Cognitive Distortion

Abstract photo of lights in time warpCognitive distortions are biased or exaggerated thought patterns or beliefs. They may be irrational or misrepresent reality, and they can often promote negative thinking.

Understanding Cognitive Distortions

The concept of cognitive distortions was first proposed by Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive behavioral therapy. Beck found the people he treated for depression often made vague references to negative thoughts they did not report during free association.

Though he believed these expressed attitudes and assumptions may have developed from the past experiences of those in therapy, they did not always correspond to reality. Beck recognized these negative cognitions often existed outside of conscious control and described them as “automatic thoughts.” Beck believed negative automatic thoughts or thinking patterns were able to combine with negative emotional or physical symptoms and form maladaptive cycles that might eventually produce serious mental health issues.

Beck posited 11 common cognitive distortions in his book Depression: Causes and Treatment. David Burns, a former student of Beck’s, elaborated upon his work, popularizing his theories in his own books, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy and The Feeling Good Handbook.

Cognitive distortions are often associated with mental health concerns, but anyone, regardless of mental well-being, can be affected by cognitive distortions in some way. Often, one’s response to cognitive distortions may be a determining factor in the degree to which one is affected by them.

Types of Cognitive Distortions

Mental health experts have identified several types of cognitive distortions affecting individuals across different cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, and age groups.

Some common cognitive distortions include:

  1. Jumping to conclusions, which can lead to negative interpretations and assumptions made without proof to back them up. A person might believe others are reacting in a negative way or predict negative outcomes for a situation.
  2. All-or-nothing thinking/polarization, which can be described as a black-and-white perception of events and interactions. Experiences are viewed as either complete successes or absolute failures.
  3. Overgeneralization. This is the view of a single negative experience as proof of future failure.
  4. Personalization occurs when individuals blame themselves for negative events they had no control over or were not responsible for.
  5. Emotional reasoning describes a thought pattern in which reality exists as a reflection of a person’s feelings. For example, a person who feels disliked by coworkers may reason this dislike to be reality.

Cognitive Distortions and Mental Health

While Beck did not believe distorted thinking directly caused mental health concerns, he did find cognitive distortions to be a factor in the development of chronic conditions.

Cognitive distortions have been linked to the following:

How to Change and Overcome Cognitive Distortions

A range of exercises may help successfully treat cognitive distortions. Typically the distortion being addressed will be identified before treatment begins. This helps ensure the treatments used will be appropriate for the type of distorted thinking being experienced.

Some techniques commonly used in therapy:

  • The double-standard method. This method involves positive, compassionate self-talk, such as the type of talk a person might use to encourage a friend.
  • The survey method. People in therapy are encouraged to take the opinions of other people into account in order to gauge whether their attitudes are realistic.
  • Analyzing the evidence involves thoroughly examining an experience with the purpose of objectively determining any realistic basis for negative thinking.
  • Thinking in shades of gray can help a person examine an experience or situation on a scale from 0-100 instead of taking an all-or-nothing approach.
  • Reattribution involves examining a problematic situation to determine what external factors may have contributed to the event, rather than solely blaming the self.

Therapy can often help people become more aware of the cognitive distortions affecting thoughts and behavior. Those who experience more extreme forms of distorted thinking may benefit from cognitive restructuring in work with a qualified mental health professional. Therapy forms such as rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have been shown to be effective in the process of readjusting automatic thoughts, improving moods, and fostering positive behaviors and a greater sense of well-being.

References:

  1. Appalachian State University. (n.d.). Most common cognitive distortions. Retrieved from http://www1.appstate.edu/~hillrw/Dep%20Cognitive/cogdis.html
  2. Austin Peay State University. (n.d.). Checklist of cognitive distortions. Retrieved from http://www.apsu.edu/sites/apsu.edu/files/counseling/COGNITIVE_0.pdf
  3. Tagg, J. (1996). Cognitive distortions. Retrieved from http://daphne.palomar.edu/jtagg/cognitive_distortions.htm
  4. University of Denver. (n.d.). Notes on aaron beck and cognitive therapy. Retrieved from http://mysite.du.edu/~chmorley/Beck.pdf

Last Updated: 01-21-2016

  • 2 comments
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  • Becky B.

    Becky B.

    January 25th, 2018 at 6:53 AM

    I am curious to know what causes Cognitive Distortion. I have discovered that I am struggling with this, but I don’t know how I got to this point. — Thank you.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    January 25th, 2018 at 10:48 AM

    Hi Becky,

    If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, http://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area.

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

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