It’s Noisy in Here: Identifying Cognitive Distortions

Greg Thorkelson, MD with Ryan Reagan, PhD(c), LPC

First, let’s establish something: cognition is not simple.  Cognition and thinking are not the same thing. Thinking is a type of cognition, and while definitions may vary across the literature, for simplicity’s sake let’s just say that cognition is the brain’s behavior.  Also, your brain and your mind are not the same thing.  Everyone knows, that but we go through much of the day conflating the two.  Your brain is an organ.  Each of your organs serve a function.  Your heart does circulation, your lungs do respiration, your brain does cognition.

Cognition is a hot mess, as the kiddos say.  One of the reasons is emotions and memory.  Second, there is a long-standing, centuries old misconception of the mind that refuses to go away—that emotion and reason are somehow in separate areas and that we can just isolate one and not have to deal with the other.  The brain does not operate that way. Your brain is composed of billions of neurons that form networks. The brain is a complex array of networks layered upon networks. Cognition involves memory, feelings, goals, thoughts, hurts, aspirations, dreams, etc; nothing about this is simple.

One of the lessons from the field of behavioral economics is that our interpretations of the world can be heavily biased.  Much of our decision making takes place automatically and operates off heuristics, or rules of thumb. You may take a particular route to work to save time because you have developed a rule of thumb that traffic is worse at a specific time of day. The logical thing would be to get in the car and check the traffic report before each trip, so we knew to avoid the traffic jam. This would get time consuming and inefficient, so our brain creates a mental shortcut for judgment. We do this countless times a day without thinking about it. We notice when something disrupts our plans.

We are going to cover some of the most common cognitive distortions in this post.  As a bonus this post can be paired with the previous one that references the ABCDE technique. That technique essentially slows down the cognitive process so that you can see how some of the elements contribute to our evaluations and interpretations. This is helpful because the acts of evaluating and interpreting happen within milliseconds. You would be surprised to know that the brain makes many decisions for you, outside of conscious awareness.

If you do the ABCDE exercise, pay close attention to the “B” level.  This is the space where we typically locate the distortions.  With pessimistic thinking which is common in depression we often find elements that of thinking that are personal, permanent, or pervasive (the 3 P’s). With anxiety the “B” level often has a lot of assumptions that may contain elements of the 3P’s. Included below are a handful of the most common cognitive distortions.

Polarized (All-or-Nothing) Thinking: also called “black or white” thinking.  Characterized by either/or thinking, excludes the possibility of “both/and.”  Example: “I can be both a good student and get A’s and B’s” as opposed to “I get A’s or I am a bad student.”

Catastrophizing: worst-case scenario thinking. If A, then B (with B being catastrophic). Example: If the boss does not like this presentation, I am going to get fired.

Overgeneralizing: drawing sweeping conclusions from limited data. Example: tried baseball and had a poor season = I’m no good at sports

Filtering: distorting reality by magnifying or minimizing to arrive at a negative interpretation. Example: ever notice a small spot on your shirt and that is all you can notice for the rest of the day? You then make the leap to everyone is seeing this. This is an example of magnification. Minimizing the positive can also happen—you receive a performance review that is very good but focus only on the area that was negative.

Control Fallacies: this can be external or internal and associated with how we perceive control of events. Externalizing involves assigning control to sources outside of the self—“I had no ability to control x and prevent y, whereas internalizing assigns an exaggerated sense of control—“If I had done x, y never would have happened.”

The Tyranny of Shoulds: the “should voice.” I should be doing x, I should not have done y,  

Emotional Reasoning: because I feel it, it must be true.

Fortune Telling: making assumptions about events that have yet to happen. Example: Your anxiety about that upcoming date leads to a prediction that it will go terribly.

Mind Reading: substituting your own thinking for what you believe others are thinking about you. Example: “they sighed when I walked in the door, obviously they did not want to see me.”



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