Learn about cognitive distortions and how to challenge them.
Try to recall the last time you were waiting for a friend, or maybe your partner, to join you for dinner. As you sat at the restaurant, resisting the urge to check your phone, did you have a thought such as, “they always do this”, or “they’re never on time”? If so, you were experiencing a cognitive distortion – an immediate and inaccurate thought about a situation.
It’s unlikely that your partner or friend is late every single time you make dinner plans. If I had asked you the day before about their punctuality, you might have said that they are usually on time. In the moment, though, you experienced a very human – and very impactful – phenomenon.
Cognitive distortions are unrealistic, irrational or automatic thoughts. Sometimes we can catch a cognitive distortion as it’s happening or recognize it in hindsight; often we carry on with our lives without recognizing the inaccuracy of the thought. The more that we perceive these thoughts as truthful, the more difficult our lives are likely to be, as these distortions make us see the world as a more negative or dangerous place than it really is.
Causes of Cognitive Distortions
The idea of cognitive distortions took its current form with the creation of cognitive therapy (Beck, 1963). Coming from a long tradition of philosophical traditions that have tried to understand how thinking and feeling interact (Ellis, 1962), cognitive therapy tells us that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interrelated (Beck, 1964). Experiencing a certain emotion, for example, can lead us to a thought that would not have been prompted by a different emotion.
While we can change our thoughts to change our emotions, it is also natural and automatic for us to think after we feel. Emotions are generated by older and more primitive parts of the brain than the more cognition-oriented brain regions, and those older parts evolved not to be logical, but to keep us alive (Gilbert, 1998). Most cognitive distortions are related to experiences of negative emotions, such as feeling threatened (Beck, 1963), and with good reason: we have evolved to make quick decisions about whether we are safe, so we can take quick action to protect ourselves.
In other words, our brains evolved to bypass slow, logical thinking when immediate, gut reactions are required (Krebs & Denton, 1997). This is especially true when our brains aren’t fully developed; in fact, it is as children that we first develop these cognitive distortions (Beck, 1963).
Types of Cognitive Distortions
Here are some types of thinking errors (Burns, 1980). How many of these can you recognize from your own thinking?
All-or-nothing thinking: All-or-nothing thoughts (sometimes called black-and-white thinking, too) categorize the world into absolutes, leaving out the possibility of any gray area.
Mindreading: When we mindread, we assume that somebody else is having certain thoughts, often negative, about us. Anytime you’ve decided your partners, supervisor, or even just a person on the street is judging you – without consulting them to find out whether it’s true – you’re engaged in mindreading.
Catastrophizing: When you create a disaster scenario in your head, based on little or no concrete evidence that the event will actually happen, you are catastrophizing.
Emotional reasoning: We engage in emotional reasoning when our thoughts are driven by our emotions, not objective facts.
Labeling: When you classify yourself as a categorically bad or unworthy person because of one event that happened, you are engaged in labeling.
Mental filtering: Cognitive distortions can be driven by focusing only on negative information and ignoring or devaluing positive information.
Overgeneralization: Similar to catastrophizing, overgeneralizing means expecting more bad things to happen because one negative event has occurred.
Personalization: The act of blaming yourself for events that you aren’t (fully) responsible for is called personalization.
Should statements: Thoughts based on the idea that the world “should” or “shouldn’t” be a certain way are cognitive distortions, too.
Disqualifying the positive: When you dismiss positive things that have happened, you are distorting the way things are.
If you have identified a thought that you think might be a cognitive distortion, ask yourself some of these questions:
How do I know what I’m thinking is true? Simply “feeling like” it’s true isn’t enough. What is the evidence that someone else, who isn’t feeling the way you are and isn’t in your situation, would see or not see? If you’re thinking, “I am a bad person,” what is all the evidence that you have both positive and negative qualities? Cognitive distortions usually have very little concrete evidence — things other people would agree are facts — to support them.
What other explanations might there be? Would you feel this way if you were experiencing a different emotion? How much of this situation is truly in your control (and what’s your evidence for that?)?
What’s the worst that could happen? How likely is that to actually happen? How would you deal with it if it did happen?
Ultimately, the goal is to recognize that the thought is a distortion in some way, and then come up with a different coping thought that successfully challenges the cognitive distortion.
Cognitive distortions are an inevitable part of our daily lives, and they’re often thoughts with a history, going back years. Each of us can catch some of these thoughts and expose their distorted natures – and now you know some useful tools for doing that.
Beck, A. T. (1963). Thinking and depression: I. Idiosyncratic content and cognitive distortions. Archives of General Psychiatry, 9, 324–333.
Beck, A. T. (1964). Thinking and depression: II. Theory and therapy. Archives of General Psychiatry, 10, 561–571.
Burns, D. D. (1980). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York, NY: Signet.
Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and emotion in psychotherapy. New York: Lyle Stuart.
Gilbert, P. (1998). The evolved basis and adaptive functions of cognitive distortions. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 71, 447-463.
Krebs, D. L. & Denton, K. (1997). Social illusions and self-deception: The evolution of biases in person perception. In J. A. Simpson & D. T. Kendrick (Eds), Evolutionary Social Psychology, pp. 21-47. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.