As human beings, we are all subject to biases and distortions in the way we perceive, interpret, and remember information. In today’s blog, I want to explore and explain two related concepts: cognitive distortions and cognitive biases. These biases and distortions can affect our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, leading us to make inaccurate or unhelpful judgments and decisions.
Cognitive distortions are patterns of thinking that are biased, inaccurate, or unhelpful. They can affect the way we perceive ourselves, others, and the world around us. Cognitive distortions are often automatic and unconscious, meaning that we may not even be aware that we are engaging in them. Most people have cognitive distortions to some extent, it is important to be aware of it; they can be thought of as “thinking traps” that can lead to negative emotions, behaviors, and outcomes.
There are many different types of cognitive distortions, but they all share a few common characteristics. First, they involve a departure from reality, in which our thoughts and perceptions are not in line with the actual facts or evidence. Second, they often involve a negative or unrealistic view of ourselves, others, or the world around us. Finally, cognitive distortions tend to be self-perpetuating, meaning that once we start engaging in them, they can be difficult to break free from. Here are some cognitive distortion categories:
- Black/White, or All-or-Nothing Thinking: Seeing things in black-and-white terms, without any shades of gray. For example, thinking that a minor mistake means that you are a complete failure.
- Catastrophizing: Assuming that the worst-case scenario is going to happen, even if there is little evidence to support this belief, e.g. thinking that one small setback will completely ruin your life (“making a mountain out of a molehill”).
- Overgeneralization: Drawing broad conclusions based on one or a few isolated incidents. E.g., assuming that all people of a certain race, gender, or profession are the same based on one negative experience with a single individual.
- Personalization: Assuming that events or situations are related to us personally, even if there is little evidence to support this belief, e.g., thinking that a stranger’s angry expression is directed at you, even though they are actually upset about something else entirely.
- Emotional Reasoning: Believing that our emotions are an accurate reflection of reality, e.g., thinking that if we feel anxious about a situation, it must be dangerous or threatening.
- Discounting the Positive: Ignoring or dismissing positive experiences, achievements, or feedback, while focusing only on the negative, e.g., thinking that a positive review of your work is only due to luck or chance, while negative feedback reflects your true abilities.
- Jumping to Conclusions: Making assumptions or judgments without sufficient evidence, e.g., assuming that someone dislikes you without ever speaking to them or hearing their perspective.
- Magnification and minimization (magnifying the negative, minimizing the positive):
- Magnification involves exaggerating the importance, significance, or potential negative consequences of a situation or event, e.g., someone may magnify a small mistake they made at work, thinking that it will result in them losing their job or ruining their career. Minimization, on the other hand, involves downplaying or dismissing the importance or potential positive consequences of a situation or event, e.g., someone may minimize the importance of a promotion at work, thinking that it was just luck or that they didn’t really deserve it.
Cognitive biases are similar to cognitive distortions in that they involve a departure from reality and can lead us to make inaccurate or unhelpful judgments and decisions. However, cognitive biases are often more systematic and predictable than cognitive distortions. They are also more likely to be influenced by external factors such as context, culture, and social norms.
Cognitive biases are often based on mental shortcuts or heuristics that our brains use to make quick judgments and decisions. While these heuristics can be useful in many situations, they can also lead us to make errors in judgment when they are applied inappropriately.
Some examples of cognitive biases include:
- Confirmation bias: The tendency to seek out and interpret information in a way that confirms our pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses.
- Availability heuristic: The tendency to rely on the most readily available information when making decisions, even if it is not necessarily the most accurate or relevant.
- Anchoring bias: The tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information we receive when making decisions, even if it is not necessarily relevant or accurate.
- Hindsight bias: The tendency to believe that we would have predicted an event or outcome after it has occurred, even if we had no basis for predicting it at the time.
- Framing effect: The tendency to be influenced by how information is presented, rather than the actual information itself.
- Negativity bias: The tendency to give more weight to negative experiences, information, or feedback than positive ones.
- Dunning-Kruger effect: The tendency to give more weight to negative experiences, information, or feedback than positive ones.
What can you do about it?
Cognitive distortions and biases are closely related, as they both involve a departure from reality and can lead us to make inaccurate or unhelpful judgments and decisions. However, cognitive biases are often more situation-specific and can be influenced by external factors, while cognitive distortions tend to be more persistent and internally driven.
It is important to recognize both cognitive distortions and biases in order to understand the way we think and make decisions. By becoming more aware of our own biases and distortions, we can work to overcome them and make more accurate and helpful judgments and decisions in our daily lives. I usually recommend to keep track of negative thoughts, and to try to classify it with the cognitive distortion categories mentioned above – that is usually a good way of identifying unrealistic thoughts. A psychologist/psychotherapist can also be helpful to give you a more neutral/realistic perspective of your thoughts.
Dr. Mario Lehenbauer-Baum
Disclaimer: My information is strictly for educational and informational purposes, and not intended to replace any professional therapy or medical advice. I strive to be accurate, but I cannot guarantee that the information is suitable for every individual or situation. The content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional therapy, diagnosis, or treatment. Please seek the advice of a licensed professional for any questions or concerns you may have regarding your mental health. Never disregard professional advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog. Furthermore, I am not responsible for any actions you take or do not take as a result of the information provided in this blog. Please consult with your healthcare provider or mental health professional before making any changes to any treatment plan. By reading my blog, or watching my videos, you acknowledge that you have read and understood this disclaimer. Important: If you experience a crisis or mental health emergency (and you are located in the US), please call 911 or visit the nearest emergency room (do not send me a message or call me, I am not able to respond to messages online).