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.
LONGER LIST OF COMMON COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS: Go to: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-practice/201301/50-common-cognitive-distortions
Here is a reprint from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-practice/201301/50-common-cognitive-distortions
Cognitive Distortions List: A longer list of cognitive distortions.
Becoming mindful of these common cognitive distortions will help you understand yourself and other people better, and improve your decision making.
Taking something personally that may not be personal. Seeing events as consequences of your actions when there are other possibilities. For example, believing someone’s brusque tone must be because they’re irritated with you.
2. Mindreading. Guessing what someone else is thinking, when they may not be thinking that.
3. Negative predictions.
Overestimating the likelihood that an action will have a negative outcome.
4. Underestimating coping ability.
Underestimating your ability cope with negative events.
Thinking of unpleasant events as catastrophes.
Psychology research on chronic pain and catastrophizing has uncovered three types of mechanisms related to catastrophizing
- Rumination - (overthinking. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy technique for overcoming rumination)
6. Biased attention toward signs of social rejection, and lack of attention to signs of social acceptance.
For example, during social interactions, paying attention to someone yawning but not paying the same degree of attention to other cues that suggest they are interested in what you’re saying (such as them leaning in).
7. Negatively biased recall of social encounters.
Remembering negatives from a social situation and not remembering positives. For example, remembering losing your place for a few seconds while giving a talk but not remembering the huge clap you got at the end.
8. Thinking an absence of effusiveness means something is wrong.
Believing an absence of a smiley-face in an email means someone is mad at you. Or, interpreting “You did a good job” as negative if you were expecting “You did a great job.”
9. Unrelenting standards.
The belief that achieving unrelentingly high standards is necessary to avoid a catastrophe. For example, the belief that making any mistakes will lead to your colleagues thinking you're useless.
10. Entitlement beliefs.
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Believing the same rules that apply to others should not apply to you. For example, believing you shouldn’t need to do an internship even if that is the normal path to employment in your industry.
11. Justification and moral licensing.
For example, I’ve made progress toward my goal and therefore it’s ok if I act in a way that is inconsistent with it.
12. Belief in a just world.
For example, believing that poor people must deserve to be poor.
13. Seeing a situation only from your own perspective.
For example, failing to look at a topic of relationship tension from your partner’s perspective.
14. Belief that self-criticism is an effective way to motivate yourself toward better future behavior.
15. Recognizing feelings as causes of behavior, but not equally attending to how behavior influences thoughts and feelings.
For example, you think “When I have more energy, I’ll exercise” but not “Exercising will give me more energy.”
16. All or nothing thinking.
e.g., "If I don’t always get As, I’m a complete failure."
17. Shoulds and musts.
For example, "I should always give 100%." Sometimes there are no important benefits of doing a task beyond a basic acceptable level.
18. Using feelings as the basis of a judgment, when the objective evidence does not support your feelings.
e.g., "I don’t feel clean, even though I’ve washed my hands three times. Therefore I should wash my again." (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder example).
19. Basing future decisions on “sunk costs.”
e.g., investing more money in a business that is losing money because you’ve invested so much already.
Holding a fixed, false belief despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For example, believing global warming doesn’t exist. Or, believing you’re overweight when you’re 85lbs.
21. Assuming your current feelings will stay the same in the future.
For example, “I feel unable to cope today, and therefore I will feel unable to cope tomorrow.”
22. Cognitive labeling.
For example, mentally labeling your sister’s boyfriend as a “loser” and not being open to subsequent evidence suggesting he isn’t a loser.
23. The Halo Effect.
For example, perceiving high calories foods as lower in calories if they’re accompanied by a salad.
e.g., “Yes I won an important award but that still doesn’t really mean I’m accomplished in my field.”
25. Magnifying (Cognitively Exaggerating).
For example, blowing your own mistakes and flaws out of proportion and perceiving them as more significant than they are.
Making a mountain out of a molehill, but not quite to the same extent as catastrophizing.
26. Cognitive conformity.
Seeing things the way people around you view them. Research has shown that this often happens at an unconscious level. See the Asch experiment. (video)
Generalizing a belief that may have validity in some situations (such as “If you want something done well, you should do it yourself.”) to every situation. This is a type of lack of psychological flexibility.
28. Blaming others.
29. Falling victim to the “Foot in the Door” technique.
When someone makes a small request to get a “Yes” answer, then follows up with a bigger request, people are more likely to agree to the big request than if only that request had been made.
30. Falling victim to the “Door in the Face” technique.
When someone makes an outlandish request first, then makes a smaller request, the initial outlandish request makes the smaller request seem more reasonable.
31. Focusing on the amount saved rather than the amount spent.
e.g. Focusing on the amount of a discount rather than on whether you’d buy the item that day at the sale price if it wasn’t listed as on sale.
32. Overvaluing things because they're yours.
e.g., perceiving your baby as more attractive or smart than they really are because they're yours.
Or, overestimating the value of your home when you put it on the market for sale because you overestimate the added value of renovations you've made.
33. Failure to consider alternative explanations.
Coming up with one explanation for why something has happened/happens and failing to consider alternative, more likely explanations.
34. The Self-Serving Bias The self-serving bias is people's tendency to attribute positive events to their own character but attribute negative events to external factors.
Positive event - You get an A for an essay and you attribute it to your own awesomeness! (internal attribution)
Negative event - You get a C on an essay and you attribute it to your professor not having explained what they wanted well enough. (external attribution).
35. Attributing strangers' behavior to their character and not considering situational/contextual factors.
36. Failure to consider opportunity cost.
For example, spending an hour doing a low ROI task and thinking "it's only an hour" and not considering the lost potential of spending that hour doing a high ROI task.
37. Assumed similarity.
The tendency to assume other people hold similar attitudes to your own.
38. In-group bias.
The tendency to trust and value people who are like you, or who are in your circle, more than people from different backgrounds.
39. "You don't know what you don't know."
Getting external feedback can help you become aware of things you didn't even know that you didn't know!
40. The tendency to underestimate how long tasks will take.
41. The belief that worry and overthinking will lead to problem solving insights.
In fact, overthinking tends to impair problem solving ability and leads to avoidance coping.
42. Biased implicit attitudes.
Psychologists use a test called the implicit association test to measure attitudes that people subconsciously hold. Results show people subconsciously associate fat with lazy etc.
It's useful to be mindful that you may unconsciously hold biased attitudes, then you can consciously correct for them.
43. The Peak-End Rule.
The tendency to most strongly remember (1) how you felt at the end of an experience, and (2) how you felt at the moment of peak emotional intensity during the experience. Biased memories scan lead to biased future decision making.
44. The tendency to prefer familiar things.
Familiarity breeds liking, which is part of why people are brand loyal and may pay inflated prices for familiar brands vs. switching.
45. The belief you can multi-task.
When you're multi-tasking you're actually task (and attention) shifting. Trying to focus on more than one goal at a time is self-sabotage.
46. Failure to recognize the cognitive benefits of restorative activitIes and activities that increase positive emotions.
For example, seeing humor or breaks as a waste of time.
47. Positively biased predictions.
For example, expecting that if you sign up to a one year gym membership you will go, if this hasn't been the case in the past.
48. Cheating on your goals based on positive behaviors you plan to do later.
For example, overeating today if you expect you'll be starting a diet next week. Often the planned positive behaviors don't happen.
49. Repeating the same behavior and expecting different results (or thinking that doubling-down on a failed strategy will start to produce positive results).
For example, expecting that if you nag more, your partner will change.
50. "I can't change my behavior." (or "I can't change my thinking style.")
Instead of telling yourself "I can't," try asking yourself how you could shift your behavior (or thinking style) by 5%.
How to Become Mindful of Your Cognitive Distortions?
Try printing this article and highlighting the cognitive distortions you think apply to you. I suggest you then pick one cognitive distortion at a time and keep a running list for a week of how that cognitive distortion manifests in your life. To make the task easier, print the sheet: 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