cognitive distortions

One ought not psychoanalyze the world, but it is tempting. Every once in a while I am reminded of how common the thinking patterns of depression and chronic anxiety are in the general population and how nearly every sour interaction seems to involve one of the cognitive distortions below. I know it is wrong, but I wish I had a little reset buzzer I could hit every time I face one of these - in myself or others:

  • All-or-nothing thinking (splitting) – Conception in absolute terms, like "always", "every", "never", and "there is no alternative". (See also "false dilemma" or "false dichotomy".)
  • Overgeneralization – Extrapolating limited experiences and evidence to broad generalizations. (See also faulty generalization and misleading vividness.)
  • Magical thinking - Expectation of certain outcomes based on performance of unrelated acts or utterances. (See also wishful thinking.)
  • Mental filter – Inability to to view positive or negative features of an experience, for example, noticing only tiny imperfection in a piece of otherwise useful clothing.
  • Disqualifying the positive – Discounting positive experiences for arbitrary, ad hoc reasons.
  • Jumping to conclusions – Reaching conclusions (usually negative) from little (if any) evidence. Two specific subtypes are also identified:
    • Mind reading – Sense of access to special knowledge of the intentions or thoughts of others.
    • Fortune telling – Inflexible expectations for how things will turn out before they happen.
  • Magnification and minimization – Magnifying or minimizing a memory or situation such that they no longer correspond to objective reality. This is common enough in the normal population to popularize idioms such as "make a mountain out of a molehill." In depressed clients, often the positive characteristics ofother people are exaggerated and negative characteristics are understated. There is one subtype of magnification:
    • Catastrophizing – Inability to foresee anything other than the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or experiencing a situation as unbearable or impossible when it is just uncomfortable.
  • Emotional reasoning – Experiencing reality as a reflection of emotions, e.g. "I feel it, therefore it must be true."
  • Should statements – Patterns of thought which imply the way things "should" or "ought" to be rather than the actual situation the person is faced with, or having rigid rules which the person believes will "always apply" no matter what the circumstances are. Albert Ellis termed this "Musturbation".
  • Labeling and mislabeling – Limited thinking about behaviors or events due to reliance on names; related to overgeneralization. Rather than describing the specific behavior, the person assigns a label to someone or himself that implies absolute and unalterable terms. Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
  • Personalization – Attribution of personal responsibility (or causal role or blame) for events over which a person has no control.


  1. I'm currently working on my first assignment for my counselling degree, and have been writing about cognitive distortions for the last hour or so! Although I was aware of them before I started doing my CBT training now I have to force myself not to squeal in delight every time one of my friends says something along those sorts of lines. That really wouldn't be a sign of good social skills!

  2. This seems to sum up the essence of humanity! I think cognitive distortions are so common because they represent a way a person's brain normally tries to find simple answers or patterns in things we don't necessarily understand or want to understand. I think they may represent a misfiring of the normal tendency for the brain to categorize or organize information about the world. Maybe when this normal cognitive process gets waylaid by the emotional circuitry of the brain, we get a cognitive distortion?

  3. Katie, I'm the very same way. They should have little buttons we can stick on things or post online when we find them!

    Anonymous, I think you are describing the way it works! Righto!

  4. Remember in primary school when we had to diagram sentences? Maybe we should teach children to parse out all these cognitive distortions - in literature, in conversation, in the media...


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