Cognitive Distortions

Below is a list of cognitive distortions draw from the cognitive therapy literature. They are presented as a list because there is no known way, no geometric framework, for example, of organizing them better. Cognitive distortions that are closely related have been grouped together. For example, jumping to conclusions is almost synonymous with overgeneralization, in that both are based on insufficient information. Labeling has been classified as a cognitive distortion related to empathy, because it ignores the fact that each individual is a complex collection of attributes. Rejecting the evidence is classified as a form of selection bias.

Cognitive distortions are problematic because thoughts and emotions are so closely linked. Intense negative emotion is by far the most important signal for a moment of mindful awareness, a signal that you should inspect and observe your thoughts carefully. Remember, intense judgments often precede intense thoughts. If you can change your thoughts, you can change your emotions.

DISTORTIONS RELATED TO PREDICTION

Human beings have the ability to make plans and predict outcomes. Distortions associated with forecasting typically involve amplifying the possibility of negative outcomes.

Fortune-Telling: “This whole venture is doomed.”

Fortune telling can be seen as extreme pessimism. Whereas pessimism admits the possibility that things may go well—though the odds are against it—with fortune telling pessimism gives way to conviction: Things will not go well. A bad outcome is certain.

Examples: “I know I’m going to fail.” “I am going to lose my job, and then I’ll lose everything.” “This class is going to be terrible.”

Regret Orientation: “If only I had done…”

The opposite of fortune-telling. A focus on what you could or should have done in the past, rather than on what you could or should do now, to improve your situation. Regret orientation is a variation on the old saying “The grass is always greener on the other side.” In this case, however, the person constructs a fantasy based on wrong choices made in their past. Real life falls short in comparison, so far short that it’s depressing that the wrong decision was made. Regret orientation is considered a forecasting distortion because it assumes than if only the past was changed, the present and future would be glorious.

Example: “If only I’d worked harder on my relationship, we’d still be together.” “That was the turning point.”

Catastrophizing

A special case of fortune telling, but an emphasis on events presumed to be unbearable and disastrous. Catastrophizing typically involves an ever more threatening series of predictions, ending in catastrophe. The catastrophe then become the foundation for worry about how to prevent the catastrophe.
Example: Jimmy got a lower grade on his comprehensive biology final than he expected. He began to wonder whether this would affect his final grade, pulling down his grade point average for the semester. That could cost him his scholarship, meaning that he’d have to get a part-time job and take out even more school loans.

What-If Disqualification

When circumstances appear favorable, the what if disqualification can be used to transform victory into disaster. Every silver lining has a cloud. What if thinking differs from catastrophic thinking because in its deliberate quality. In contrast, catastrophic thoughts have an intrusive, involuntary quality.

Examples: Amy and Madison had worked hard and saved money. Now they wanted to buy a house. As they were about to make an offer, Amy said “What if interest rates go down and we’ve overpaid? What if the house inspection missed termites? What if property taxes go up?”

DISTORTIONS RELATED TO CATEGORIZATION

Distortions related to categorization involve seeing extreme categories where there should be shades of gray.

Splitting

Also called dichotomous thinking, polarized thinking, absolutistic thinking, all-or-nothing thinking, black-and-white thinking, and always-never thinking. Splitting has so many names because it’s so common. With splitting, there are no measured judgments, only extreme appraisals. In fact, appraisal is probably too strong a word, because it connotes some intermediate process that doesn’t exist with splitting. Words like “always” and “never” and “every” and “none” are prominent. Since emotions depend on thoughts, polarized thinking naturally leads to extreme emotions. Since there are no shades of gray, there can be no moderate emotions. Rage replaces annoyance. Emptiness replaces loneliness. Worthlessness replaces self-doubt. When something is bad, it’s terrible or disastrous or completely evil. Anything that falls short of perfection is catastrophe. To address splitting in your recovery, begin to cultivate the middle ground.

Polarized Thinking

Also called black-and-white thinking, all-or-nothing thinking, and dichotomous thinking. Polarized thinking represents an extreme cognitive appraisal. Polarized thinking is treated by searching for interpretations that feature shades of gray, and the more moderate emotional reactions that accompany them.

Examples: “I’m a complete failure at everything.” “I’m just a bad person.”

Judgment Focus

Measuring everything by ranking, including oneself and others, as being good versus bad, being better or worse than others, and so on. Such assessments are distortions because they condense a composite of complex qualities into some set of rankings. No one is simply superior or inferior, for example.

DISTORTIONS OF MUSTS AND SHOULDS

Must and shoulds involve comparison to some ideal, against which any real thing, person, or event necessarily falls short. The resulting comparison is awful, a catastrophe. Examples include “I must perform perfectly” and “I must be loved by everyone.” Anything can be set up as a standard, depending on the history of the person and their beliefs. Examples include “I should live in a mansion by now, but I don’t, so I’m a failure” and “I should donate at least $1000 per year to charity, and I don’t, so I must be greedy.” Below are several cognitive distortions within this category.

Perfectionism: “I must always be perfect.”

Perfectionism in the moral sphere leads to rigid codes of conduct and harsh condemnation of self and others when falling short. Moral standards no longer function to guide human action. They function instead as absolutes, and transgression these absolutes entails condemnation and punishment, as if the person were saying “If I just kick myself hard enough, I can do better.”

Perfectionism with regard to performance standards amplifies the smallest errors into failure. Rather than seeing 99 percent correct, the person sees only their mistakes, and views each mistake as a failure. Perfectionism excludes any sense of satisfaction from life achievements, simply because almost no human performances are absolutely perfect.

To recover from shoulds and musts, recognize that no one is perfect. The end result of near perfection is more often relentless self-criticism, not happiness. As such, you can be nearly perfect, guilt ridden, and quite miserable. Recognize that all human beings are “in process,” and what mistakes you make today, you will have an opportunity to correct tomorrow. Recognize that you make the rules in your life—standards do not rule your life—and shift your priorities so that self-compassion and enjoyment are the point of life, not perfection. You’ll decide to correct mistakes if you want to. Otherwise, you won’t, and that’s okay.

Always Right: “I must always be right.”

Another variation on perfectionism is the “always-right mentality.” Such persons are perfect by failing to distinguish between opinion and fact. They are always right and anyone who disagrees is always wrong. If they are not right, then it means there’s something wrong with them, and that’s awful. They may argue endlessly rather than admit they might be wrong. They find it hard to agree to disagree and view each disagreement as a contest of dominance. Anyone who expresses a dissenting opinion is vigorously attacked and made to feel put on trial. The always right mentality is closely associated with black and white thinking.

To recover from the always right mentality, cultivate the willingness to closely inspect your opinions in order to distinguish what is opinion and what is fact. Chicago is a city is fact. Chicago is a nice city is an opinion. Recognize that with regard to any opinion, there may be other perspectives. Recognize that opinions and perspectives are neither right nor wrong.

Double Standards

By definition, a double standard means having different standards of behavior for self and others. Having high standards for oneself, while excusing the mistakes of others could be seen as a variation of perfectionism. Having high standards for others while excusing one’s own mistakes is probably more common. To correct the distortion, insist on holding everyone in the situation to the same standards. Make sure those standards are realistic.

Fallacy of Fairness: “Life should always be fair.”

We would all like life to be fair. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Diseases like cancer and random events like car accidents prove that life can be horribly unfair. When we demand that life be fair, we naturally predispose ourselves to distress. It’s only a matter of time until life falls short of our expectations, resulting in frustration, anger, sadness, and anxiety. Now, there are two injuries, the unfair events and the negative emotions accompanying them. Our demand that life be fair does nothing to make it so, and the negative emotions may actually undermine our efforts to recover.

Example: Ashley entered the science contest at her high school. Everyone thought she would win, but the contest was one by science teacher’s son. Ashley’s father wrote a letter to the school board complaining about favoritism, and Ashley withdrew from the science class, although it delayed her graduation. She still becomes angry when she thinks about it.

Heaven’s Reward Fallacy: “I should always be rewarded for my sacrifices.”

Sacrifice and self-denial are believed to be evidence of good works and expected to earn some reward. If they don’t, then it’s awful.

Example: Sydney spent her own money buying school supplies for the kids in her class. She expected them to recognize how considerate she was being, and to respond by being especially cooperative. But the level of loud talking and acting out never changed. Sydney felt rejected and crushed.

DISTORTIONS OF RESPONSIBILITY AND CONTROL

Distortions of control assume that we either have total control over what happens in life or that we have no control.

Fallacies of Control: “I am always in control.”

With fallacies of control, you assume that you have near-total control over outcomes or assume that you have nearly no control over outcomes. If you control everything, then it follows that you must be responsible for the outcome. When things go wrong, self-blame is the result. If something goes wrong in someone else’s life, you may feel that you are to blame because you did not warn them. If you control nothing, then there’s really no reason to try in the first place. The mistake was trying, since the whole venture was doomed from the beginning. Or, you may feel that life is utter chaos, and accordingly, that it’s useless to plan, because threats come out of nowhere and cannot be anticipated.

To recover from fallacies of control, recognize that the truth depends on the situation. There are situations in which we control much and situations in which we control little. With regard to world events, most of us control very little. With regard to our personal lives, we typically control much more. Identify what you can control, and accept what you cannot control. Recognizing what you can control is very important if you chronically feel helpless and victimized.

Blaming

Attributing responsibility to others, while refusing to own any share of the responsibility yourself.
Example: Jerry and Sarah had been threatening each other with divorce for years. They finally agreed to go to counseling, but neither would take any responsibility for their mutual unhappiness. Failure of the marriage was the exclusive fault of the spouse.

Personalization

Personalization involves taking responsibility (blame) for events that are actually outside your control. The reactions of others are a reaction to you. If someone reacts negatively, for example, then it must be something you did. If someone comments on a business proposal, for example, you do not assume that their criticism is intended to be constructive. Instead, you assume that they disapprove of you. Personalization necessarily involves a level of egocentricity. Realistically, no one has this level of influence or control.

Example: When Jesse called to end their relationship, Marsha automatically assumed that “If only I were more attractive, Jesse would still be my boyfriend.” In fact, Marsha later discovered that Jesse had a series of short-lived relationships. None of his girlfriends was “perfect enough.” Dumping Marsha had nothing to do with Marsha. Instead, their breakup was Jesse’s pattern of behavior.

Example: Mike set aside an hour each evening for tutoring his high school son in math. Yet, despite his best efforts, the report card showed his son’s math average as close to failing. Mike automatically assumed, “My son is failing math, I must be a bad father.” The evidence supports Mike as taking time to tutor his son, but Mike ignored the evidence. Given their efforts, Mike’s son may not have an aptitude for math. Realistically, the problem could be that Mike is not a good tutor.

Path to Recovery: To address personalization in your recovery, recognize that with personalization, you are giving yourself enormous power in the lives of others, probably far more power than you actually possess.

Playing the Victim

The opposite of personalization is playing the victim. Here, negative outcomes are attributed to the actions of others. If you do not succeed, then it’s because someone set you up to fail. Maybe circumstances set you up to fail, and the universe is the perpetrator. While playing the victim has the advantage of relieving oneself of responsibility, it comes at the price of conspiracy. You are required to believe that others are against you. You may feel helpless, and even stop trying. What’s the point when other people are setting you up?

DISTORTIONS ASSOCIATED WITH SELECTION BIAS

As any experimental psychologist will tell you, all inferences involve sampling conditions. Samples need to be representative in order for inferences to be regarded as true and appropriate. Some cognitive distortions involve extremely biased sampling.

Negativity Bias or Mental Filter

Noticing mainly the negative, while neglecting the positive. The negativity bias is pervasive in human nature, probably because we are programmed by evolution to notice what is negative as a threat to survival. Those who failed to notice the negative succumbed to risk and failed to reproduce.
To recover from the negativity bias, practice gratitude. The purpose of gratitude is to systematically help us explore the positives in our lives. These positives—like a good marriage and solid friendships—usually blend into the background. We only notice when things go wrong. Spend some time doing appreciative inquiry. Thank everything that comes into your day.

This constitutes an extreme case of magnification and minimization. Here, the positive is completely filtered out, leaving only the negative.

Example: Stacy started teaching at a school for delinquent adolescent boys. Several of the boys have made extraordinary gains since having Stacy as their teacher. Most of the boys, however, seem incapable of paying attention. They act out repeatedly and are sent to the principal’s office over and over again. Stacy confesses to her husband, “Every day I dread going to work…I’m not a teacher, I’m a babysitter.” Stacy has completely ignored the human lives where her teaching has made a real difference.

Rejecting the Evidence

Rejecting evidence that might balance negative conclusions, thereby preventing any positive assessment. Example: You perform well on the job, then reject your supervisor’s compliment.

Disqualifying Positives

The good things don’t count. Positives are minimized or deemed insignificant. Disqualifying the positives is often used to trivialize success or to discount compliments. Success may be attributed externally, to the situation. Disqualifying the positive may be seen as an extreme form of minimization. Disqualifying the positive, however, means not recognizing that the positive even exists.

Example: Harry was a mediocre student. He preferred to watch sports and go drinking with the boys. He’d never gotten into any real trouble, but he’d never buckled down and worked for anything, either. Coming up on finals week, Harry’s girlfriend made him them both down and study together. She wanted Harry to understand what he could do, if only he chose to apply himself. Sure enough, Harry earned an A minus on the final exam. When his girlfriend complimented him and pointed to the A minus as evidence of his potential, Harry responded, “Nah, I was able to pass because the test was easy.”

DISTORTIONS RELATED TO INFERENCE

We all make inferences about classes of objects, events, and people in our lives. Some of these inferences are just observations, but many of them are guides to action. As such, the person needs an awareness of the basis on which these inferences are made, and sensitive to information that might overturn the inference or signal that it needs revision. Errors in generalization may signal that the person needs to change course or change their emotions and attitudes.

Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization involves sweeping conclusions based on one or a few incidents, a faulty prediction based on insufficient evidence. This is often separated out as its own cognitive distortion, called jumping to conclusions. A single setback, for example, may be seen as evidence of a consistent pattern of defeat.

Example: Austin wanted a job at a prestigious international corporation. Of the two hundred candidates that applied, fifty were interviewed for a single position. Two weeks later, Austin received a kindly worded letter of rejection. Reading the letter, Austin told himself, “I failed again, I always do.”

Correcting the Distortion: In fact, Austin placed in the top quarter of applicants, and only one person in two hundred was hired. Rather than feel optimistic because he placed so highly, Austin concluded that he was at fault.
Example: Michael asked Sarah out on a date, their first. They had dinner and went to a movie, took a slow walk around the neighborhood just to chat, and talked about going to the beach over the weekend. After a hug goodnight, Sarah immediately called her best girlfriend to share the good news. Unfortunately, she never heard from Michael again. Sarah was devastated. She concluded that “There must be something wrong with me…I will never have a boyfriend.”

Correcting the Distortion: Although it is disappointing that Michael didn’t call back, it’s should not be devastating. There could be many reasons that Michael did not call back, including personal issues. The point is that Michael’s behavior need not be seen as as referendum on Sarah’s attractiveness or worth. Moreover, if Sarah really likes Michael, she can be the one who calls and suggests a second date. She doesn’t have to stand by and be the passive recipient of Michael’s advances.

Emotional Reasoning

We usually seek to make our emotions appropriate to the situation. The situation comes first and our emotional reaction follows. In emotional reasoning, this sequence is reversed: An inference is made about reality based on the emotion. With emotional reason, reality always reflects your emotional experience. You reason from emotions to reality. If you are sad, there must be a reason, so you look for that reason. If you are pessimistic, there must be a reason, so you look for that reason. If you feel like a bad person, then it’s because you probably are one. If you’re anxious, then your job is to identify threats lurking behind the scenes.

If you believe that your emotions always have some cause that you must search out and identify, then you’re likely to find something. Here are some examples: Danny woke up feeling depressed. He said to himself, “I’m so depressed, I must be a failure.” Joan boarded the plane and took her seat, her heart pounding. Joan assumed “I’m totally terrified, so this must be dangerous.” Sally felt guilty coming home from a date at dawn. Sally concluded “I feel guilty, so it must be wrong to stay out so late.” Bart noticed that his heart was pounding. Looking around quickly, he concluded “I feel anxious, there must be a catastrophe coming.”

Magnification and Minimization

These distortions exaggerate the negative or diminish the positive, or both. Anything bad that happens is a disaster. Anything good that happens is not that good at all.

Unfair Comparisons

Widely known as comparing apples and oranges, the cognitive distortion of unfair comparison involves standards that support unrealistic conclusions that one person, situation, or event is inferior, defective, or bad and the other is superior or good.

Example: Larry’s brother was a genius. He entered collage at age 13 and obtained a doctorate in physics at age 20. He was currently working for NASA on a new rocket engine design. In contrast, Jim was just now entering college, having partied for a year after his high school graduation. Jim hated being Larry’s brother. Anytime someone found out, they always mentioned how smart Larry was. Jim concluded “I’m so stupid compared to Larry, I’ll never amount to anything.”

Magical thinking

Magical thinking is the essence of superstition, the belief that actions or thoughts somehow have consequences far beyond the immediate. Magical thinking often seems involves cognitive leaps based on superficial or metaphorical similarities.

Example: “If I turn off the light, someone will die.”

DISTORTIONS RELATED TO EMPATHY

Empathy is the foundation of effective social action. We need accurate models of the internal world of others in order to understand their thoughts, feelings, and motives, and respond appropriately. When such inferences are inaccurate, it creates awkwardness and friction.

Toxic Positivity

This is a relative newcomer to lists of cognitive distortions. In fact, I did not see this particular distortion on any of the cognitive therapy lists I reviewed. Nevertheless, it seems to belong here.

Toxic positivity is that regardless of the actual situation, we should think positive. Think of it as relentless optimism. Negative emotions are avoided, suppressed, denied. If you insist on discussing the negative, you may be told that “Everything happens for a reason” or that “This too shall pass.” Such statements provide false comfort, lip service to the painful moments of life. Toxic positivity is a cognitive distortion because it’s not authentic. There are many legitimately painful moments in every human life, particularly grief, loss, and betrayal. This cognitive distortion could easily be placed in the musts and shoulds category. The hidden motive seems to be “I must not hear anything negative.”

Labeling

Putting persons and events into global, usually negative categories. Labeling is considered a distortion because people are not their behaviors, but instead a complex composite of qualities, some good and bad. Seeing someone as totally bad leads to frustration, anger, blame, and hopelessness. In turn, these emotions foreclose any possibility for constructive dialogue and improvement. Labeling may be applied to self or others. Stereotyping is a closely related distortion. Labeling often occurs based on a single example. The behavior is then seen as consistent with the category to which the person, event, or situation belongs. Having a label makes it hard to see the object of the label in any other way. If you fail at something, you are a failure. Only a failure would fail. Anyone who disappoints you is a disappointment. If you disappoint someone else, then you are the disappointment.

Examples: “You’re a dummy.” “You’re a political extremist pig.”

Correcting the Distortion: Labeling is the foundation of prejudice. One classified, the person belongs to that category essentially forever. To correct the distortion, refuse to put people into categories. Recognize that people are complex composites of attributes. Seek to evaluate each person on their own merits.

Mind-Reading

Assuming that you know the thoughts of others, without actual evidence about their thoughts. People often have subtle, complex, or even ambivalent reactions. If you believe that you know what someone else is thinking or feeling based on insufficient evidence, that’s mind-reading. Usually, mind-reading assumes that someone has evaluated us negatively. Mind-reading is classified here as an example of cognitive distortion related to empathy, but mind-reading is usually based on insufficient evidence and involves jumping to conclusions. Sometimes the conclusions are so bizarre that the person’s line of thinking is hard to figure out, in which case mind-reading merges into magical thinking.

Example: Your and your friends are standing in a circle, chatting about anything and everything. A political topic arises. You offer your opinion and someone gently disagrees. You immediately conclude that the dissenter feel contempt for you and want to embarrass you publicly.

Example: Debra wanted to make the debate team. She studied principles of argumentation and practiced by debating her best friend, probably the only person she trusted. Debra stuttered her way through a single agonizing hour. Later she confessed that “Our teacher has never liked me, and I knew he wanted to sink me.”

Correcting the Distortion: Try to find other reasons for the behavior of the person whose mind is being read. Perhaps the dissenter simply wants to explore the nuances in conversation as an academic inquiry and never intended to disagree at all.