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Cognitive Distortions – When Our Thoughts Make Reality Even Harder

What Are Cognitive Distortions?

Aaron Temkin Beck is an American psychiatrist and professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. He was born in 1921, making him just over 100 years old at the time of this writing. His influence on Cognitive Theory (CT) and Cognitive Therapy (CBT) is hard to overstate.

Among his notable contributions is a model that illuminates the relationship between what he called “negative schemas” (better known as cognitive distortions) and health. More specifically, Beck was able to show that negative thinking patterns reinforce negative emotions and can lead to poorer subjective well-being. Beck’s ideas form some of the basis for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which aims to change negative thought patterns as a way to promote health and well-being.

Cognitive distortions can manifest themselves in a variety of ways. They often present themselves in people who are experiencing depression and addiction.

What Are Some Examples Of Cognitive Distortions?

Over his career, Beck identified at least seven types of cognitive distortions which affect well-being. Other psychiatrists and psychologists have since added to this list, which shares some overlap with lists of more general logical fallacies. In short, a cognitive distortion is any system of thinking which creates a discrepancy between objective reality and subjective reality in a way that leads to undue suffering around a grief or traumatic experience. Here are some examples below:

Selective abstraction

Selective abstraction is often related to fixating, in the sense that it involves hyper-focusing on a small detail and ignoring the bigger context of a situation. For example, a parent who has a good relationship with their child may fixate on a particular interaction between themselves and the child, such as the fact that the child said they need a bit of space. The parent may then go on to base their assessment of that relationship solely on that interaction, unable to see the bigger context of relationship-building they have participated in alongside their child for years or decades.

Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization is similar to selective abstraction, in the sense that it takes a small sample and unduly generalizes from it. Overgeneralization often involves words such as always, never, nobody, and everybody; it takes a rare or occasional occurrence and paints it as a much bigger and much more regularly-occurring problem. For example, someone who has recently lost a handful of people in their life may think to themselves that everybody around them is dying.

Inexact labeling

Inexact labeling is a type of cognitive distortion wherein judgments and labels are unfairly applied around oneself or others, usually based on how those things make one feel. For example, a person may be labeled an idiot, a drug addict, or a failure, where the reality is far more complex than that. Inexact labeling can lead to a very limiting way of relating to ourselves and to others, as it reduces people to behaviours or aspects, rather than perceiving them with open-mindedness.

Personalization

Personalization is a type of cognitive distortion that draws a connection between the external world and one’s internal world, even when there’s no basis for this connection. In this distortion, one often places themselves at the centre of a story, which may also lead to feelings of responsibility for something for which a person may not actually be responsible. For example, if someone has scheduled a week off for holiday but it rains during that week, they may feel that, “of course it’s raining on my day off… I can never have nice things!” In this example, personalization combines with overgeneralization to make a self-pity double-whammy out of an event as impersonal as the weather.

Arbitrary interpretation / arbitrary inference

Arbitrary inference is an interpretation that is drawn from an event without any factual evidence to support a given conclusion, or in spite of evidence that contradicts that conclusion. For example, a bereaved spouse may become convinced that the family of their deceased spouse is upset with them, despite no evidence that points to that conclusion, or in spite of evidence that shows otherwise. In his research, Beck found that individuals with depression or other mood-related disorders were more prone to making this type of cognitive distortion, and to making it more often, than the average person.

Magnification and minimization

Magnification and minimization are considered errors in evaluation, namely in over- or under-estimating the significance of an event. Magnification is often compared to making a mountain out of a molehill or worst-case-scenario types of thoughts, such as assuming that a lump on one’s neck must be terminal cancer. It can involve jumping to conclusions, and thus is tied in to other types of cognitive distortions as well. Likewise, minimization is the down-playing of the significance of things, such as one’s achievements, and is often accompanied by magnification, such as the magnification of one’s flaws.

Absolutistic/Dichotomous Thinking

Absolutistic/dichotomous thinking is a cognitive distortion wherein experiences are split into two opposite categories with no middle ground. This is also called all-or-nothing thinking. For example, someone who is using dichotomous thinking may split the people in their life into the categories of being or not being an alcoholic, where in reality there is a wide spectrum in the way people use alcohol, and in the way it can impact people’s lives. Likewise, someone may refuse to accept a loved one’s substance use because they think of drugs as bad, and place their loved one in a good category, wherein they could never do a bad thing. In truth, the world operates mostly in the gray areas between categories. Like all the other forms of cognitive dissonance, this sort of thinking creates a dissonance between objective reality and subjective reality, and can thus lead to undue suffering.

Summary

Cognitive distortions make use of models of the world that are inaccurate and often not helpful. While some theories about cognitive distortions do present them as useful from an evolutionary perspective, much research links these distortions to decreased mental health—not just as a symptom, but likely as perpetuating poorer subjective well-being by distorting reality.

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Ionatan Waisgluss is a writer, educator and web developer living in the qathet region of British Columbia. He is the founder of SquareByte.ca

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