental health nursing. New York: Mosby.

Gebka, R. (2016). Managing depression with mindfulness for dummies. North Carolina; For Dummies, a Wiley Brand.

Kelly, J. D. (2019). Your best life. Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research477(6), 1291–1293. https://doi.org/10.1097/corr.0000000000000791

Keng, S. L., Smoski, M. J., & Robins, C. J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychology Review31(6), 1041–1056. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2011.04.006

Komase, Y., Watanabe, K., Hori, D., Nozawa, K., Hidaka, Y., Iida, M., Imamura, K., & Kawakami, N. (2021). Effects of gratitude intervention on mental health and well‐being among workers: A systematic review. Journal of Occupational Health63(1). https://doi.org/10.1002/1348-9585.12290

Rnic, K., Dozois, D. J. A., & Martin, R. A. (2016). Cognitive distortions, humor styles, and depression. Europe’s Journal of Psychology12(3), 348–362. https://doi.org/10.5964/ejop.v12i3.1118

Walter, N., Nikoleizig, L., & Alfermann, D. (2019). Effects of self-talk training on competitive anxiety, self-efficacy, volitional skills, and performance: An intervention study with junior sub-elite athletes. Sports7(6), 148. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports7060148

Wang, B., Zhao, Y., Lu, X., & Qin, B. (2023). Cognitive distortion based explainable depression detection and analysis technologies for the adolescent internet users on social media. Frontiers in Public Health10. Doi:  https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2022.1045777

Viktoriya Sus

Viktoriya Sus (MA)

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Viktoriya Sus is an academic writer specializing mainly in economics and business from Ukraine. She holds a Master’s degree in International Business from Lviv National University and has more than 6 years of experience writing for different clients. Viktoriya is passionate about researching the latest trends in economics and business. However, she also loves to explore different topics such as psychology, philosophy, and more.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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