The Basic Idea
Have you ever read a nasty comment online? Someone might leave a rude comment on your Instagram, or a customer could leave a negative review on your company’s page. In these instances, you’re likely to feel pretty down, even if there are ten positive comments that should outweigh the one negative one. Rationally, one bad comment for every ten should not cause you to feel sad and depressed. But usually, that’s the effect it will have.
In instances like these, our brain perceives reality inaccurately, known as a cognitive distortion.
Cognitive distortions are inaccurate thinking patterns, which sometimes cause us to engage too frequently and heavily with our negative thoughts. In some people, they can lead to mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
Being aware of cognitive distortions is not enough to stop the pattern. These distortions form habitual ways of thinking that are difficult to break. At times, people need to undergo cognitive behavioral therapy to break the patterns and try to see the world more objectively and positively.1
Theory, meet practice
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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: a form of psychotherapy that helps reframe individuals’ negative thoughts and cognitive distortions to a more positive perception.
Negativity Bias: a phenomenon where negative effects have a much bigger impact on our psychological state than positive ones. Even when the events are of the same magnitude, we feel the effects of the bad one more.
The following key terms are common cognitive distortions.
All-or-nothing thinking/polarized thinking: our tendency to view the world in black and white terms, without nuance. We think of situations and people as good or bad, but nothing in between.3
Overgeneralization: our tendency to make a rule after a singular thing happens. For example, if someone has one bad experience taking the bus, they might vow to never take the bus again. Overgeneralization can lead to anxiety disorders as people come to associate negative feelings with certain events or actions.3
Filtering: when we ignore the positives in a situation and focus solely on the negatives.4
Discounting the positive: while filtering is a cognitive dissonance that causes us to ignore the positive aspects of a situation, discounting the positive means we actively reject the positive. If we get a promotion at work, we tell ourselves we are just lucky and it has nothing to do with our talent or hard work.3
Jumping to conclusions: our tendency to interpret an event negatively without having any evidence to support your interpretation. An example of this occurs when you devise an entire storyline that your partner is mad at you because they used a period in their text. When you jump to the worst possible conclusion, it is sometimes known as catastrophizing.4
Magnification: our tendency to overemphasize negative qualities and minimize positive qualities.3
Emotional reasoning: a cognitive distortion that causes us to judge ourselves based on our emotional reaction. For example, if you feel guilty, you will think that the emotion means you are a bad person.3
‘Should’ statements: perceptions of reality that rely on what we ‘should’ be doing. For example, we might think we are a failure for taking a break from studying to watch TV because we ‘should’ be studying.3
Labeling: when we judge someone based on a (often) singular behavior rather than attributing it to a particular circumstance.3
Personalization: our tendency to take things too personally and blame ourselves for a negative situation.5
In 1976, American psychologist Aaron T. Beck first proposed the cognitive distortion theory. He worked with depressed patients that helped him see that underlying negative beliefs were the root cause of depression, which prompted him to come up with the theory.
Up until this point, the prevailing psychoanalytical theories presumed that individuals with depression had an innate need to suffer.6 However, after many studies and conversations with his patients, Beck realized that their negative thoughts seemed to be automatic ones that had more to do with their perception of the situation than the situation itself, leading him to believe there was a cognitive model of depression.
After coming up with the basic theory of cognitive distortion, Beck developed cognitive behavioral therapy to help his patients break these patterns of thought. He is known today as the father of Cognitive Behavior Therapy and greatly influenced psychiatry in the U.S. The American Psychologist publication named him as one of their five most influential psychologists of all time.7
In the 1980s, American psychiatrist David D. Burns made Beck’s theory on cognitive distortions more popular. Burns was initially conducting studies to prove that low serotonin levels were the cause behind depression, but the theory didn’t sit quite right with him. He left the University of Pennsylvania where he was conducting his research and opened a private practice right below Beck’s Center for Cognitive Therapy. He began to be more interested in cognitive therapy and wrote dozens of books about cognitive distortions and their association with mental health disorders like depression.8
In 2008, Burns published the first ever mass-market self-help book to help people cope with depression, which led to mass acceptance of a cognitive distortion model as the cause of depression.8 The book is called Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy and has sold over four million copies in the U.S. alone.5
Aaron T. Beck: the psychologist who came up with the theory that underpins cognitive behavioral therapy. After studying his depressed patients, he hypothesized that it is our thoughts that impact how we interpret the world around us and drive our experience of reality, which means if we can change our thoughts, we can change our perception of reality.5 He is known as the father of cognitive behavioral therapy as he dedicated his career to developing the practice and expanded its application to other mental health disorders.6
David D. Burns: a psychiatrist that has made a name for himself in more mainstream circles through his book, Feeling Good. Based on Beck’s insights into distorted thinking patterns and hypothesis that it could be corrected to help patients with depression, Burns began to research how to treat depression. He is currently a Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford and trains therapists in conducted psychotherapy sessions.5
Albert Ellis: American psychologist and psychotherapist that developed the Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, which has similar principles to later founded cognitive behavioral therapy. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy was based on Ellis’ research that found people’s beliefs strongly influenced their emotional function. Ellis called these ‘irrational beliefs’ because they led to negative mental states.9
As Burns once said, “disqualifying the positive is one of the most destructive forms of cognitive distortion.” 11 Focusing on the negative is something we are all guilty of from time to time, but when cognitive distortions cause negative thoughts to be the norm, it can lead to some serious mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.
Cognitive distortions have the ability to cloud your rational thinking which cause you to both feel bad and make decisions that aren’t in your best interest. The worst part is that they become so entrenched as a pattern of thinking that they are hard to recognize — you just think that’s the way the world is.12 It can cause people to feel helpless when no matter what they do, these negative feelings persist.
As cognitive distortions can negatively impact your mental health, it is important that the thought pattern is broken.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is usually seen as the solution for cognitive distortions. However, some people argue that cognitive behavioral therapy is treating the effect rather than the cause. It does not consider why or how individuals fell victim to the distortions affecting their perception of reality, but instead tries to change them for the future.13
Cognitive behavioral therapy also focuses solely on the individual and places the responsibility of overcoming their mental health struggles on them. There might be wider problems and other people in their lives influencing these thought patterns, but patients are told it’s completely in their control to determine how to feel.13 It also requires a serious commitment from the patient and it can be emotionally exhausting to try and shed cognitive distortions.
Humor as an antidote to cognitive distortions
Have you ever heard someone say, ‘better laugh than cry’? Dwelling in the bad can have negative effects on your mental health, so if you can maintain a sense of humor, you might prevent yourself from going down the rabbit hole of cognitive distortions.
In a study conducted by psychologists working at the Western University in Canada, researchers found that humor was an effective coping mechanism against cognitive distortions. Participants were given an initial survey which had statements about cognitive distortions and asked how much they related to the statement. For example, a statement could say “Anne believes she should be funny when socializing”, which refers to the should statement cognitive distortion, and participants had to rate whether they engage in this type of thinking.14
The researchers found that particular humor styles helped mediate cognitive distortions so that they didn’t lead to feelings of depression. They found that self-enhancing humor, which means people make cheerful jokes to lighten the situation, helped regulate negative emotions. They also found that cognitive distortions impacted individuals’ ability to adopt self-enhancing humor. However, individuals that engaged in self-defeating humor tended to report that they resonated with cognitive distortion patterns much more, which suggests that while this style might help them navigate social situations, the coping mechanism does not ultimately help them feel better.14
Cognitive distortions are habitual ways of thinking that color reality in a negative light — but how are they formed to begin with? This reference guide takes a look at habit formation (the good and the bad), its consequences, and how habits are reinforced through technology like social media.
Now that we have access to almost everything at our fingertips, it also means we are more vulnerable to negativity. While someone might not call you ugly to your face, they might comment on your picture online. Due to cognitive distortions, you end up focusing on these negative comments, which can have damaging effects. In this brief, we examine ‘online toxicity’, a culture of negativity that exists in online spaces.
- Elmer, J. (2020, July 1). Automatic negative thinking: 5 ways to stop these invading thoughts. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/stop-automatic-negative-thoughts
- Cognitive distortions quotes. (n.d.). Goodreads. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/cognitive-distortions
- Hartney, E. (2011, March 3). 10 Cognitive Distortions Identified in CBT. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/ten-cognitive-distortions-identified-in-cbt-22412#toc-magnification
- Casabianca, S. S. (2022, January 10). 15 Cognitive Distortions To Blame for Negative Thinking. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/lib/cognitive-distortions-negative-thinking
- Ackerman, C. E. (2021, June 12). Cognitive Distortions: When Your Brain Lies to You (+ PDF Worksheets). PositivePsychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/cognitive-distortions/
- Dr. Aaron T. Beck. (2021, August 3). Beck Institute. https://beckinstitute.org/about/dr-aaron-beck/
- Cherry, K. (2020, May 15). Psychologist Aaron Beck Biography. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/aaron-beck-biography-2795492
- Strauss, R. L. (2013). Mind Over Misery. Stanford magazine. https://stanfordmag.org/contents/mind-over-misery
- Thomas, S. (2015, November 14). Albert Ellis: Theory & Concept. Study.com. https://study.com/academy/lesson/albert-ellis-theory-lesson-quiz.html#:
- behaviour therapy. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved February 17, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/science/behaviour-therapy#ref237968
- Quotes about cognitive errors. (n.d.). Quote Master. Retrieved February 17, 2022, from https://www.quotemaster.org/cognitive+errors
- 20 Cognitive Distortions and How They Affect Your Life. (2015, April 7). GoodTherapy Blog. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/20-cognitive-distortions-and-how-they-affect-your-life-0407154#
- Pros & Cons of CBT Therapy. (n.d.). The CBT Therapy Clinic. Retrieved February 17, 2022, from https://www.thecbtclinic.com/pros-cons-of-cbt-therapy
- Rnic, K., Dozois, D. J., & Martin, R. A. (2016). Cognitive distortions, humor styles, and depression. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 12(3), 348-362. https://doi.org/10.5964/ejop.v12i3.1118