Cognitive distortions are exaggerated and irrational thoughts identified in cognitive therapy and its variants, which, according to the theory of such therapy, perpetuate certain psychological disorders. The theory of cognitive distortions was first proposed by David D. Burns, MD. Eliminating these distortions and negative thoughts is said to improve mood and discourage maladies such as depression and chronic anxiety. The process of learning to refute these distortions is called “cognitive restructuring“.
List of distortions
Many cognitive distortions are also logical fallacies; related links are suggested in parentheses.
- All-or-nothing thinking (splitting) – Thinking of things in absolute terms, like “always”, “every”, “never”, and “there is no alternative”. Few aspects of human behavior are so absolute. (See false dilemma.) All-or-nothing-thinking can contribute to depression. (See depression). Also called dichotomous thinking.
- Overgeneralization – Taking isolated cases and using them to make wide generalizations. (See hasty generalization.)
- Mental filter – Focusing almost exclusively on certain, usually negative or upsetting, aspects of an event while ignoring other positive aspects. For example, focusing on a tiny imperfection in a piece of otherwise useful clothing. (See misleading vividness.)
- Disqualifying the positive – Continually deemphasizing or “shooting down” positive experiences for arbitrary, ad hoc reasons. (See special pleading.)
- Jumping to conclusions – Drawing conclusions (usually negative) from little (if any) evidence. Two specific subtypes are also identified:
- Mind reading – Assuming special knowledge of the intentions or thoughts of others.
- Fortune telling – Exaggerating how things will turn out before they happen. (See slippery slope.)
- Magnification and minimization – Distorting aspects of a memory or situation through magnifying or minimizing them such that they no longer correspond to objective reality. This is common enough in the normal population to popularize idioms such as “make a mountain out of a molehill.” In depressed clients, often the positive characteristics of other people are exaggerated and negative characteristics are understated. There is one subtype of magnification:
- Catastrophizing – Focusing on the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or thinking that a situation is unbearable or impossible when it is really just uncomfortable.
- Emotional reasoning – Making decisions and arguments based on intuitions or personal feeling rather than an objective rationale and evidence. (See appeal to consequences.)
- Should statements – Patterns of thought which imply the way things “should” or “ought” to be rather than the actual situation the patient is faced with, or having rigid rules which the patient believes will “always apply” no matter what the circumstances are. Albert Ellis termed this “Musturbation”. (See wishful thinking.)
- Labeling and mislabeling – Explaining behaviors or events, merely by naming them; related to overgeneralization. Rather than describing the specific behavior, a patient assigns a label to someone of him- or herself that implies absolute and unalterable terms. Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
- Personalization – Attribution of personal responsibility (or causal role) for events over which the patient has no control. This pattern is also applied to others in the attribution of blame.