A cognitive distortion is an exaggerated or irrational thought pattern involved in the onset and perpetuation of psychopathological states, especially those more influenced by psychosocial factors, such as depression and anxiety. Psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck laid the groundwork for the study of these distortions, and his student David D. Burns continued research on the topic. Burns, in The Feeling Good Handbook (1989), described personal and professional anecdotes related to cognitive distortions and their elimination.
Cognitive distortions are thoughts that cause individuals to perceive reality inaccurately. According to the cognitive model of Beck, a negative outlook on reality, sometimes called negative schemas (or schemata), is a factor in symptoms of emotional dysfunction and poorer subjective well being. Specifically, negative thinking patterns cause negative emotions. During difficult circumstances, these distorted thoughts can contribute to an overall negative outlook on the world and a depressive or anxious mental state.
Challenging and changing cognitive distortions is a key element of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
In 1972, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and cognitive therapy scholar Aaron T. Beck published Depression: Causes and Treatment. He was dissatisfied with the conventional Freudian treatment of depression, because there was no empirical evidence for the success of Freudian psychoanalysis. Beck's book provided a comprehensive and empirically supported theoretical model for depression — its potential causes, symptoms, and treatments. In Chapter 2, titled "Symptomatology of Depression," he described “cognitive manifestations” of depression, including low self-evaluation, negative expectations, self-blame and self-criticism, indecisiveness, and distortion of the body image.
The cognitive distortions listed below are categories of automatic thinking, and are to be distinguished from logical fallacies.
Always being right
Being wrong is unthinkable. This cognitive distortion is characterized by actively trying to prove one's actions or thoughts to be correct, and sometimes prioritizing self-interest over the feelings of another person.
- Example: someone blames one's spouse entirely for marital problems, instead of looking at one's own part in the problems.
Disqualifying the positive
Discounting positive events.
- Example: Upon receiving congratulations, a person dismisses them out-of-hand, believing them to be undeserved, and automatically interpreting the compliment as an attempt at flattery or as arising out of naïveté.
Presuming that negative feelings expose the true nature of things and experiencing reality as a reflection of emotionally linked thoughts. Thinking something is true, solely based on a feeling.
Fallacy of change
Relying on social control to obtain cooperative actions from another person.
Fallacy of fairness
Focusing entirely on negative elements of a situation to the exclusion of the positive. Also, the brain's tendency to filter information that does not conform to already-held beliefs.
- Example: After receiving comments about a work presentation, a person focuses on the single critical comment and ignores what went well.
Jumping to conclusions
Reaching preliminary conclusions (usually negative) with little (if any) evidence. Two specific subtypes are identified:
- Mind reading: Inferring a person's possible or probable (usually negative) thoughts from his or her behavior and nonverbal communication; taking precautions against the worst suspected case without asking the person.
- Fortune-telling: predicting outcomes (usually negative) of events.
- Example: Being convinced of failure before a test, when the student is in fact prepared.
Labeling and mislabeling
A form of overgeneralization; attributing a person's actions to his or her character instead of to an attribute. Rather than assuming the behavior to be accidental or otherwise extrinsic, one assigns a label to someone or something that is based on the inferred character of that person or thing.
- Example of labeling: Instead of believing that you made a mistake, you believe that you are a loser, because only a loser would make that kind of mistake. Or, someone who made a bad first impression considers himself or herself a "jerk", regardless of alternative, extrinsic factors.
- Example of mislabeling: A woman who places her children in a day care center is thought to be "abandoning her children to strangers," because she has violated the bond between mother and child.
Magnification and minimization
Giving proportionally greater weight to a perceived failure, weakness or threat, or lesser weight to a perceived success, strength or opportunity, so that the weight differs from that assigned by others, such as "making a mountain out of a molehill". In depressed clients, often the positive characteristics of other people are exaggerated and their negative characteristics are understated.
- Catastrophizing – Giving greater weight to the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or experiencing a situation as unbearable or impossible when it is just uncomfortable.
- Example: A teenager is too afraid to start driver's training because he believes he would get himself into an accident.
Making hasty generalizations from insufficient evidence. Drawing a very broad conclusion from a single incident or a single piece of evidence. Even if something bad happens only once, it is expected to happen over and over again.
- Example: A mother whose child is struggling in school blames herself for being a bad mother, because she believes that her deficient parenting is responsible for her child's issues. In fact, the real cause may be something else entirely.
Making "must" or "should" statements
Making 'must' or should' statements was included by Albert Ellis in his rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), an early form of CBT; he termed it "musturbation". Michael C. Graham called it "expecting the world to be different than it is". It can be seen as demanding particular achievements or behaviours regardless of the realistic circumstances of the situation.
- Example: After a performance, a concert pianist believes he or she should not have made so many mistakes.
- In Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, David Burns clearly distinguished between pathological "should statements", moral imperatives, and social norms.
A related cognitive distortion, also present in Ellis REBT, is a tendency to 'awfulize'; to say a future scenario will be 'awful', rather than to realistically appraise the various negative and positive characteristics of that scenario.
Splitting (All-or-nothing thinking, black-or-white thinking, dichotomous reasoning)
Evaluating the self, as well as events in life in extreme terms. It’s either all good or all bad, either black or white, nothing in between. Even small imperfections seem incredibly dangerous and painful. Splitting involves using terms like "always", "every" or "never" when they are false and misleading.
- Example: When an admired person makes a minor mistake, she or he renders the admiration as contempt.
Cognitive restructuring (CR) is a popular form of therapy used to identify and reject maladaptive cognitive distortions and is typically used with individuals diagnosed with depression. In CR, the therapist and client first examine a stressful event or situation reported by the client. For example, a depressed male college student who experiences difficulty in dating might believe that his "worthlessness" causes women to reject him. Together, therapist and client might then create a more realistic cognition, e.g., "It is within my control to ask girls on dates. However, even though there are some things I can do to influence their decisions, whether or not they say yes is largely out of my control. Thus, I am not responsible if they decline my invitation." CR therapies are designed to eliminate "automatic thoughts" that include clients' dysfunctional or negative views. According to Beck, doing so reduces feelings of worthlessness, anxiety, and anhedonia that are symptomatic of several forms of mental illness. CR is the main component of Beck's and Burns's cognitive behavioral therapy.
Those diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder tend to view themselves as unrealistically superior and overemphasize their strengths but understate their weaknesses. As such, narcissists use exaggeration and minimization to defend against psychic pain.
In cognitive therapy, decatastrophizing or decatastrophization is a cognitive restructuring technique that may be used to treat cognitive distortions, such as magnification and catastrophizing, commonly seen in psychological disorders like anxiety and psychosis. Major features of these disorders are the subjective report of being overwhelmed by life circumstances and the incapability of affecting them. The following statements are typical:
- "This is too much work for me to do. I can't finish it before the deadline and my boss will fire me!"
- "I'll never make it into the college I want. My parents and school advisers point out that I have a good GPA, plenty of extracurricular activities that I participated in, and a solid SAT score, but my ACT score was just awful."
- "The boy I went on a date with last night hasn't called me back yet. I'm sure he hates me. I'll never get married."
The goal of CR would be to help the client change his or her perceptions so as to render the felt experience as less significant. In the first example, the client's reported incapability would be reframed so that, although perhaps not all the work will be done by the deadline, the employee's sustained effort will make it unlikely that the boss will fire him or her.
Common criticisms of the diagnosis of cognitive distortion relate to epistemology and the theoretical basis. The implicit assumption behind the diagnosis is that the therapist is infallible and that only the world view of the therapist is correct. If the perceptions of the patient differ from those of the therapist, it may not be because of intellectual malfunctions but because the patient has different experiences. Critics claim that there is no evidence that patients suffering from e.g. depression have dysfunctional cognitive abilities. Actually, some depressed subjects appear to be “sadder but wiser”.
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