Cognitive distortions & cognitive biases: Understanding the way we think

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

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 bias

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).

In the spotlight: How a cognitive bias impacts your perception of reality

Many of my clients are surprised when I explain that our perception of what’s happening around us is usually not necessarily “real”. Among many things, cognitive biases also influence the way how we perceive certain things in life, and it affects our emotions and behaviors as well. Today’s blog post is intended to provide some information about cognitive biases.

Rational thinking is very slow, if you think about it (pun intended). To rationally make a decision, we usually have to slow down our thinking; we have to consciously think and deduce information in front of us, how we can get from “A” to “B” to “C” etc. – it’s slow!

While this slow way of thinking can be more efficient, it’s also incredibly time-consuming. Thousands of years ago, in order to survive in wilderness, we simply didn’t have this time – we had to “connect the dots” fast to compare the information (or whatever is happening in front of us) with and connect to other information that’s already stored in our brain. Our brain is literally hardwired to make certain cognitive errors, to use mental shortcuts to speed up mental processing, without us rationally realizing it.  Sometimes it works out, but sometimes it’s also not useful for us because it’s subject to certain limitations.

We all construct our own “subjective reality” based on our hardwired cognitive connections and the information that’s already stored in our brain. To construct our own reality quickly, we also need to process information quickly, so we rely on cognitive biases as mental shortcuts. However, a cognitive bias can also be a disadvantage – it can be a systematic error in thinking, processing and interpreting information in the world around us.

Therefore, whenever clients work with me, I usually also explain how our brain processes information. It’s helpful to know how certain cognitive biases influence how we interpret and perceive information from other people; at the end of the day, it’s also influencing our emotions and subsequent behaviors. It’s important to be able to “re-think” some of our initial decisions by slowing down and appropriately rationalizing certain decisions. There are quite a few cognitive fallacies out there, but I’d like to introduce you to some of the cognitive biases that I often work with.

Spotlight effect

This cognitive bias makes people believe that they are being noticed much more than they really are. Think about it – you live with yourself 24/7, you always hear your own thoughts, always thinking about yourself. It sometimes makes us believe that other people are similarly thinking about us. It is important to remember that most people are more concerned about themselves than they are about you. The next time you feel like the center of attention, it’s important to remember the spotlight effect. Also, try to remember that most other people are most likely concerned with their own thoughts.  


Human minds connect things to speed up cognitive processes; your judgement can be heavily influenced by the first piece of information. Whenever we make estimates and judge if something is cheaper, better, taller, etc., we usually judge it from the reference point of our first available information, the “anchor”. This knowledge is especially useful for financial negotiations because the first number we see has a significant effect on how we perceive the following prices. For example, if you see pants for $ 1500 and then another pair of pants for $ 100, you perceive the second pair automatically as “cheap”. If you see a pair of pants for $ 20 and then another one for $ 100, you would perceive the second pair as “expensive”. 

Confirmation Bias

A confirmation bias impacts how we gather, store, and disregard information. Human minds are prone to look out for any pieces of information that justifies our existing beliefs. Any other pieces and bits of information that possibly contradict our existing beliefs are more easily disregarded as “fake”, not relevant, or we simply oppose it. Over time, our own assumptions take over and confirm themselves. This is especially relevant for people with social fears; they constantly monitor their environment for any negative social clues. Even neutral behavior may be interpreted as something negative, while positive behavior is disregarded as a “fluke” or just random accidental behavior. It’s also relevant for political beliefs that may be reinforced by only consuming certain news or websites.

Sunk cost fallacy

It may be harder to let go (loss aversion) of something or someone if a lot of time, energy, emotions or money was already invested. However, we also lose more in the process of hanging on. Human minds have a natural aversion to pain, and it creates pain and uncomfortable feelings when we realize that something or someone is a lost cause. Our brain is hardwired to avoid any uncomfortable feelings or pain, so we try to hang on. We may justify it by thinking that it has to get better at some point; sunk cost fallacy makes it difficult for people to let go. It can cause us to make unwise investments, or to hang on to unwise investments or unhealthy relationships (because we tell ourselves that we already invested so much money and/or time).

Dunning-Kruger effect

This cognitive bias describes the behavior of people who wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in specific areas. Experts usually know how much they know, but they also know how much they don’t know, and they are prone to underestimate their abilities and skills. However, it is very easy to be over-confident if you only have a simple idea of something; your incompetence keeps you from recognizing your own inability.

Framing effect

The way we perceive our information is strongly influenced by how it is delivered and framed. The advertising industry utilizes the framing effect by displaying information in a certain way. For example, it makes a difference if something is labeled as “5% fat” or “95% fat free” although the information behind it is the same. It also depends on how things are said and how the visual information surrounding it is presented (by using certain keywords, colors, fonts, etc.).

Availability heuristic

This cognitive bias is another example of a mental shortcut. Whatever information is easiest for us to recall or retrieve from our memory, that provides the best frame of reference for our future decisions. For example, if people see something in news stories, they are more likely to exaggerate the likelihood of things to happen. If you hear more stories about people being laid off, you may reconsider your spending habits; even though it may not affect you directly, you may overestimate the likelihood of you being laid off. 

Optimism bias

The optimism bias lets people believe that they are less likely to experience a negative event; the likelihood of positive outcomes is overestimated. A good example for that is smoking. Most people know and are aware of how negatively smoking affects their health. However, most people also try to rationalize it by saying “I can stop any time” or “It won’t affect me”, thus overestimating positive outcomes. One way to combat your optimism bias is to use your loss aversion (think about the losses and expenses that are likely to occur because of bad habits), and utilize your availability heuristic (make a conscious effort to read up on negative consequences, thus make bad events or consequences more easily retrievable from memory).

About the author: Mario Lehenbauer-Baum is a licensed psychologist, located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In his private practice, he focuses primarily on anxieties/phobias, adult ADHD, issues with relationships and sexuality, and general men’s issues. He offers Telehealth services as well. This blog is intended for entertainment and information purposes; however, Dr. Mario Lehenbauer-Baum is not responsible for any actions you may or may not take based on information from this blog. This blog does not replace therapy or counseling, and it does not replace any professional advice from health care providers.