Cognitive distortion (psychology)

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Cognitive distortions are exaggerated or irrational thought patterns that are believed to perpetuate the effects of psychopathological states, especially 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. Most notably, Burns’ 1989 book, The Feeling Good Handbook[1] presented information on these thought patterns along with a proposal of how to eliminate them.

Cognitive distortions are thoughts that cause individuals to perceive reality inaccurately. These thinking patterns often reinforce negative thoughts or emotions.[2] Cognitive distortions tend to interfere with the way a person perceives an event. Because the way a person feels intervenes with how they think, these distorted thoughts can feed negative emotions and lead an individual affected by cognitive distortions towards an overall negative outlook on the world and consequently a depressive or anxious mental state.


In 1972, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and cognitive therapy scholar, Aaron T. Beck, published the book, Depression: Causes and Treatment.[3] He was dissatisfied with the conventional Freudian treatment of depression. He concluded that there was no empirical evidence for the success of Freudian psychoanalysis in the understanding or treatment of depression. In his book, Beck provided a comprehensive and empirically supported look at depression – its potential causes, symptoms, and treatments. In Chapter 2, Symptomatology of Depression, he describes certain “cognitive manifestations” of depression, including low self-evaluation, negative expectations, self-blame and self-criticism, indecisiveness, and distortion of body image.[3]

In 1980, Burns published his book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy,[4] (with a preface from Beck) and nine years later published The Feeling Good Handbook in 1989. These books built on Beck's work, delving deeper into the definition, development, and treatment of cognitive distortions, specifically in regards to depression or anxiety disorders. This book marked the popularization[Citation needed] of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Main types

The cognitive distortions listed below[1] are categories of automatic thinking, and are to be distinguished from logical fallacies.[5]

  • All-or-nothing thinking (or dichotomous reasoning): seeing things in black or white as opposed to shades of gray; thinking in terms of false dilemmas. Splitting involves using terms like "always", "every" or "never" when this is neither true, nor equivalent to the truth.
    Example: "It's rape if you have sex with someone a day under the age of consent, but perfectly okay if you have sex with someone a day over the age of consent."
    Example: When an admired person makes a minor mistake, the admiration is turned into contempt. "I thought Daniel Carleton Gajdusek was a good man, but when I heard he had sex with kids, I lost all respect for him."
  • Overgeneralization: Making hasty generalizations from insufficient experiences and evidence. Making a very broad conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens only once, it is expected to happen over and over again.[2]
    Example: A counselor says that because a boy had sex with his teacher and later regretted it, it's harmful for any boy to have sex with his teacher.
  • Filtering: focusing entirely on negative elements of a situation, to the exclusion of the positive. Also, the brain's tendency to filter out information which does not conform to already held beliefs.
    Example: A boy says, "The relationship was good overall, although there were moments when I felt guilty about lying to hide what we were doing" and everyone focuses on the guilt.
  • Disqualifying the positive: discounting positive events.
    Example: A boy says, "That relationship was the best experience of my life" and people assume he's exaggerating or even trying to rationalize what happened. However, if he says "It was the worst experience of my life" everyone believes him.
  • Jumping to conclusions: reaching preliminary conclusions (usually negative) from little (if any) evidence. Two specific subtypes are identified:
    • Mind reading: Inferring a person's possible or probable (usually negative) thoughts from their behavior and nonverbal communication; taking precautions against the worst reasonably suspected case or some other preliminary conclusion, without asking the person.
      Example: People say, "Think of the pain that boy is going through, knowing his brother abused him!" when they have seen and heard no indication that the boy is in fact suffering.
    • Fortune-telling: predicting negative outcomes of events.
      Example: People say, "That child will be dealing for years with what his brother did to him!" without knowing anything about the child other than that he had sex with brother.
  • 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 the weight differs from that assigned to the event or thing by others. 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 of other people are exaggerated and negative characteristics are understated. There is one subtype of magnification:
    • 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: "Hearing that my boy just had sex with a man is the most excruciating experience any human has ever had in the history of the earth, and my head is about to explode because of it."
  • Emotional reasoning: 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.
    Example: "I find child porn disgusting. That means it's evil."
  • Should statements: doing, or expecting others to do, what they morally should or ought to do irrespective of the particular case the person is faced with. This involves conforming strenuously to ethical categorical imperatives which, by definition, "always apply," or to hypothetical imperatives which apply in that general type of case. Albert Ellis termed this "musturbation". Psychotherapist Michael C. Graham describes this as "expecting the world to be different than it is".[6]
    Example: Someone says "You shouldn't have sex with children."
  • Labeling and mislabeling: a more severe type of overgeneralization; attributing a person's actions to their character instead of some accidental attribute. Rather than assuming the behavior to be accidental or extrinsic, the person assigns a label to someone or something that implies the character of that person or thing. Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that has a strong connotation of a person's evaluation of the event.
    Example of "labeling": Someone assumes that a person has sex with children because he's a pedophile rather than because sexually willing children are more readily available to him.
    Example of "mislabeling": Someone calls a person who has sex with a willing child a "child molester".
  • Personalizationattributing personal responsibility, including the resulting praise or blame, for events over which a person has no control.
    Example: Someone assumes that a boy's disobedience in school is because of the scoutmaster who had sex with that willing boy.
  • Blaming: the opposite of personalization; holding other people responsible for the harm they cause, and especially for their intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress on us.[7]
Example: Someone blames an adult for having sex with a boy who seduced him.
  • Fallacy of change – Relying on social control to obtain cooperative actions from another person.[7]
  • Always being right – Prioritizing self-interest over the feelings of another person.[7]
  • Example: "My lucrative employment as a sex offender psychologist is more important than your liberty."

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Burns, David D. (1989). The Feeling Good Handbook: Using the New Mood Therapy in Everyday Life. New York: W. Morrow. ISBN 0-688-01745-2. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Grohol, John. 15 Common Cognitive Distortions. PsychCentral. Retrieved on 17 March 2014.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Beck, Aaron T. (1972). Depression; Causes and Treatment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-7652-3. 
  4. Burns, David D. (1980). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. New York: Morrow. ISBN 0-688-03633-3. 
  5. Tagg, John (1996). Cognitive Distortions. Retrieved on October 24, 2011.
  6. Graham, Michael C. (2014). Facts of Life: ten issues of contentment. Outskirts Press. pp. 37. ISBN 978-1-4787-2259-5. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Grohol, John. 15 Common Cognitive Distortions. Psych Central. Retrieved on 6 January 2013.