Cognitive Distortions List

Cognitive Distortions List

a.k.a. Distorted Thinking Patterns or Styles – Exaggerated or Biased Ways of Thinking – Automatic Negative Thoughts
(ANTS) that are the cause of anxiety, depression, marriage and interpersonal problems, and low self-esteem.

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COMMON COGNITIVE ERRORS  -  Avoid cognitive distortions that may skew the perception of yourself, of your relationships and of your world.
Here they are: 
10 Styles of Distorted Thinking

Introduction: In 1980, American psychotherapist and author David Burns published a best-seller which has become a classic book for therapists and for those seeking self-help manuals to take control of their depression and anxiety. In his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy Dr. Burns details the relationship between thoughts and mood, and offers research-based exercises for taking control of "automatic thoughts", and as a result, of  mood. The following list was adapted from his writings which, by the way, derived from the original work of Dr. Albert Ellis and Dr. Aaron Beck.

What’s all about: Cognitive Schemas, or thought structures, are an individual's core beliefs and perceptions. They contain thoughts about others and the world; our memories, goals, ideas, and everything we’ve learned from our own individual experience. However, our cognitive schemas are not perfect as we all tend to think erroneously or in extremes... these tendencies are intensified in trauma victims, in people who suffer from personality disorders or have a substance abuse problem and in children - young and old - raised in less-than-functional or alcoholic families.

-   These cognitive errors or cognitive distortions often try to condone, deny, justify, excuse,minimize, rationalize, or otherwise support unhealthy behavior. They impact our emotional state and behavior, thus interfering with healthy and appropriate communication.

-   According to Dr. Aaron Beck, the negative distortions and schemas maintain the cognitive triad: a negative views of the self, the world, and the future. They are difficult to recognize and to break. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help an individual build healthier thinking patterns.

How It works:

  • Basically, when our thinking patterns are less than accurate, they become automatic negative thoughts (ANTS). These cognitive errors typically fall into certain types or categories. 
  • Learning to recognize them, increases our ability to actively change them.
  • Thoughts, feelings and behavior are intertwined and co-occurring.
  • When we change our inaccurate thoughts we also change our emotions and behaviors.

This list contains some of the most common cognitive distortions: take a look and see if any of them have caused problems for you.

1.    All-or-Nothing Thinking  -  (a.k.a. Black-And-White Thinking, Absolutistic, Dichotomous Thinking, Polarized Thinking)The tendency to place all experiences in one of two opposite, extreme  categories; black or white, flawless or defective, saint or sinner, good or bad, etc. - Example-You have to be perfect or you're a failure. Characteristics of black-and-white type thinking:

-        An insistence on dichotomous choices.

-        All-or-nothing thinkers often use words like "always" and "never" when describing things. “I always get bad reviews!” “My mother never listens to me!” 

-        Perceiving everything at the extremes, with very little room for a middle ground.  If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

-        Polarized thinking has an impact on how you erroneously judge yourself and others because, in reality, life comes in all shades of grey.

2.    Overgeneralization  -  The pattern of drawing a general rule or conclusion on the basis of one or more isolated incidents and applying the concept across the board to related and unrelated situations (I am stupid in all of my classes, I’ll never amount to anything).  One type of generalization is "Labeling."

Characteristics of overgeneralization:  

-        Viewing one or two negative events as a never-ending pattern of defeat. . Example - Following a job interview a teacher does not get the job. She/he begins thinking that s/he will never find a job, despite past success. A person, rejected by a friend, will generalize and think that s/he will be rejected by the whole world.

-        Believing that something will always happen because it happened once.

-        Making conclusions based on a single event, including dwelling on the negatives while ignoring the positives.

-        All of the good things in life are filtered out, leaving the negatives to dwell on.

-        Overgeneralization has an impact on how a person makes decisions and how s/he judges the self and others.

3.    Mental Filtering (a.k.a. Filtering, Cognitive Bias) - Filtering refers to the habit of ignoring available information to fit a particular pre-conceived notion about an event or a person. It refers to picking out an event and focusing exclusively on a detail or on part of it so that reality becomes negatively (or sometimes conveniently positively) distorted. It is like dropping black ink into a glass of water: a single drop can discolors an entire glass. Conversely, it is as if you were looking at a bad habit (i.e. smoking) with rose-colored lenses and ignoring deleterious consequences. Characteristics of Filtering:

-        Filtering out the positive to dwell on the negative part of life or an individual. We pick on a single negative detail and dwell on it. 

-        Making predictions about what will happen to us in the future based on little information because we have excluded important facts.

-        Taking things out of context and not looking at the whole picture.

-        Filtering has an impact on a person's decision-making abilities. One can make the wrong decision because his thoughts are not reality-based.i.e. An alcoholic in denial will continue drinking as s/he is ignoring the consequences of drinking.

-        When a person pulls negative things out of context, isolated from the whole facts or experiences, problem tend to appear larger and more awful than they really are. In this case, the cognitive bias is called "catastrophizing".  This may lead to anxiety and depression.

4.    Disqualifying the Positive (a.k.a. Discounting the Positive) - Transforming positive or even neutral or experiences into negative ones, similar to mental filtering. Characteristics of Discounting the Positive:

-        Rejecting positive experiences by insisting they must not be important or “don’t count” for some reason or the other. For example you focus on one negative trait instead of considering the whole person.

-        This pattern is unconsciously formed to maintain a long held belief, even when that belief is contradicted by everyday experiences.

-        Not being able to look at the positive side of life can be really depressing as it prevents the holder of this belief to appreciate other people and the things that life has to offer. 

5.    Jumping to Conclusions (a.k.a. Arbitrary Inference) - Making assumptions that are not supported by the facts. Inferences individuals make when confronted with a negative life event: 1) inferences about the cause of the event, 2) inferences about the consequences of the negative event, and 3) inferences about the self. (Abramson et al., 1989.) - Characteristics of jumping to conclusions:

-        Making assumptions based on something a person has read, heard, or thought, without there being any actual evidence.

-        Taking hearsay as if it were the God-given truth.

-        Responding to a situation without having all the information.

-        Interpreting negatively an event, without checking out what really happened.

-        Insisting on being “right” even in the absence of supportive facts.

-      Professionals and physicians can also be guilty of making the wrong assumptions. A Doctor may assume the patient is exaggerating may nand ot take a legitimate complaint seriously; another may reach a diagnosis before having a clear understanding of all their patient’s symptoms. These errors in judgment can result in serious mistakes.

- Three specific subtypes of the cognitive error "jumping to conclusion" are "Mind Reading," "The Fortune Teller  Error," and "Labeling."

6.    Mind Reading – Assuming that one knows what other people are thinking, without checking out the accuracy of the thoughts. It often accompanied by other ANTS (atomatic negative thoughts) in this list. Characteristics of mind reading:

-        Insistence on “knowing” what people are feeling & why they act the way they do without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts.

-        Being able to divine how people are feeling toward you. Assuming that people think negatively of you.

-        Having a sense that one has special knowledge of the intentions or thoughts of others.

-        Projecting your own thinking and feelings into others:

Imagining that people feel the same way you do.

Imagining or expecting that people will react to things the same way you do.

Basically, mind readers jump to conclusions that are true for them, without checking whether they are true for the other person.

As a result, mind readers often do not ask nor listen carefully enough to notice that other people may be actually different.

7.    Fortune Teller Error a.k.a. Fortunetelling - Believing that you can predict a future outcome, while ignoring other possibilities. Having inflexible expectations for how things will turn out before they happen. The characteristics of fortunetelling are similar to those of mind-reading and catastrophizing:

-        Anticipating  that things will turn out badly and

-        Feeling convinced that this prediction is an already-established fact

-        Believing that you can predict a future outcome, while ignoring other alternatives Examples: 1) I’m going to be poor and penniless. 2) I’m going to have a panic attack if I go out in public.

-        Having a sense that one has special knowledge how things will turn out..

-        Projecting your own thinking and feelings into others:.

- Basically, fortunetellers jump to conclusions about the future that is, in reality, unpredictable.

 - As a result, they do not always engage in critical thinking nor do they enquire about other possible outcomes.

8. Labeling - A combination of "jumping to conclusion: and also "generalizing." - Applying a negative term or connotation to a person, a group, or an event when, in effect, that person, group or event are much more complex than the label would suggest.  Characteristics:

-        Stereotiping takes place when a person labels all the members of a group with the characteristic observed in one person or just a few.

-        Labeling oneself (self-labeling) and others (global labeling) on the basis of weak or inexisting evidence.

-        As a result, labels become inaccurate type of information as they leave out much more that they seem to indicate.

9.    Magnifying or Minimizing (a.k.a. "binocular trick.") - Exaggerating the importance of a trait or an event, or minimizing the importance of something relevant. Characteristics:

-        Feeling convinced that our magnified or minimized view of an event or a characteristic in a person is real. 

-        Exaggerating the importance of things (such as yours or someone else’s goof-up or imperfections.)

-        Inappropriately shrinking things until they appear insignificant.

-        Making mountains out of a molehill or

-        Sweeping problems “under the rug” and pretend they do not exist (denial).
As a result, with  a sense of tunnel vision or an exaggerated look of a situation, an individual creates a faulty view of reality that   --creates anger, anxiety, or avoidance.

10.    Catastrophizing - Blowing things out of proportion. Believing that the worst case scenario will always play out.  Characteristics:

-        Feeling fear just about anything.

-        Expecting disaster.

-        Making mountains out of a molehill.

-        There are no limits on how many scenarios a catastrophic imagination can believe and dwell on.

-        Focusing on "what if's." What if that happens to me? What if tragedy strikes?

- As a result, the person experiences overwhelming stress and anxiety, or

  avoids situations that may provide personal growth or pleasure.

- An underlying belief for this style of thinking is lack of trust in oneself and the ability to adapt to change.

11. Emotional Reasoning - Believing something to be true because it feels true. Assuming that negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: "I feel it, therefore it must be true." Dr. Tagg states:  "In most cognitive distortions, we feel bad because of automatic thoughts. If we can recognize the automatic thought and think about it rationally, we are usually on the way to overcoming it. But emotional reasoning turns this process on its head. In emotional reasoning, I continue to take for granted the automatic thought that causes my negative feeling and try to reason on the basis of my feelings. Thus emotional reasoning amplifies the effects of other cognitive distortions. The basic assumption behind emotional reasoning is "Where there's smoke, there's fire." Let's say you're preparing for a big test. It's natural that you'll be a little "nervous" about a challenging event. And if you're overgeneralizing on the basis of your last test and fortune telling that you will fail on this one, you'll be more anxious and nervous than you need to be. In this state of mind, it's easy to fall into emotional reasoning and think along these lines: "Hey, I'm nervous. I'm afraid. I must not understand the material. If I did, why would I be afraid?" Where there's smoke, there's fire."  1996 John Tagg - Two types of emotional reasonings are: "Shoulding Yourself, Shoulding Others"  and "Personalization and Blame".


-        Logic and reasoning take second place to one’s own feelings.

-        Using emotions, rather than real facts, as a decision-making template or guide.

-        Carrying too far the idea that it is good to follow our “gut feeling.”

-        Focusing on "what I feel" rather than on “What is really going on here.”
As a result, the person decision-making abilities and interpersonal communication are impaired. 

How to Modify Your Erroneous Thinking Patterns When You Have and Intense, Unpleasant Emotion

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1. This list of cognitive distortions was partially adapted from:  The Feeling Good Handbook, by David Burns. Plume, 1999.

2. The lists of questions (in the link at the bottom of the page) was adapted from:  Cognitive therapy: Basics & Beyond, by Judith Beck, who, in turn, adapted them from Aaron Beck, and Albert Ellis

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