We tend to trust what goes on in our brains. After all, if you can’t trust your own brain, what can you trust?
Generally, this is a good thing – our brain has been wired to alert us to danger, attract us to potential mates, and find solutions to the problems we encounter every day.
However, there are some occasions when you may want to second guess what your brain is telling you. It’s not that your brain is purposely lying to you, it’s just that it may have developed some faulty or non-helpful connections over time.
It can be surprisingly easy to create faulty connections in the brain. Our brains are predisposed to making connections between thoughts, ideas, actions, and consequences, whether they are truly connected or not.
This tendency to make connections where there is no true relationship is the basis of a common problem when it comes to interpreting research: the assumption that because two variables are correlated, one causes or leads to the other. The refrain “correlation does not equal causation!” is a familiar one to any student of psychology or the social sciences.
It is all too easy to view a coincidence or a complicated relationship and make false or overly simplistic assumptions in research, just as it is surprisingly easy to connect two events or thoughts that occur around the same time when there are no real ties between them.
There are many terms for this kind of mistake in social science research, complete with academic jargon and overly complicated phrasing. In the context of our thoughts and beliefs, these mistakes are referred to as “cognitive distortions.”
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What are Cognitive Distortions? A Definition
Cognitive distortions are exactly what the name implies: distortions in our cognition. Put another way, cognitive distortions are biased perspectives we take on ourselves and the world around us. They are irrational thoughts and beliefs that we unknowingly reinforce over time.
These patterns and systems of thought are often subtle – it’s difficult to recognize them when they are a regular feature of your day-to-day thoughts. That is why they can be so damaging, since it’s hard to change what you don’t recognize as something that needs to change!
Cognitive distortions come in many forms (which we’ll cover later in this piece), but they all have some things in common.
All cognitive distortions are:
- Tendencies or patterns of thinking or believing…
- That are false or inaccurate…
- And have the potential to cause psychological damage.
It can be scary to admit that you may fall prey to distorted thinking. You might be thinking, “There’s no way I am holding on to any blatantly false beliefs!” While most people don’t suffer in their daily lives from these kinds of cognitive distortions, it seems that no one can completely escape these distortions.
If you’re human, you have likely fallen for a few of the numerous cognitive distortions at one time or another. The difference between those who occasionally stumble into a cognitive distortion and those who struggle with them on a more long-term basis is the ability to identify and modify or correct these faulty patterns of thinking. As with many skills and abilities in life, some are far better at this than others.
These distortions have been shown to relate positively to symptoms of depression, meaning that where cognitive distortions abound, symptoms of depression are likely to occur as well (Burns, Shaw, & Croker, 1987).
In the words of renowned psychiatrist and researcher David Burns:
“I suspect you will find that a great many of your negative feelings are in fact based on such thinking errors.”
Errors in thinking, or cognitive distortions, are particularly effective at provoking or exacerbating symptoms of depression. It is still a bit ambiguous as to whether these distortions cause depression or depression brings out these distortions (after all, correlation does not equal causation!) but it is clear that they frequently go hand-in-hand.
Much of what we know about cognitive distortions comes from the vast body of research conducted by two researchers at the forefront of the field of psychiatry and psychotherapy: Aaron Beck and David Burns.
Experts in Cognitive Distortions: Aaron Beck and David Burns
If you dig any deeper into cognitive distortions and their role in depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, you will run into two names over and over again: Aaron Beck and David Burns.
These two psychologists literally wrote the book(s) on depression, cognitive distortions, and the treatment of these problems.
Aaron Beck began his career at Yale Medical School, where he graduated in 1946 (Aaron T. Beck Psychopathology ResearchCenter, n.d.). His required rotations in psychiatry during his residency ignited his passion for research on depression, suicide, and effective treatment. In 1954, he joined the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Psychiatry, where he still holds the position of Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry.
In addition to his prodigious catalogue of publications, Beck founded the Beck Initiative to teach therapists how to conduct cognitive therapy with their patients, an endeavor that has helped cognitive therapy grow into the therapy juggernaut that it is today.
Beck also applied his knowledge as a member or consultant for the National Institute of Mental Health, an editor for several peer-reviewed journals, and lectures and visiting professorships at various academic institutions throughout the world (Aaron T. Beck Psychopathology Research Center, n.d.).
While there are clearly many honors, awards, and achievements Beck may be known for, perhaps his greatest contribution to the field of psychology is his role in the development of cognitive therapy.
Beck developed the basis for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, when he noticed that many of his patients struggling with depression were operating on false assumptions and distorted thinking (Good Therapy, 2015). He connected these distorted thinking patterns with his patients’ symptoms, and hypothesized that changing their thinking could change their symptoms.
This is the foundation of CBT – the idea that our thought patterns and deeply held beliefs about ourselves and the world around us drive our experiences, can lead to mental health disorders when they are distorted, and can be modified or changed to eliminate troublesome symptoms.
In line with his general research focus, Beck also developed two important scales that are among some of the most used scales in psychology: the Beck Depression Inventory and the Beck Hopelessness Scale. These scales are used to evaluate symptoms of depression and risk of suicide, and are still applied decades after their original development (Good Therapy, 2015).
Another big name in depression and treatment research, Dr. David Burns also spent some time learning and developing his skills at the University of Pennsylvania – it seems that UPenn is particularly good at producing future leaders in psychology!
Burns graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and moved on to the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, where he completed his psychiatry residency and cemented his interest in the treatment of mental health disorders (Feeling Good, n.d.).
He is currently serving as a Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, in addition to continuing his research on treating depression and training therapists to conduct effective psychotherapy sessions (Feeling Good, n.d.). Much of his work is based on Beck’s research revealing the potential impacts of distorted thinking and suggesting ways to correct this thinking.
He is perhaps most well known outside of strictly academic circles for his worldwide best-selling book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. This book has sold more than 4 million copies within the United States alone, and is often recommended by therapists to their patients struggling with depression (Summit for Clinical Excellence, n.d.).
This book outlines Burns’ approach for treating depression, which mostly focuses on identifying, correcting, and replacing distorted systems and patterns of thinking. If you are interested in learning more about this book, you can find it on Amazon at this link with over 1,400 reviews to help you evaluate its effectiveness.
To hear more about Burns’ work in the treatment of depression, check out his TED talk on the subject below.
A List of the Most Common Cognitive Distortions
Beck and Burns are not the only two researchers who have dedicated their careers to learning more about depression, cognitive distortions, and treatment for these conditions. There are many others who have picked up the torch for this research as well, often with their own take on cognitive distortions. As such, there are numerous cognitive distortions floating around in the literature, but we’ll limit this list to the most common sixteen.
The first eleven distortions come straight from Burns’ Feeling Good Handbook (1989).
1. All-or-Nothing Thinking / Polarized Thinking
Also known as “Black-and-White Thinking,” this distortion manifests as an inability or unwillingness to see shades of gray. In other words, you see things in terms of extremes – something is either fantastic or awful, you are either perfect or a total failure.
This sneaky distortion takes one instance or example and generalizes it to an overall pattern. For example, a student may receive a C on one test and conclude that she is stupid and a failure. Overgeneralizing can lead to overly negative thoughts about oneself and one’s environment based on only one or two experiences.
3. Mental Filter
Similar to overgeneralization, the mental filter distortion focuses on a single negative and excludes all the positive. An example of this distortion is one partner in a romantic relationship dwelling on a single negative comment made by the other partner and viewing the relationship as hopelessly lost, while ignoring the years of positive comments and experiences. The mental filter can foster a negative view of everything around you by focusing only on the negative.
4. Disqualifying the Positive
On the flipside, the “Disqualifying the Positive” distortion acknowledges positive experiences, but rejects them instead of embracing them. For example, a person who receives a positive review at work might reject the idea that he is a competent employee and attribute the positive review to political correctness or to his boss simply not wanting to talk about his employee’s performance problems. This is an especially malignant distortion, since it can facilitate the continuance of negative thought patterns even in the face of lots of evidence to the contrary.
5. Jumping to Conclusions – Mind Reading
This “Jumping to Conclusions” distortion manifests as the inaccurate belief that we know what another person is thinking. Of course, it is possible to have an idea of what other people are thinking, but this distortion refers to the negative interpretations that we jump to. Seeing a stranger with an unpleasant expression and jumping to the conclusion that she is thinking something negative about you is an instance of this distortion.
6. Jumping to Conclusions – Fortune Telling
A sister distortion to mind reading, fortune telling refers to the tendency to make conclusions and predictions based on little to no evidence, and holding them as gospel truth. One example of fortune telling is a young, single woman predicting that she will never find love or have a committed and happy relationship based only on the fact that she has not found it yet. There is simply no way for her to know how her life will turn out, but she sees this prediction as fact rather than one of several possible outcomes.
7. Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization
Also known as the “Binocular Trick” for its stealthy skewing of your perspective, this distortion involves exaggerating the importance or meaning of things or minimizing the importance or meaning of things. An athlete who is generally a good player but makes a mistake may magnify the importance of that mistake and believe that he is a terrible teammate, while an athlete who wins a coveted award in her sport may minimize the importance of the award and continue believing that she is only a mediocre player.
8. Emotional Reasoning
This may be one of the most surprising distortions to many readers, and it is also one of the most important to identify and address. The logic behind this distortion is not surprising to most people; rather, it is the realization that virtually all of us have bought in to this distortion at one time or another. Emotional reasoning refers to the acceptance of one’s emotions as fact. It can be described as “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” Of course, we know this isn’t a reasonable belief, but it is a common one nonetheless.
9. Should Statements
Another particularly damaging distortion is the tendency to make “should” statements. Should statements are statements that you make to yourself about what you “should” do, what you “ought” to do, or what you “must” do. They can also be applied to others, imposing a set of expectations that will likely not be met. When we hang on too tightly to our “should” statements about ourselves, the result is often guilt that we cannot live up to them. When he cling to our “should” statements about others, we are generally disappointed by the failure of the others to meet our expectations, leading to anger and resentment.
10. Labeling and Mislabeling
These tendencies are basically extreme forms of overgeneralization, in which we assign judgments of value to ourselves or to others based on one instance or experience. For example, a student who labels herself as “an utter fool” for failing an assignment is engaging in this distortion, as is the waiter who labels a customer “a grumpy old miser” if he fails to thank the waiter for bringing his food. Mislabeling refers to the application of highly emotional, loaded language when labeling.
As the name implies, this distortion involves taking everything personally or assigning blame to yourself with no logical reason to believe you are to blame. This distortion covers a wide range of situations, from assuming you are the reason a friend did not enjoy the girl’s night out because of you, to the more severe examples of believing that you are the cause for every instance of moodiness or irritation in those around you.
In addition to these basic cognitive distortions, Beck and Burns have mentioned a few others (Beck, 1976; Burns, 1980):
12. Control Fallacies
A control fallacy manifests as one of two beliefs: (1) that we have no control over our lives and are helpless victims of fate, or (2) that we are in complete control of ourselves and our surroundings, giving us responsibility for the feelings of those around us. Both beliefs are damaging, and both are equally inaccurate. No one is in complete control of what happens to them, and no one has absolutely no control over their situation. Even in extreme situations where an individual seemingly has no choices in what they do, where they go, or what they say, they still have a certain amount of control over how they approach their situation mentally.
13. Fallacy of Fairness
While we would all probably prefer to operate in a world that is fair, this assumption is not based in reality and can foster negative feelings when we are faced with proof of life’s unfairness. A person who judges every experience by its perceived fairness has fallen for this fallacy, and will likely feel anger, resentment, and hopelessness when he inevitably encounters a situation that is not fair.
14. Fallacy of Change
Another fallacy distortion involves expecting others to change if we pressure or encourage them enough. This distortion is usually accompanied by a belief that our happiness and success rests on other people, leading us to believe that forcing those around us to change is the only way to get what we want. A man who thinks “If I just encourage my wife to stop doing the things that irritate me, I can be a better husband and a happier person” is exhibiting the fallacy of change.
15. Always Being Right
Perfectionists and those struggling with Imposter Syndrome will recognize this distortion – it is the belief that we must always be right, correct, or accurate. With this distortion, the idea that we could be wrong is absolutely unacceptable, and we will fight to the metaphorical death to prove that we are right. For example, the internet commenters who spends hours arguing with each other over an opinion or political issue far beyond the point where reasonable individuals would conclude that they should “agree to disagree” are engaging in the “Always Being Right” distortion. To them, it is not simply a matter of a difference of opinion, it is an intellectual battle that must be won at all costs.
16. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy
This distortion is a popular one, particularly with the myriad examples of this fallacy playing out on big and small screens across the world. The “Heaven’s Reward Fallacy” manifests as a belief that one’s struggles, one’s suffering, and one’s hard work will result in a just reward. It is obvious why this type of thinking is a distortion – how many examples can you think of, just within the realm of your personal acquaintances, where hard work and sacrifice did not pay off? Sometimes no matter how hard we work or how much we sacrifice, we will not achieve what we hope to achieve. To think otherwise is a potentially damaging pattern of thought that can result in disappointment, frustration, anger, and even depression when the awaited reward does not materialize.
Changing Your Thinking: Examples of Techniques to Combat Cognitive Distortions
These distortions, while common and potentially extremely damaging, are not something we must simply resign ourselves to living with. Beck, Burns, and other researchers in this area have developed numerous ways to identify, challenge, minimize, or erase these distortions from our thinking.
Some of the most effective and evidence-backed techniques and resources are listed below.
Unhelpful Thinking Styles
Since you must first identify the distortions you struggle with before you can effectively challenge them, this resource is a must-have.
The Unhelpful Thinking Styles handout lists and describes several types of cognitive distortions to help you figure out which ones you might be dealing with.
The distortions listed include:
- All or Nothing Thinking
- Mental Filter
- Disqualifying the Positive
- Jumping to Conclusions: Mind Reading/Fortune Telling
- Magnification (Catastrophizing) and Minimization
- Emotional Reasoning
- Should/Must Statements
The descriptions are accompanied by engaging depictions of the distortions in action.
Click here to view this handout.
CBT Thought Record
This worksheet is an excellent tool for identifying cognitive distortions. Our automatic, negative thoughts are often related to a distortion that we may or may not realize we have. Completing this exercise can help you to figure out where you are making inaccurate assumptions or jumping to false conclusions.
The worksheet opens with space to describe the situation in which the negative automatic thought arose. The instructions are to identify where you were and what you were doing, as well as any other pertinent contextual information.
Next, you are instructed to rate the strength of the emotion or feeling the situation evoked on a scale from 0% (weakest) to 100% (strongest).
The third component of the worksheet directs you to write down the negative automatic thought, including any images or feelings that accompanied the thought.
After you have identified the thought, the worksheet instructs you to note the evidence, both for the accuracy of the thought and against the accuracy of the thought. This is a classic mechanism used in many situations, and can help you to make an informed decision about the accuracy of your thoughts.
Next, you have an opportunity to create an alternative thought that can replace the automatic negative thought. Using the evidence for and against the initial thought, you can come up with a thought that is more accurate.
Finally, you are instructed to rate the strength of the emotion or feeling once again. The hope is that the intensity of the feeling has decreased due to the evidence-based evaluation of its accuracy.
You can access the worksheet here.
This is a particularly good tool for talking yourself out of catastrophizing a situation.
The worksheet begins with space to identify the catastrophe that you are worrying about. You should clearly state the predicted catastrophe and avoid using “What if…?” statements. You can also rate how terrible you believe this catastrophe will be on a scale from 0% (not so bad) to 100% (absolutely awful).
Once you have articulated the catastrophe that is worrying you, you can move on to thinking about how likely the event is to actually happen. Consider whether a similar event has occurred in your past and, if so, how often it occurred. With the frequency of this catastrophe in mind, make an educated guess of how likely it is to happen.
Next, think about how terrible it would be if the catastrophe actually came to pass. Consider the worst case scenario as well as the best case scenario. Try to put yourself in a friend’s shoes and think about what you would say to yourself about your worry.
Once you have a good idea of how bad the catastrophe would actually be, think about how you would cope with the fallout. Note whether this has come to pass before and, if so, how you coped when it happened. Consider the resources you have at your disposal to help you cope, including friends and loved ones, skills or abilities you have, and methods or techniques that help you cope in other situations.
Finally, you are directed to put together a narrative about the “catastrophe” based on the work you have done. Think about what you would like to hear in order to feel reassured, and what kind of tone would be most helpful. Once you have come up with something positive and reassuring to say to yourself about the potential catastrophe, rate how terrible you think the catastrophe will be once again.
Just as the repeated rating in the previous exercise is intended to do, this repeated rating should show a decrease in negative thinking.
This worksheet can be an excellent resource for anyone who is worrying excessively about a potential negative event. You can view, download, or print this worksheet here.
Modifying Rules and Assumptions
Cognitive distortions include assumptions and rules that we hold dearly, or have decided we must live by. Sometimes these rules or assumptions help us to stick to our values or our moral code, but often they can limit and frustrate us.
This exercise can help you to think more critically about an assumption or rule that may be harmful.
First, you list the rule or assumption that you live by but would like to modify.
Next, you describe how the rule or assumption affects you in your day to day life.
Once you have explained how the rule or assumption impacts you, you are directed to think about where it came from. Consider when you acquired this rule, how you learned about it, and what was happening in your life that encouraged you to adopt it.
Now that you have outlined a definition of the rule or assumption and its origins and impact on your life, you can move on to comparing its advantages and disadvantages. Every rule or assumption we follow will likely have both advantages and disadvantages. The presence of one advantage does not mean the rule or assumption is necessarily a good one, just as the presence of one disadvantage does not automatically make the rule or assumption a bad one. This is where you must think critically about how the rule or assumption helps and/or hurts you.
Finally, you have an opportunity to think about everything you have listed and come up with a potential alternative rule or assumption that would suit you better. This may be a small change or a big modification. However you decide to change the rule or assumption, the new version should maximize the advantages of the rule, minimize or limit the disadvantages, or both. Consider how you can put this new and improved rule into practice in your daily life.
You can find this worksheet at this link.
Fact or Opinion
This is one of the first lessons that participants in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) learn – that facts are not opinions. As obvious as this seems, it can be difficult to remember and adhere to this fact in your day to day life.
This exercise can help you learn the difference between fact and opinion, and prepare you to distinguish between your own opinions and facts.
The worksheet lists the following fifteen statements and asks the reader to decide whether they are fact or opinion:
- I’m a bad person.
- Sam told me that she didn’t like what I said about her.
- Nothing ever goes right.
- This will be a disaster.
- I’m not as attractive as they are.
- I failed the test.
- I am overweight.
- He shouted at me.
- I’m selfish.
- There’s something wrong with me.
- I’m lazy.
- I didn’t lend my friend money when they asked.
- My feet are too big.
- I’m ugly.
- No-one will ever love me.
Practicing making this distinction between fact and opinion can improve your ability to quickly differentiate between the two when they pop up in your own thoughts.
You can access this worksheet and view, print, or download it at this link.
In case you’re wondering which is which, here is the key:
- I’m a bad person. Opinion
- Sam told me that she didn’t like what I said about her. Fact
- Nothing ever goes right. Opinion
- This will be a disaster. Opinion
- I’m not as attractive as they are. Opinion
- I failed the test. Fact
- I am overweight. Fact
- He shouted at me. Fact
- I’m selfish. Opinion
- There’s something wrong with me. Opinion
- I’m lazy. Opinion
- I didn’t lend my friend money when they asked. Fact
- My feet are too big. Opinion
- I’m ugly. Opinion
- No-one will ever love me. Opinion
Putting Thoughts on Trial
This exercise uses CBT theory and techniques to help you examine your irrational thoughts. You will act as the defense attorney, prosecutor, and judge all at once, providing evidence for and against the irrational thought and evaluating the merit of the thought based on this evidence.
The worksheet begins with an explanation of the exercise and a description of the roles you will be playing.
The first box to be completed is “The Thought.” This is where you write down the irrational thought that is being put on trial.
Next, you fill out “The Defense” box with evidence that corroborates or supports the thought.
Once you have listed all of defense’s evidence, do the same for “The Prosecution” box. Write down all of the evidence calling the thought into question or instilling doubt in its accuracy.
When you have listed all of the evidence you can think of, both for and against the thought, evaluate the evidence and write down the results of your evaluation in “The Judge’s Verdict” box.
This worksheet is a fun and engaging way to think critically about your negative or irrational thoughts and make good decisions about which thoughts to modify and which to embrace.
Click here to see this worksheet for yourself.
A Take Home Message
Hopefully this piece has given you a good understanding of cognitive distortions. These sneaky, inaccurate patterns of thinking and believing are common, but their potential impact should not be underestimated.
Even if you are not struggling with depression, anxiety, or another serious mental health issue, it doesn’t hurt to evaluate your own thoughts every now and then. The sooner you catch a cognitive distortion and mount a defense against it, the less likely it is to make a negative impact on your life.
What do you think about cognitive distortions? Have you experienced some of these yourself? Do you think we missed any important ones? How have you tackled them, whether in CBT or on your own? Let us know in the comments!
Thanks for reading!
- Aaron T. Beck Psychopathology Research Center. (n.d.). Aaron T. Beck, M.D. Aaron Beck Center. Retrieved from https://aaronbeckcenter.org/beck/
- Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York, NY, US: New American Library.
- Burns, D. D. (1980). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York, NY, US: New American Library.
- Burns, D. D. (1989). The feeling good handbook. New York, NY, US: Morrow.
- Burns, D. D., Shaw, B. F., & Croker, W. (1987). Thinking styles and coping strategies of depressed women: An empirical investigation. Behaviour Research and Therapy 25, 223-225. doi:10.1016/0005-7967(87)90049-0
- Feeling Good. (n.d.). About. Feeling Good. Retrieved from https://feelinggood.com/about/
- Good Therapy. (2015). Aaron Beck. Good Therapy LLC. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/famous-psychologists/aaron-beck.html
- Summit for Clinical Excellence. (n.d.). David Burns, MD. Summit for Clinical Excellence Faculty Page. Retrieved from https://summitforclinicalexcellence.com/partners/faculty/david-burns/