Cognitive Distortion

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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.

Cognitive distortions are thoughts that cognitive therapists believe cause individuals to perceive reality inaccurately. These thinking patterns often are said to reinforce negative thoughts or emotions. 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.[1]

Main types

Examples of some common cognitive distortions seen in depressed and anxious individuals. People may be taught how to identify and alter these distortions as part of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The cognitive distortions listed below are categories of automatic thinking, and are to be distinguished from logical fallacies.

Always being Right

Being wrong is unthinkable. This cognitive distortion is characterized by actively trying to prove one's actions or thoughts to be correct, while sometimes prioritizing self-interest over the feelings of another person.


The opposite of personalization; holding other people responsible for the harm they cause, and especially for their intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress. Example: someone blames their spouse entirely for marital problems, instead of looking at their own part in the problems.

Disqualifying the Positive

Discounting positive events. Example: Upon receiving a congratulation, a person dismisses it out-of-hand, believing it to be undeserved, and automatically interpreting the compliment (at least inwardly) as an attempt at flattery or perhaps as arising out of naïveté.

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 feel (i.e. think that I am) stupid or boring, therefore I must be."[2] Or, feeling that fear of flying in planes means planes are a very dangerous way to travel. Or, concluding that it's hopeless to clean one's house due to being overwhelmed by the prospect of cleaning.[6]

Fallacy of change

Relying on social control to obtain cooperative actions from another person.

Fallacy of fairness

Becoming guilty when one acts against justice or upset when someone else acts unjustly.


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: After receiving comments about a work presentation, a person focuses on the single critical comment and ignores what went well.

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: A student assumes the readers of their paper have already made up their mind concerning its topic, and therefore writing the paper is a pointless exercise.

  • Fortune-telling: predicting outcomes (usually negative) of events. Example: Being convinced of failure before a test, when the student is in fact prepared.

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": Instead of believing that you made a mistake, you believe that you are a loser, because only a loser would make that kind of mistake. Or, someone who made a bad first impression is a "jerk", in the absence of some more specific cause. Example of "mislabeling": A woman who places her children in a day care center is "abandoning her children to strangers," because the person who says so highly values the bond between mother and child.

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:


Giving greater weight to the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or experiencing a situation as unbearable or impossible when it is just uncomfortable. Example: A teenager is too afraid to start driver's training because he believes he would get himself into an accident.


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.Example: A person is lonely and often spends most of her time at home. Her friends sometimes ask her to come out for dinner and meet new people. She feels it is useless to try to meet people. No one really could like her.


Attributing personal responsibility, including the resulting praise or blame, for events over which a person has no control.

Example: A mother whose child is struggling in school blames herself entirely for being a bad mother, because she believes that her deficient parenting is responsible. In fact, the real cause may be something else entirely.

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".

Example: After a performance, a concert pianist believes he or she should not have made so many mistakes. David Burns' Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy clearly distinguishes between pathological "should statements", moral imperatives, and social norms.


(All-or-nothing thinking or dichotomous reasoning) Evaluating the self, as well as events in life in extreme terms. It’s either all good or all bad, either black or white, nothing in between. Causing every small imperfection to seem incredibly dangerous and painful. Splitting involves using terms like "always", "every" or "never" when this is neither true nor equivalent to the truth. Example: When an admired person makes a minor mistake, the admiration is turned into contempt.

Cognitive restructuring

Cognitive restructuring (CR) is a popular form of therapy used to identify and break down maladaptive cognitive distortions. It is typically used with individuals with depression.[8] CR therapies aim to eliminate "automatic thoughts" which create dysfunctional or negative views for individuals. Cognitive restructuring is the main component of Beck's and Burns's cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Narcissistic Defense

Exaggeration and minimization are commonly adopted by narcissists to manage and defend against psychic pain.


In cognitive therapy, decatastrophizing or decatastrophization is a cognitive restructuring technique to treat cognitive distortions, such as magnification and catastrophizing, commonly seen in psychological disorders like anxiety and psychosis.

Confusion Principle

Confusion is the state of being bewildered or unclear in one’s mind about something, which leads to Cognitive Distortion. Cognitive distortions tend to interfere with the way a person perceives an event. Mental confusion is sometimes accompanied by disordered consciousness (the loss of linear thinking) and memory loss. States of mental confusion and cognitive distortion are increased dramatically when being overloaded by stress and when taking any kind of alcohol or drugs.

The most common way to confuse someone is to simply overload them with information, bureaucracy or demands that they cannot process and to which will lead them to feel utterly overwhelmed. In simple terms, its consistently throwing things at them until they collapse from the weight of it all, wearing them down until they cannot take it anymore. Sometimes it’s making demands or placing rules on the circumstances that actually do not make any sense at all, in order to confuse them further. Most people have been conditioned to accept that there are predictable patterns in the world in order to make sense of their environment, which gives the illusion of personal control, certainty and safety. When that person’s predictable pattern breaks apart and they are set up in a unexpected shock or surprise, they feel they have lost control and this will generate mental confusion and uncertainty. How well we cope with stress and uncertainty, will help us learn from the experiences which can strengthen us for the next time it happens. This is why we emphasize maintaining present moment observer consciousness and neutrality, as this radically diffuses mental tensions while keeping you stronger in the face of confusing challenges.[2]


See Also

Negative Ego

Ego Defense Mechanism