Cognitive Distortions: 11 Deep Errors in Thinking

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All of our perceptions may be biased & inaccurate. Our brains evolved in a very different context for hundreds of thousands of years. Evolution made our brains fast and efficient for specific types of thinking, but the same efficient processes created problems in different contexts. Our day-to-day experiences further reinforce those quick thoughts. Our experiences, combined with those innate thinking patterns, create big errors in thinking. These incorrect thinking patterns are called cognitive distortions, and they make us perceive an inaccurate reality.

What are Cognitive Distortions?

Cognitive distortions, or distorted thinking patterns, are rigid errors in thinking that grossly misinterpret events & experiences, usually in harmful or negative ways. These patterns of thinking are full of assumptions, errors, incorrect logic, and real-world evidence does not back them up. In a way, cognitive distortions are far more biased thoughts than having different perspectives.

Cognitive distortions are recognizable and predictable errors in thinking that sustain mental health issues and disrupt decision-making & problem-solving.

Cognitive distortions are recognizable and predictable errors in thinking that sustain mental health issues and disrupt decision-making & problem-solving. Share on X

Researchers argue[1] that cognitive distortions are thoughts that would’ve been adaptive in a pre-civilization threatening situation like running away from predators. Our brains might’ve prioritized quick, useful thinking instead of slow, logical thinking because slow/bad decisions could mean death. However, we are no longer in a hunter-gatherer society, but those thought templates remain a part of our biology – just without the appropriate context. Still, when suffering from mental health issues, we may feel threatened even when there are no threats. So a new threat might trigger these ancient forms of thinking.

List of Cognitive distortions w/ examples

Cognitive distortions were first defined in the context of depression by Aaron Beck in the 1970s. He formalized them to describe the mental space of a depressed person. And designed an approach to modify those distorted, maladaptive thoughts – later turning into the now popular Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Dr. David Burns then refined and extended them. His work is one of the most influential works in conducting structured CBT. From the list below, all except point 11 are based on the work summarized in his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy[2].

Quick reference

Cognitive distortionDescription
All-or-none thinkingWe think in extremes
Mental filteringWe select some details and ignore the rest
OvergeneralizationWe choose one detail and apply it to everything out of context
Disqualifying the positiveWe devalue positive details
Jumping to conclusionsWe make conclusions based on assumptions without evidence
Magnification & minimizingWe make a big deal about insignificant -ve details and downplay other significant +ve details
Emotional reasoningWe base logic on emotions
Should statementsWe think idealistically with absolute standards
LabelingWe adopt judgmental words to describe ourselves
PersonalizationWe feel responsible for someone else’s mood w/o a reason
Thought-action fusionMere thoughts feel like actual actions with consequences

1. All-or-None Thinking

All or none thinking (aka dichotomous thinking, polarized thinking) is a common cognitive distortion that makes us think in extremes. Dichotomous thinking makes our thoughts black and white where we perceive events as either-or judgments – “I’m either successful or a total failure.” & “The date was the best date ever or worst date ever.” There are no in-between judgments or perceptions.

These thoughts are also accompanied by related thoughts with words like always and never. For example, “You always dismiss what I am thinking. You never think about me.” All or none thinking makes us dismiss all events and draw absolute “final” conclusions about something based on very little evidence.

All or none polarized thinking makes us judge people or ourselves as either totally good or totally bad. Similarly, events will either be great or a disaster.

2. Mental Filtering (aka Selective Abstraction)

People often look at a small slice of information coming in from their senses, and they pay attention to an even smaller slice of memories they have formed. With mental filtering, we tend to focus on a small bit of detail, take it out of context, and filter out other relevant details, which eventually leads to inaccurate perception. It paints a highly negative or positive image of the world by highlighting either positive/negative information and ignoring negative/positive information at the same time. Our mental filter selects a small piece of reality, but we treat that small piece as the entire reality. This ultimately leads to an out-of-context interpretation/conclusion.

For example, with a cognitive distortion that filter’s out positive memories and highlights threats, we tend to interpret the world as an overly threatening place. Such filtering also affects other aspects of thinking, like focusing only on the bad memories of a relationship or only the good parts of an experience. When we focus on only the mistakes we make in an exam or all the things that didn’t work out in a project, we use the mental filtering distortion. Regardless of how positive or negative the filter is, our experience of reality is biased or distorted.

When our attention itself is biased to select certain information and ignore the rest, our subsequent memories are biased. On top of that, while remembering those memories, another filter can distort those memories into something far different from what happened. If a friend says something like, “That’s not what I remember from that event at all,” at least 1 of you has gone through the mental filtering distortion.

3. Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization means we apply conclusions about something specific and apply it to everything in general. For example, if you have one bad date, you might over-generalize it to all other dates or even all other social events thinking you are not a good person to have fun with. If you lose one game of chess, you might overgeneralize it to mean you are bad at chess or all other similar games that use logic.

Overgeneralization leads to taking a small detail and applying it to all contexts, but mental filtering leads to taking a small detail and ignoring all other details.

4. Disqualifying the Positive

When we ignore positive details and dismiss their importance or authenticity, we engage in a cognitive distortion called disqualifying the positive. This goes beyond mental filtering because we don’t just dismiss the positive details; we attribute incorrect reasons to them. For example – if someone says you did a good job, instead of feeling you actually did a good job, you could reason that it was pure luck or a fake compliment to appear nice.

Disqualifying the positive can go as far as making an elaborate case to justify how the positive detail is actually irrelevant or means nothing. This often leads to low confidence or reinforces low confidence.

5. Jumping to Conclusions (aka Arbitrary Inference)

As the name suggests, jumping to conclusions means drawing strong conclusions based on minimal or zero evidence. Sometimes, people pass judgment or jump to conclusions even when it is nearly impossible to gather any evidence or the evidence is unjustified or false. This cognitive distortion manifests in 2 common ways:

  1. Mind-reading: We make conclusions about what others are thinking without any concrete evidence. Our perception is based purely on assumptions or personal feelings. For example, feeling like you will be rejected by an interviewer without even applying. Or assuming your partner hates the food you cooked without asking or observing behavior. Mind-reading often leads to an irrational belief that others think negatively about you and the belief is so strong that you might feel there is no reason to confirm or evidence is pointless.
  2. Fortune-telling: Fortune-telling is an anxiety-based cognitive distortion where one anticipates and expects negative consequences, events, & outcomes before even getting started. It involves a bias toward negative predictions. For example, “knowing” you will fail an exam before even studying.

6. Magnification (catastrophizing) and Minimizing

When suffering from anxiety and depression, we might magnify the importance (or relevance) of negative details/thoughts/events/characteristics and minimize the importance of positive ones. With magnification, we blow trivial things out of proportion. If it’s about our own actions, we highlight negative consequences and downplay positive results. Much like in mental filtering, magnification/minimizing skews our perception to be overly negative. However, unlike in mental filtering, magnification and minimizing can be independent of context and become a default mode of thinking that amplifies the magnitude of negatives (or insignificant things) and reduces the magnitude of positives (or significant things).

Social media makes this worse because people tend to portray themselves as overly positive and scrub the negative aspects. This makes it easy for anyone vulnerable to the magnification and minimizing distortion to see other people as more positive than themselves, which amplifies how negatively they feel about themselves.

Magnification is also known as catastrophizing, where we interpret small negative things as worst-case scenarios. We assume the worst will happen. While catastrophizing, we exaggerate the likelihood of negative things happening in the future or declare mildly negative situations as extreme disasters or pain. For example, if you accidentally address a person with the wrong name, you might catastrophize and conclude that your relationship with that person has become overwhelmingly unbearable.

7. Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning is one of the most common errors in thinking because we consider our emotions to be a source of objective information even when they don’t provide objective details. For example, if we recognize a feeling we have, we use it to describe ourselves based on that feeling – if I feel angry, I must be an angry person or others are doing something very wrong. Emotional reasoning prioritizes feelings over all other concrete details in your perception. Emotions can be useful signals to pass judgment, but we don’t always know if our feelings are related to the thoughts we are having. Essentially, feelings are treated as facts, and then we rationalize conclusions to fit the feelings.

Our emotions have many layers and not all layers provide enough details to have a concrete thought. When we use emotions to educate our thoughts, we may wrongly attribute those emotions to an unrelated thought and then fuse the emotion and thought. For example -If I am feeling anxious during this date, my date might be a bad person. Emotional reasoning is one of the reasons we are stuck in a constant heart vs. mind debate. It is also how we make sense of the world or fall for conspiracy theories.

8. Should Statements

Should statements is a cognitive distortion that has social & moral implications because it makes us think in an idealistic way instead of a practical, realistic way. They contain phrases like “Companies Should do XYZ for employees” and “One Must always take care of the elderly”. We end up putting rules on ourselves with ideas like “I should/must do this”. Albert Ellis, who designed Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, calls this “musturbation”.

When we focus on “Should”s & “Must”s, we disregard reality and expect or demand a reality that is not real. Such thinking often leads to anger because anger is a way to negotiate what we want and expect. Anger fuels attempts to correct things that don’t align with the should statements.

9. Labeling and Mislabeling

Labeling is the process of using words and categories to give an identity to someone or something. However, the cognitive distortion version of labeling is a damaging way to label something out of context. Negative thoughts often contain labels such as “I am a loser” or “I am unlovable“. Here, loser & unlovable are labels. These statements try to categorize one’s identity with a label that is damaging in the long term because it becomes a strongly held belief.

A relatively benign version of labeling is using astrological signs to describe oneself. However, a distorted or a “mislabel” is commonly seen in people with low self-esteem because those labels affirm a negative view of the self.

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Sometimes, these labels are completely out of context and overgeneralizations of the self or any personal experiences. For example, we may label ourselves a total failure if we fail at something instead of thinking we need to refine a certain skill that would increase the chances of succeeding. Labels are judgments instead of practical thoughts. We may also jump to conclusions by selecting small details and use them to form global judgments about ourselves through labels. For example, selecting a small shortcoming about oneself and using that to label oneself as unattractive by assuming others will find it unattractive.

10. Personalization and Blame

When we believe others’ circumstances or moods result from our own actions without a logical reason, our thoughts undergo a personalization distortion. Personalization is a common problem between couples and often leads to feeling guilty for a partner’s mood. It could lead to self-blame and “corrective” behaviors that could cause additional distress. People demonstrating high personalization often feel responsible for things beyond their control.

For example, Jane Doe’s boyfriend could ask her if he did anything wrong to the point of annoying her, where she eventually snaps and says, “Not everything is about you.” In this case, Jane would get upset, and the boyfriend would be confused (or angry) even though he was thinking of her well-being. But behind the scenes, Jane was probably using all-or-none thinking for her career.

11. Thought-Action Fusion

Thought-action fusion (TAF) is a cognitive distortion where a person’s thoughts are literally equated to them doing a corresponding action, usually with moral or negative interpretations. For example, thinking of harming a friend can be an insignificant thought, but with TAF, the thought is similar to or as morally bad/repulsive as actually harming a friend. More precisely, people with high TAF think their thoughts make them immoral people or their thoughts increase the likelihood of negative consequences. This creates 2 types of thought-action fusion[3]: Moral thought-action fusion and Probability thought-action fusion.

  1. Moral Thought action fusion: Negative thoughts are considered equal to immoral actions, imply their character itself is immoral, or create the opportunity for severe self-judgment that induces guilt or “corrective/neutralizing” actions.
  2. Probability thought-action fusion (likelihood thought-action fusion): Negative thoughts are likely to increase the chance of negative consequences for the self or others.

Thought-action fusion plays a role in anxiety disorders, especially OCD[4]. When a person with obsessive thoughts has thought-action fusion, it creates high anxiety via harsh self-judgment. Then the person feels like neutralizing those thoughts (obsessions) with an action (compulsion) to counter that judgment, but such behavior only reinforces the cycle of obsessions and compulsions.

How to nullify cognitive distortions?

Identifying and changing cognitive distortions is a core element of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Research has demonstrated many ways to tackle distortions. Here are 2 common ways.

  1. Cognitive restructuring: These techniques are a formal way to transform a cognitive distortion into more functionally useful thoughts. This is sometimes done by adding new perspectives and reframing the original thought in healthier ways.
  2. Cognitive defusion: These techniques aim to change the thought’s context rather than the thought itself. They try to reduce the believability and intensity of a cognitive distortion to make it easier to change or neutralize it.

You can read more about cognitive restructuring and cognitive defusion here. I’ve also written a specific how-to for reframing cognitive distortions in a social setting.

Another popular way to reduce anxiety is to increase the psychological distance between the thought and the emotion. While it’s not strictly meant to address cognitive distortions, it can weaken the intensity of some thoughts that arise because of cognitive distortions.

Differences & Similarities between cognitive distortions & cognitive biases

In an earlier post, I wrote about cognitive biases and how to overcome them. You might wonder what’s the difference between cognitive biases & cognitive distortions. Typically, cognitive distortions are more intense and less likely to be a “default” way of thinking. But cognitive biases are default tendencies to think that produce systematic errors and deviations from the norm or rationality/logic. They are illogical because they are removed from very specific contexts where they were once useful. Cognitive distortions occur more in the context of mental health problems, sometimes as a symptom, and sometimes as a gateway to bigger problems. Nonetheless, both lead to illogical conclusions, judgments, and evaluations, and both influence our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

Cognitive distortionCognitive bias
Intense errors in thinking patternsBiased and simplified thinking
Occurs more as mental health issuesPresent in most people regardless of mental health status
Usually unhealthyAlmost neutral
Heavily distorted reality & perceptionMildly biased reality & perception
Dramatically changes to internal dialogIntroduces some faulty reasoning in internal dialog
Deviates from logic & biasesDeviates from rationality/logic

You may want to check out the techniques in this article on how to overcome cognitive biases and distortions. The techniques there are particularly meant for guided counseling and young psychologists attempting to diversify their skill set.

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