General Growth

30 Common Cognitive Distortions – Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

The brain continually processes information, whether a person is conscious of the fact or not. Much of this consists of signals sent to organs and areas of the body, to ensure functionality and maintain order. However, there are times where the brain attempts to convince a person of something that isn’t exactly true. From over analyzing an event to attempting to back up a bad decision with rational thought, nearly everyone experiences something known as a cognitive distortion.

Cognitive distortions do not fall under a one size fits all definition though. There are, in fact, many different variations of cognitive distortions. Identifying and understanding the most common variants can help an individual not only correct these distortions and prevent the mental distraction, but also learn why the brain acts as it does. Here are 30 of the most common cognitive distortions nearly any individual might experience in their given life.

1. Filtering

The distortion of filtering centers on the idea of taking in only bits and pieces of an event and disregarding other details. Many of the other common cognitive distortions relate directly to filtering. For example, if an individual goes to a dinner party that goes exceptionally well, outside of one possibly negative comment directed towards them, filtering will cause the person to focus specifically on the negative comment while disregarding everything else.

Causes

Filtering stems from a few different causes. It can be passed down when around parents who regularly filter (and verbalize filtering) in front of their children. Depression plays a big part in filtering as well. As an individual begins to suffer from depression, they begin to assume more and more negativity, such as focusing on the negatives of an activity and not the positives.

Symptoms

Most symptoms on the list of cognitive distortions are only known to the person suffering the distortions (unless they tell someone else or they verbalize the distortions). However, a person who suffers from filtering is more likely to become depressed and even avoid public interactions and activities (which may only further develop the depression).

Treatments

The best way to treat filtering is to focus on the good aspects of an activity. This will help counterbalance the filtering of negative comments and activities, which will eventually even out. Writing out the positive interactions can help keep track of these desirable aspects of a social event as well.

Additional Reading:

Cognitive Distortions: The Lies Depression Tells
Cognitive Distortions: When Your Brain Lies to You (+PDF Worksheets)
Common Cognitive Distortion: Negative Filtering
State of Anxiety: 20 Stealthy Mental Filters That are Sabotaging You

2. Jumping To Conclusions

When a person jumps to conclusions, they surmise an end result without having all the facts. Usually, this has a negative connotation to it. A person may assume the worst without knowing what’s going on. For example, if someone is supposed to call, they may instantly jump to conclusions and assume something bad happened, or that the other individual is intentionally avoiding them. When jumping to conclusions, a person assumes their prediction is an established fact. Should a person constantly jump to conclusions, it may affect their future actions and reactions, because the brain has become accustomed to seeing another individual in a negative way. As is the case with many other common cognitive distortions, it can lead to additional distortions.

Causes

There are a number of reasons why someone might jump to conclusions. Often times, in events of uncertainty or during events with significant overriding factors, people become more likely to jump to conclusions. If often is closely connected to panic disorders. A person panics so they make a quick decision, which can often lead to further panic (especially if a person suffers from other cognitive distortions)

Symptoms

When a person is under a considerable amount of stress they become more likely to jump to conclusions. They don’t (or want to) spend the additional mental capacity to analyze the current situation. These individuals often suffer anxiety attacks and other forms of panic.

Treatment

Treating anxiety and panic attacks can help correct this issue. Finding ways to handle stress to reduce anxiety goes a long way in addressing this. Everything from changing diets, improving sleep patterns and exercising can help with anxiety, which reduces jumping to conclusions. Plus, as is the case with many cognitive distortions, focusing on doing the opposite of the distortion (forcing oneself to not jump to conclusions) helps.

Additional Reading

Daily Mail: Brain Scans Reveal Why We Jump to Conclusions
Very Well: Jumping to Conclusions and Panic Disorder
Konbini: This Is Why We Jump to Conclusions
Becoming Who You Are: Why We Jump to Conclusions (and How to Stop)

3. Personalization

In this distortion, a person believes everyone around them (or at the very least, the people they are interacting with) shares the same belief system as themselves. A level of comparison occurs with personalization as well, with one person mentally comparing their level of intelligence with that of another person (this includes comparing attractiveness levels, levels of success and so on).

Personalization also puts the person at the cent of an event, even if they have nothing to do with it. Perhaps something goes wrong and individuals blame themselves, even if they either had nothing to do with it, or the event would have still occurred without them. A person will connect dots back to themselves, even if there are no dots to connect.

Causes

This often comes from an upbringing where everyone around someone often does share the same thoughts and emotions. Whether a person comes from a very small town, a closed community or is homeschooled and kept in a tight-knit group of people, personalization can occur simply because they are not exposed to other ideas.

Symptoms

This is not necessarily tied to depression or anxiety (like many of the other distortions on the list). However a person assumes everyone thinks like them, so they will often speak out, often in controversial ways and in front of others, because they believe others share the same thoughts.

Treatment

Treating the personalization cognitive distortion requires some central thinking adjustments. A person needs to be kinder to themselves and accept the fact that they will make mistakes, and that is perfectly fine. It’s also important to properly label emotions. Emotions often lead to personalization, so understanding what emotion a person is actually feeling helps with the treatment. Learning to accept rejection also helps. The best way to cope with this without it becoming a negative situation is if a person places himself or herself in a situation where rejection is likely but doesn’t have any negative consequences. This helps the brain accept rejection without turning to depression or personalization.

Additional Reading

Alice Boyes: 7 Tips For Not Personalizing
Hubspot: The Psychology of Personalization: Why We Crave Customized Experiences
Samuel Thomas Davies: Cognitive Distortions: The Thinking Traps That Influence Happiness.

4. Mindreading

A straightforward distortion, mind-reading occurs when someone assumes what someone else is thinking and bases judgment and actions off of this, even without actual knowledge of what the person may or may not be really thinking.

Causes

Also known as metalizing, mindreading is one of the cognitive errors that have come out of continued human evolution and growth. Humans are often faced with a series of social interactions and, in order to focus on important interactions while avoiding smaller, less essential connections, the human brain attempts to fill-in, or “mind read” others. However, mind reading may lead to an increase in depression and anxiety.

Symptoms

When someone mind reads they often project perceived ideas and thoughts onto someone. Someone who may already be suffering through bouts of depression or anxiety often see an increase in irritability and a lack of motivation to interact with others because they will “mind read” negative thoughts from someone, which increases their level of depression.

Treatment

The best treatment here is for someone to catch themselves doing it and to stop it. It takes mental effort initially, but over time, by avoiding these negative-thinking patterns it will become easier to avoid in the future. Holding back judgment also will help avoid mind reading.

Additional Reading

Psychology Today: Mind Reading and Miscommunication
Psychology Today: Mind Reading
Huffington Post: Is Mind Reading Making You Depressed and Anxious?
Healthy Place: Mind-Reading and Projecting in Social Anxiety



5. Minimizing

When someone has a goal it often takes several steps to reach this goal. Should someone accomplish one of the steps on their way to their desired goal, they might minimize the accomplishment. While important to others, it’s not their final goal, and as such, the person may not appreciate it. In fact, they may turn away praise by suggesting it is not a big deal. Minimizing connects with additional cognitive distortions, including the continued drive for perfection, and anything less is unsatisfactory.

Causes

Most people who suffer panic attacks are more likely to suffer from minimizing. They often feel like they are never good enough because they minimize their goals. This often stems from childhood where parents do not praise a child for success and instead minimize it and make it seem like it’s not good enough.

Symptoms

These people suffer panic attacks, often in public. Eventually, they may take themselves out of public in order to help prevent these panic attacks. There become nervous easily and may seem emotionless or not sure of how to acknowledge someone else’s success.

Treatment

As is the case with many types of cognitive distortions, it’s important for a person to catch themselves minimizing. They also need to accept what they do and when they accomplish something. While not blowing it out of proportion, rewarding themselves and acknowledging success will help avoid minimizing.

Additional Reading

Very Well: Cognitive Distortions: What is Magnification and Minimization?
Healthy Psych: Psychology Tools: What Are Cognitive Distortions?
John Tagg: Cognitive Distortions
Mental Help: Cognitive Distortions Affecting Stress

6. Polarized Thinking

Polarized thinking causes someone to believe everything around them (and in life in general) is one side or another. It’s also referred to as “black and white” thinking. It’s an either/or situation. While there are times in life where something is either right or wrong, this doesn’t describe everything. There are many shades of gray in between black and white, which means, in reality, very little actually is black or white. Much of life is definitive. It’s win or loses success or failure.

Causes

This cognitive distortion comes from upbringing and social interactions. As a child grows up, they learn very quickly the difference between right and wrong. If they play a sport they will discover it’s either winning or losing and there’s nothing in between. It’s the formulation of polarized thinking at an early age that causes most to continually use a form of black and white thinking throughout the rest of their life.

Symptoms

Polarized thinking occurs during times of stress, threats or conflicts. A person may seem agitated or rush to answer when in social settings or in situations that make them feel uncomfortable. A person will fall into a set pattern that often results in this distorted thinking.

Treatment

In order to break negative thinking patterns, a person needs to identify when they are doing. From there, it is necessary to mentally focus on not conducting the distorted thinking. It can prove challenging at first but will become easier. A person can slowly move into more stressful social situations once they have mastered the less stressful activities. This way, they can progress at a comfortable pace and avoid these cognitive errors.

Additional Reading

Emotional Competency: Distortions
My Doctor: Cognitive Therapy for controlling Distorted Thinking and Automatic Negative Thoughts
Driving Peace: How to Overcome 5 Common Negative Thought Distortions Using CBT
Patheos: The Perils of Polarized Thinking

7. Negative Predictions

The cognitive distortion of negative predictions occurs when someone assumes an action will have a negative outcome. This may hinge on previous experiences or an assumption not based on fact.

Causes

Negative predicting begins usually at a younger age. It may stem from a parent or guardian who is wary of trying new activities or moving out of their own comfort zone because of possible negative results. It may also come from someone who has experienced negativity when trying something new in the past, and as such now mentally connects negativity, or at the least potentially negative outcomes, with anything outside of what they have successfully done in the past.

Symptoms

When it comes to what are cognitive distortions, this is one can affect a person as they are constantly in a negative thought process. They assume the worse. A person will often verbalize their thoughts, so they come across as being down all the time. This can lead to depression and anxiety disorders, as is the case with other distorted thinking patterns.

Treatment

Sometimes it is difficult for a person to know exactly when negative predictions kick in. The best way to identify these issues is to keep a journal. By writing down these negative mental predictions it becomes possible to monitor what a person thinks (and what really goes on). By focusing on identifying these negative predictions, a person can then begin to concentrate on stopping the thinking before fully fleshing out the negative thoughts.

Additional Reading

Centre For Clinical Interventions: Overcoming Negative Predictions, Avoidance & Safety Behaviors
Huffington Post: How to Challenge Your Negative Predictions: Eight Techniques to Rescue Yourself From Fortune-Telling
US National Library of Medicine: Can Exaggerated Stress Reactivity and Prolonged Recovery Predict Negative Health Outcomes?

8. Blaming

Whether verbally insinuating someone else or simply doing it mentally, blaming is when a person holds another individual responsible for his or her own pain and downfall. On the other side, a person may accept blame and responsibility for someone else’s problems. For example, if a child suffers from drug addiction, a parent might blame himself or herself, even if they had nothing to do with the addiction. A person has control only over their own emotions, so attempting to deflect control to someone else (or attempting to take emotional control of someone else’s emotions) falls under the blaming cognitive distortion.

Causes

Blaming diverts attention from an individual onto someone else. It allows a person to feel less responsible if they shift the blame to someone (or something else). On the other hand, if someone sees another person suffering, it’s easier to blame themselves than to seek out the correct answer. Either way, it’s the easier out. The situation develops over time and it often comes from children who see their parents play the “blame game.”

Symptoms

Those who are depressed may accept blame for something they did not do. They are already down, so they will accept it and increase their depression. Others are extremely childish (even as adults) and push the blame out on others, so they come off mentally free of responsibility.

Treatment

Before announcing blame, either pushing the blame off of oneself or taking it away from someone, it is important to just not blame anyone or anything. Often times it’s a simple mistake. Having all the facts helps prevent blaming from occurring as well.

Additional Reading

Psychology Today: 5 Reasons We Play the Blame Game
Psychology Today: 5 Ways Blaming Hurts Relationships
Changing Minds: Why We Blame Others
2 Know Myself: Why Do People Blame Others

9. Global Labeling

This cognitive distortion connects directly to overgeneralization. However, this differs as a person attaches negative judgment universally either to himself or herself or to someone else based on a single action (or interaction).  Global labeling occurs in two different ways. First, a person may label themselves. Perhaps they forgot to do something and, as such, label themselves as “an idiot.” In other instances, if someone else rubs them in a less than desirable way, they may globally label them as “a jerk,” all without having any other context.

Causes

Depression leads to global labeling. A person may focus on one or two negatives within themselves and focus on these. It then becomes difficult to not focus on these two problems. Like seeing a small red dot on a white shirt. After noticing it, it’s impossible not to see it.

Symptoms

Of this list of cognitive distortions, this centers around a person who is always hard to themselves. They focus on the small negatives, even when the positives outnumber the negatives. A person who suffers from these types of cognitive distortions often suffers from many of the other 30 cognitive errors on this list.

Treatment

It’s important for someone to not dwell on mistakes. This is where the global thinking starts to kick in. A person needs to accept they made a mistake but then focus on the positives, or ways to improve. The faster a person can shift gears out of this distorted thinking, the easier it becomes to overcome.

Additional Reading

Eastern Washington University: 15 Styles of Distorted Thinking
Corner Canyon Counseling: Anger Management: Thought Distortions That Create Anger
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Los Angeles: Cognitive Distortions: Labeling
Online Psychology Degree: 15 Common cognitive Distortions That May Be Behind Your Productivity Problems



10. Unrelenting Standards

People who experience the cognitive distortion of unrelenting standards believe the only merit for success lies in an almost impossibly high accomplishment. This can include someone who sees it as a failure if they score 99 out of 100 on a test, or if they take a miss step in an otherwise perfect dance routine. They require perfection and anything less than perfection is a failure. Those who do experience this distortion may believe anything other than perfection may lead to failure further down the line (such as a chosen university not accepting them for that one missed test question, or missing out on a basketball scholarship for the one missed free throw).

Causes

Humans are not born with unrelenting standards. They are either taught the standards or evolve into the standards. Some have parents who require nothing less than perfection. A parent may require their child to practice an instrument all day, every day in order to excel and avoid failure. Should the child fall short of perfection, the parent may discipline the child. Alternatively, a person may strive to improve upon himself or herself and, along the way, find the only way to continue improving is to become perfect. They may not have learned unrelenting standards from a parent or guardian, but the natural course of continued improvement led them to the distortion.

Symptoms

Children who do not receive much attention (or enough attention) from parents may try to push themselves in order to gain the attention their missing. When small gains do not garnish attention than work harder for the attention. A person may become extremely upset or even verbally angry around friends and family if they make one mistake. They are easily agitated when taken away from their work and they may verbally attack others who accept anything less than perfection.

Treatment

Mental self-love is important. People begin to develop these examples of cognitive distortions because they do not receive the needed attention while growing as a child. Acceptance is a must. This is one treatment that requires both the individual dealing with the distorted thinking and those around him or her to open up and be there for them and show them love and support. If a person can achieve their healthy attention and praise without being perfect all the time, they become more likely to move past these negative thinking patterns.

Additional Reading

Schema Therapy: Early Maladaptive Schemas
Mindfulness Muse: Early Maladaptive Schemas: Understand Your Patterns
Luc Reid: Mental Schemas #17: Unrelenting Standards
Agile Lean Life: Understanding Schemas – Mental Structures That Support Deep Negative Beliefs

11. Overgeneralization

The common cognitive distortion of overgeneralization develops when someone experiences a certain reaction one time and then develops a belief that all future occurrences will end with the same result. This stems from a natural human survival mode. During early humanity, if an individual experienced a dangerous situation, they would adapt to avoid the dangerous situation. It helped promote survival. However, in modern days, this mode of human survival no longer centers on keeping a person safe. Now, it may affect a person’s mindset and even lead to depression. For example, if a person failed at a job interview, they may overgeneralize all future job interviews and assume they will fail. This, in turn, may reflect poorly on their interview performance, which in turn leads to not landing the job. Due to overgeneralization, a person sets him or herself up for continued failure.

Causes

There are many causes behind the development of this. A child may see their parent constantly need to have someone around, so they jump from one relationship to the next, each with similar results. This can lead to overgeneralization. Other causes may be, at a young age, a child receives the same harsh result after attempting to try something new (they perform in a musical recital and do not have desirable results each time). This can cause a child to develop overgeneralization, where everything new likely comes with similar, undesirable results.

Symptoms

A person who suffers from this cognitive distortion is less likely to try something new. They won’t move out of their comfort zone, and they do not like meeting new people or mingling in new places. They may become quick to leave a situation and suffer anxiety attacks.

Treatment

A person needs to take notes as to when they overgeneralize something. They should write down what it was and what they thought about it. This can help identify patterns to prevent such thinking in the future. Once a person understands when they begin to overgeneralize they can control it and stop the thought process as it begins.

Additional Reading

Alice Boyes: Overgeneralization Psychology
Eduard Ezeanu: Overgeneralization: What It Is, Why It’s Dangerous And How To Avoid It
Coaching With Terease Jones: Overgeneralization
You Me Works: Overgeneralization

12. Shoulds

Forged through personal experiences, most people develop rules as to how someone should act or behave. This is because someone uses these personal experiences to dictate how they would react or behave. The issue here is everyone goes through different life events, which forge their own behaviors and actions. Despite this, the idea of “shoulds” is a person believes someone else “should” reaction, respond or act in a given way. Shoulds also can play a role in a person’s own mental state. In this situation, a person tells himself or herself they should do something (eat right or exercise, for example) and if they don’t they guilt themselves for not doing what “they should.” As is the case with many of the other distortions, the shoulds is a double-edged, with it affecting how a person perceives others, or how a person perceives him or herself.

Causes

Most everyone has experienced a case of the “I should have…” excuses. However, for some, it becomes easier to blame themselves or blame events rather than adjust their actions. It becomes a built-in excuse. Individuals who have suffered failure (or are afraid of failure) begin to develop these cognitive errors. Eventually, they may not even realize they are doing this.

Symptoms

This person always has an excuse for coming up short. They could have done this, or they should have done that. Often times this is used as an excuse without actually changing anything for future attempts.

Treatment

When focusing on a cognitive distortions definition, writing down in a journal always helps identify a pattern. A person may not even realize they are doing it (or how often they do it) until it is written down. To move past this distorted thinking, it’s necessary to actually correct the “I should have done…” issue and try again. By not using it as a crutch or excuse, a person will eventually stop falling into these negative thinking patterns.

Additional Reading

Psychology Today: Your Career and the Tyranny of the Shoulds
10 Thinking Errors That Lead to Anxiety
Alex Crow: The Tyranny of the “Shoulds”
Lynne Forrest: Some Common Shoulds That Keep Us In Victim Consciousness

13. Entitlement Beliefs

Entitlement beliefs occur when someone holds different people to varying standards. A person may believe they should not have the same rules applied to themselves as someone else. This is most commonly associated with someone (for example) who is wealthy and believes they should not be held responsible for the same crimes as someone without the benefit of a large income. However, entitlement beliefs come in many different forms, ranging from a person’s ancestral background, their financial class, social class, race, gender or even who they know.

Causes

Entitlement beliefs develop in different ways. Often it does begin at a young age, either from parents and family members instructing them on this entitlement, or they see first hand how someone in his or her family can get away with something while someone of a different family or class are punished for the same action. Others may develop entitlement beliefs over time, often from sudden access to money, fame or prestige.

Symptoms

This kind of an individual is a narcissist. They think of themselves first. They love attention and they likely have several social media accounts, dedicated mostly to simple pictures of themselves. When around others, they assume whatever someone else has is also theirs (eating off of someone else’s plate without asking, taking someone off of someone’s desk without asking). This person also often says the world is not fair, especially when everyone is actually being treated as equals.

Treatment

A person needs to know what the cognitive distortions definition is. They need to understand what the symptoms are and look at themselves. The problem with narcissism and entitlement is a person may simply not see it. In these instances, it takes others to point out when the person is acting entitled in order to help correct the actions.

Additional Reading

Lone World: 16 Signs You Have a Sense of Entitlement Complex
A Conscious Rethink: 5 Ways A Sense of Entitlement Reveals Itself
Psychology Today: What Makes Some People Feel Entitled to Special Treatment?
The Brain Flux: How Entitlement Causes Unhappiness and What You Can Do About It

14. Delusions

The delusion cognitive distortion lies within a fixed, often false belief, even though there is an abundance of evidence pointing to an opposite truth. Essentially, this individual refuses to listen to evidence and instead blocks out all other ideas and facts. One example of this is someone who is seriously underweight to the point of causing health problems, but they see themselves as overweight. Delusion distortions often connect with other cognitive distortions, such as focusing on the negatives and blocking out the positives. Delusions are not always personal. Refusing to believe global warming exists, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, is a common delusion.

Causes

Delusions often begin in self-preservation and not wanting to believe something is true. This cognitive disorder often comes about when an idea or notion challenges the very way a person thinks or how they have perceived life. Due to this, they refute facts and, eventually lead to delusions.

Symptoms

People who suffer from cognitive distortion delusions may refuse to listen to someone explain an idea that is against their own belief system. They close themselves off or begin overtly aggressive and angry when someone brings up an opposing viewpoint.

Treatment

Someone experiencing this viewpoint needs to accept other ideas may, in fact, trump their own ideas. They need to realize being wrong doesn’t make them less of an individual, and often times it doesn’t mean the unraveling of their own belief system. It requires a person to be more open-minded.

Additional Reading

Mental Health Resource: Distorted Thinking – What Is It?
Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders: Delusional Disorder
Science Direct: Cognitive Distortion
Mental Help: Defining Features of Personality Disorders: Distorted Thinking Patterns

15. Fallacy of Change

The fallacy of change occurs when someone believes someone else will change because they pressure him or her to change. While a common caveat in relationships where one person wants the other to change, the distortion occurs when someone tricks themselves into believing a person will change because of the pressure applied. However, the need for change doesn’t usually stem from making the other person better. It comes about because a person wants to increase their own level of happiness by shifting blame off of himself or herself and onto someone else. They are not happy; therefore, someone else needs to change.

Causes

Many people do not want to accept they are the problem, but instead, divert attention to someone else. If an individual discovers someone else is willing to change for them, it establishes a precedent and increases the chance of repeating the action.

Symptoms

Individuals who demonstrate the fallacy of change is controlling. They point out the flaws of others (often this is not prompted). They become upset when someone insinuates they need change and instead deflects this onto others around them.

Treatment

A person needs to focus on internal change and not try to change others. By realizing they are unable to control and change others, they will become more accepting. This is an internal focus treatment where a person spends time on themselves and making themselves better.

Additional Reading

University of Texas: The Fallacies
Psychology Today: Having to Hit Bottom Before You Change is Often a Fallacy
Don Lindsay Archive: A List of Fallacious Arguments
Changing Minds: Fallacies



16. Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing occurs when the brain automatically thinks the worst will happen. It’s a similar offshoot of jumping to conclusions, only in a much more extreme manner. However, there are other variations of catastrophizing. In this distortion, a person will drastically exaggerate the importance of a given event. On the flip side, they may also reduce the importance of a given event.

Causes

This can be passed down from parents who also catastrophize. Someone may also have experienced worst-case scenarios previous in life, and in turn, began to assimilate the thought of the worst-case situations always playing out from then on.

Symptoms

Someone who catastrophizes may show signs of depression without warning. They may suffer from panic attacks and become extremely negative when things are not going their way.

Treatment

A person who suffers from this cognitive distortion needs to remain mindful. They need to catch themselves having the distortion and stop themselves from moving forward with the thought process. They should also consider other possibilities, from neutral to positive.

Additional Reading

Psychology Today: What is Catastrophizing? Cognitive Distortions
Anxiety Guru: This Is Why Anxious People Catastrophize
The Good Men Project: Why We’re Always Expecting the Worse (and How to Overcome the Anxiety of Catastrophizing)
Evolution Counseling: Catastrophizing and Anxiety

17. Justification and Moral Licensing

This form of cognitive distortion occurs when people provide themselves with justification for acting out. A simple example is a person allows himself or herself to eat an especially unhealthy meal because they worked out earlier in the day. Justification and moral licensing usually goes a bit further and effects how a person acts. They may have a set goal and made progress towards achieving the given goal. Because they made this progress, the individual may give himself or herself justification for taking a break or acting out of the ordinary. Basically, a person is looking for an excuse to act out, so they can justify it as not being negative.

Causes

When someone demonstrates this cognitive distortion, it is because usually they want to do something, and they know it is wrong, but want justification to do it. It helps a person feel better about himself or herself knowing there is justification. When nobody holds someone accountable for these actions it may become more and more commonplace.

Symptoms

A person does whatever they want, and over time, they feel less and less bad about doing something that might be wrong. They also always seem to have a reasoning behind it that, in their mind, excuses them from their actions.

Treatment

If someone sees an action goes against their moral compass, instead of using an excuse or justification, they need to go with what they know is right. It can take time to take a step back, so writing this down in a journal might help identify how and when a person uses moral licensing. With this written down, it helps the person avoid similar situations and decision making in the future.

Additional Reading

WillPowered: Moral Licensing – Why Feeling “Good” Justifies Doing “Bad”
Harvard Business School: Self-Serving Justifications: Doing Wrong And Feeling Moral
Pick The Brain: Moral Licensing: How Being Good Can Make You Bad
Hogrefe Verlag: Three Attempts to Replicate the Moral Licensing Effect

18. Belief in a Just World

When a person experiences the “belief in a just world” distortion, they assume everything happens for a reason. If someone is poor, homeless and without a job, the “belief in a just world” individual assumes the poor and homeless person is that way because they deserve to be. However, this cognitive way of thinking generally avoids contradictions to this form of thinking, or they justify it with the idea of someone acting out will “get theirs” in the end. This has close ties with the fair is fair distortions or the idea of “what goes around comes around.” As is the case with many of the other cognitive distortions in the list, life is not always fair.

Causes

It’s human nature to want to make sense of everything. If there is an effect there must have been a cause. This leads people to assume if something bad has happened to someone, it’s because they did something to deserve it. The idea of victim blaming stems from this as well.

Symptoms

What looking at what are cognitive distortions, this is one where it’s built into human nature to assume one thing causes another. It’s also often part of a person’s religious belief system. While no direct obvious symptoms, this is often connected to an elitist mentality and similar cognitive errors.

Treatment

A person experiencing this cognitive distortion needs to remain conscious of what he or she is thinking. They then need to stop their thought process once attempting to fill in information about someone they don’t have information behind

Additional Reading

Very Well: What is the Just-World Phenomenon?
Santa Clara University: The Just World Theory
US National Library of Medicine: Belief in a Just What? Demystifying Just World Beliefs by Distinguishing Sources of Justice
Psychology Today: Belief In “Belief In A Just World” Theory

19. Emotional Reasoning

Allowing emotions to control how a person feels can lead to very serious consequences. It also falls under a form of cognitive distortion. Someone who suffers from emotional reasoning do so because they believe whatever they feel must automatically be true. It boils down to the idea of “I feel it, so it is true.” If a person feels dumb for a mistake, then they assume they really are dumb. If a person becomes upset because of the mistake of someone else, that other person must, in turn, be dumb or incompetent.

Emotional reasoning occurs when someone bases their actions off of their emotions. This usually occurs when they do not allow themselves to move past their current emotion to consider all possibilities. When a person feels emotion, certain chemicals are released into the brain (the chemical released often depends on the emotion experienced). Because the brain shifts based on a given emotion, it becomes easier to dictate actions while emotionally fueled.

Causes

As the brain releases different chemicals, it blocks out other functions within the brain, which makes it easier to carry out actions with these motions (and more difficult to control).

Symptoms

As decisions are based on emotions, it can lead to angry phone calls, aggression in public and cutting oneself off from public engagements due to decisions they have carried out based on emotions.

Treatment

Someone who experiences these cognitive distortions needs to stop and look at the facts that support emotional determination. This way, a person can see if they are being emotionally rational or irrational

Additional Reading

Psychology Today: What’s “Emotional Reasoning” – And Why Is It Such a Problem?
Psychology Today: Don’t Believe Everything You Think or Feel
John Tagg: Emotional Reasoning
Amanda Watson: Essex Behavioural Therapy: To “Emotionally Reason” is to Take Your Emotions As Evidence For The Truth

20. Seeing a Situation Only From Your Perspective

The point of view a person takes on any given situation can dictate their opinion. However, there are often multiple points of view, so seeing a situation from varying perspectives is important. People who fall into this cognitive distortion fail to do that and, whether they realize it or not, assume their perspective is the only perspective.

Causes

The human brain naturally believes it is correct. If it didn’t it wouldn’t base decisions off of the information. Due to this, if the brain believes it is right, it automatically thinks others are wrong. This occurs more naturally and doesn’t have as many systemic causes behind it.

Symptoms

A person may listen to someone else’s idea or thoughts, but they will not act on what the other person has to say. Typically though the person who experiences these negative thinking patterns just shuts out the other person completely.

Treatment

One of the examples of cognitive distortions here is to listen and actually consider what someone else has to say. A person who experiences this distorted thinking should also go with the other individual’s decisions, even though their brain will tell them they are correct.

Additional Reading

The Straits Times: Learning To See Things From Another’s Perspective
Psychology Today: Gaining Perspective From Someone Else’s Perspective
Oprah: Dr. Phil: The Powerful Ability Tat Will Help You Manage Your Life
Mykro Thum: A Matter Of Perspective

21. Overvaluing

Overvaluing occurs when someone deems an item, event or person is a greater value, simply because of his or her connection with it/them. The most common example of this is a parent believing their child is smarter or more attractive than others, simply because the child is their own. Overvaluing doesn’t stop there. A person may overvalue their home or other investments when attempting to sell. After all, they put their own money into the project, and so it is very much more real, and thus must be more valuable. In the real estate world, overvaluing often prevents homeowners from selling their houses as they are asking more than what the market dictates. Self-worth is important, yet the world places value on certain attributes, and overvaluing these attributes and investments does little to aid a given situation.

Causes

People want to believe what they do is important. It’s human nature. Back when humans were hunter/gatherers, every person had specific duties and each proved similar importance to the tribe or group of nomads. As civilization evolved, this changed. However, the need to feel important remains. This is one of the more common cognitive distortions as most people, especially parents, believe what they do really is important (or better) than what someone else does.

Symptoms

Symptoms are usually verbal. A person will boast about their child over others or their job over other positions. They will place extra importance on what they do. It’s almost all verbal.

Treatment

By taking a step back and hearing about the achievements of others or what others do, a person will develop new respect and understanding. It’s important for a person to detach their mental connection to a particular person or subject and see everything for what it is.

Additional Reading

Unlearning Anxiety: Going Down the Thinking Ship: Cognitive Thinking Distortions
Dr. Heather Stone: Cognitive Distortions
CogniFit: Cognitive Distortions: What Are They And How To Avoid Them?
Positive Psychology Program: Cognitive Distortions: When Your Brain Lies to You

22. Not Considering Alternative Explanations

Connected in a close way to the “seeing a situation from only your perspective” cognitive distortion, someone who experiences this distortion may not open themselves up to alternative explanations. The first explanation is not always the correct, or best, answer. There are those who only accept the first explanation given, others who refuse to listen to certain individuals, regardless of what they have to say (and the explanation they have), while others will shut themselves off if another person attempts to offer a different viewpoint or explanation that is not in line with their own belief system.

Causes

A few causes lead to this cognitive distortion. Laziness, or not wanting to dig deeper into a subject, often for fear of what might be uncovered. A person might want the easy, quick answer, instead of the difficult, yet correct answer.

Symptoms

A person who experiences this cognitive thinking distortion will become closed off faster, do not listen to reason and often shut out friends and family if there is an alternative viewpoint.

Treatment

Someone who demonstrates this thinking distortion needs to open himself or herself up and listen to what others have to say. They need to look into other explanations as it might offer necessary insights while helping to break this distortion’s chain.

Additional Reading

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Los Angeles: Improve Relationships By Identifying Cognitive Distortions
Science Direct: Cognitive Distortion
Keen IO: How Your Mind Deceives You: 50 Cognitive Distortions
IQ Doodle: 10 Cognitive Distortions Sabotaging Your Brain

23. Assumed Similarity

Assumed similarity occurs when one person makes the assumption that those around them hold the same, or at the very least similar, attitudes towards their own. They then go on and make judgments and decisions based off of this assumption, which may end up being false.

Causes

Humans can only see the world from a singular perspective: their own. Hearing, listening and considering other perspectives helps expand a viewpoint, but the fact is a person can have only one physical perspective. This is known as egocentrism. The natural cognitive distortion comes from the assumption others have the same perspective, without considering that, because they have a different background, they have a different perspective.

Early in life, this is a fact and most children have assumed similarity. In adults, it can remain if they are not exposed to other ideas of thought.

Symptoms

Unless a person verbalizes this thought process, there are no real physical symptoms to demonstrate, although they may become uneasy around other people with different ideas.

Treatment

It’s important for a person to be mindful of their assumptions, especially when it comes to others. When they begin to assume, the person needs to stop himself or herself from this thought process. This will help prevent not only assumed similarity but other cognitive distortions as well.

Additional Reading

The Path Whisperer: Assumed Similarity Bias
Sage Journals: Group and Organization Management: Assumed Similarity in Communication Styles
Psychology Today: It’s A Fine Line Between Narcissism and Egocentrism
US National Library of Medicine: Similarity Agreement, And Assumed Similarity in Proxy End-Of-Life Decision Making



24. “I Can’t Change My Behavior.”

A person who uses this cognitive distortion has either failed at trying to change or does not want to put in the necessary effort to change. Regardless of the reasoning, they use the “I can’t change my behavior” as a crutch, or excuse even, for their actions. If a person treats their friends poorly due to life events, they blame it on not being able to change. Or if the individual has a drug problem, they use this crutch in order to make it more acceptable.

Causes

The more someone does something, the more the brain identifies with it. It becomes wired into the brain (almost like muscle memory). It becomes difficult to change behavior because the brain has become accustomed to it.

Symptoms

A person will do the same thing, even when they know it’s wrong/bad for them. Breaking a habit requires neuroplastic change within the brain.

Treatment

An individual with this distortion needs to be mindful of the behavior. The more someone actively carries out a certain action, the more it becomes wired into the brain. The only way to change behavior is to pay attention to the behavior itself. Keeping a journal on triggers for the action can help. By being mindful of the action, it makes it possible to then avoid and even stop the given action.

Additional Reading

The Best Brain Possible: The Neuroscience of Changing Your Behavior
Psychology Today: 8 Reasons Why It’s So Hard to Really Change Your Behavior
The Positivity Coach: You Can’t Change Because You Won’t
Harvard Health Publishing: Why Behavior Change is Hard – And Why You Should Keep Trying

25. Repeating the Same Behavior and Expecting Different Results

Directly connected with the previous “I can’t change my behavior” cognitive distortion when someone repeats the same behavior and expects different results, they are ultimately doubling down on how they act in hopes of change occurring. However, for every action, there is a reaction, and as such, if the action remains the same, the reaction almost always stays the same as well. Repeating the same behavior is a comfort issue. A person doesn’t want to step outside of their comfort zone and try something different. They know what they are already doing and they are comfortable with it, so instead of attempting to change for different results, they carry out the same actions and hope for different results.

Causes

The more a person does something, the more it becomes wired into the brain. Just about everyone experiences this cognitive distortion, although not everyone assimilates it to something bad. The more something is done the more it becomes a habit.

Symptoms

There is no one symptom to this as what a person does the same will vary. Watching TV before bed may cause someone to be tired in the morning, or eating a cupcake every day for lunch may cause a person to gain weight. There are no universal symptoms for this.

Treatment

Albert Einstein coined the phrase, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.” That’s false and not the case at all. Humans do this all the time (and most would not fall under the insanity label).  Trying the same thing isn’t necessarily bad. It only needs treatment if it is unsafe or unhealthy to the person or people around them. In this case, a person needs to maintain a journal on what it is and what leads to the action. This way, they can alter the triggers and either avoid the action altogether or change it.

Additional Reading

Psychology Today: The Definition of Insanity Is…
Creative Conflict: Cognitive Distortions
University of Colorado: Beyond Intractability: Summary of “On Combat” The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace”
Integral Deep listening: Recognizing and Eliminating Your Emotional Cognitive Distortions

26. Heaven’s Reward

In this situation, a person expects a given sacrifice to pay off. The perceived notion of expectations leads to several cognitive distortions within this list. With regards to “Heaven’s rewards,” a person may believe there is something, or someone, keeping score and so eventually things have to come up in their favor if the constantly put themselves out and sacrifice their time and energy. This connects to the “life is/isn’t fair” idea, where eventually what goes around comes around. That, however, simply isn’t the case.

Causes

This (usually) stems from a belief system where a person expects divine intervention to come in and provide results based on previous actions. A person is good, so they deserve to be rewarded, or they have made sacrifices so they deserve to be rewarded. The idea of Heaven’s Reward comes from the early notion of religion, although it is not exclusive to those who practice (and even believe) in a deity.

Symptoms

Generally, these examples of cognitive distortions do not have physical or obvious symptoms. It comes from someone verbalizing this belief and expectation.

Treatment

For some, this is a fundamental belief that good will, eventually, be rewarded. However, the expectation element is what causes most cognitive distortion errors. A person needs to realize when they believe to assume and expect. By paying attention to this, a person can alter their thought process and stop expectations.

Additional Reading

Medium: Cognitive Distortions and Impact on Emotions and Behaviors
Emotional Competency: Distortions
Live Science: Can Negative Thoughts Be Stopped?
Self Discovery Through Art: Common Cognitive Distortions

27. Always Being Right

For people who experience this cognitive distortion, there is a need to always be right. They are on a constant path to prove themselves correct and, should they uncover evidence, on the contrary, it proves unthinkable and they will do whatever in their power to either disprove the given evidence or ignore it. Some people argue with this in mind, where it’s not about solving an issue, it’s about proving themselves right. Being right becomes more important than coming to the best, most logical or accurate answer.

Causes

This cognitive distortion error stems back, normally, to early childhood. The educational system instills into children the idea of right or wrong. Being right is good while being wrong is punished. Those who are right are rewarded, so the quest to be right and want to “always be right” begins at an early age. The brain trains itself into wanting to be right and needing to be right. In education, even through college, the primary quest in education is to be right. It is, in a way, a Pandora’s box syndrome, where people are trained to have the need to be right.

Symptoms

People with the need to always be right will often argue and become upset when someone questions whether or not they are right. Even in the face of all logic and reasoning, the person refuses to accept they are wrong. They may appear arrogant. This cognitive error can evolve into other distortions on the list.

Treatment

A person needs to pay close attention to when they are in arguments, or when they assume they are right over someone else. Often times a person does not realize they are doing this, so if this is causing problems within a relationship, their partner needs to help with identifying points where the person needs to be right. The early stages of treatment can prove extremely frustrating and even infuriating, as it seems to call into question a person’s own logic. However, over time, these feelings will pass as the person accepts the fact they are not always right.

Additional Reading

Psychology Today: What Is It So Important to Be Right?
Guide Speak: If You Need To Be Right – What’s Wrong?
Audrey Marlene: The Need To Be Right
Paired Life: Advice For Men: Why She Argues

28. Fallacy of Fairness

This one boils down to life simply not being fair. For many, there’s a general idea that life will even itself out, and what goes down must come up. However, a person’s life doesn’t obey scientific laws. In the easiest way to put it: life is what it is. What is fair to one person isn’t fair to another. Individuals who go through life with a fairness measuring stick will likely end up feeling constantly disappointed. As children, many adults using the opportunity of failure to inform that life really isn’t fair at all.

Causes

This particular distortion, as is the case with many other distortions, comes out at an early age. There are some children who are taught early on that life isn’t fair and a person needs to make his or her own “luck.” However, there are others who are taught to be fair to others and that what goes around comes around. Learning this early on becomes embedded into the mental state of a child as they grow into adulthood. The fallacy of fairness comes from the generalization of karma, in which what a person gives out will come back to them. However, even in the religious connotation of karma, this is an oversimplification of the idea (in the religious sense, karma is handed out by the cosmos and a person does not realistically dictate what will come back to them). In other religions, the idea of “being nice to others and others will do unto you” exists, yet it is important to point out these religious texts do not indicate to expect niceness in return, as this expectation will often go unfulfilled.

Symptoms

A person may wave off being treated unfairly because they will, eventually, receive treatment that makes up for it. If they go through bouts of poor health or no jobs, they may believe that everything will even out in the end. This isn’t connected to anxiety or depression (usually), so there are not as many specific physical and demonstrated symptoms.

Treatment

If part of a person’s religious beliefs, they may choose not to adjust their way of thinking (as it doesn’t affect others around them). However, a person needs to be mentally conscious of what’s going on around them and, if something bad (or good) happens, not assume the flip side will come eventually. Assumption leads to many of the cognitive distortions on the list.

Additional Reading

Townhall: The Fallacy of “Fairness”
The Hindu: The Fallacy of the Fairness Concept
IAFF: Healthy Thinking Skills
Ananias Foundation: Distorted Thinking

29. Control Fallacies

This cognitive distortion is realistically broken down into two sub-categories: externally controlled and internally controlled. Externally controlled is when a person feels helpless and that they are always the victim of fate. A person who experiences this generally blames events on everyone else. Their quality of work, for example, is poor because their boss made them work hard. They don’t take responsibility; they put the control factor externally on someone (or something) else.

On the other hand, someone who experiences an internal control cognitive distortion believes if someone goes wrong, it’s because of something they did. If a friend isn’t happy or upset, this person might ask if it’s because of something they did. They assume they internally control and affect more than they do. This also has a direct connection with personalization.

Causes

As there are two variations of this cognitive distortion, causes are split in two as well. Someone who pushes blame externally finds it easier to shift their blame outward than focusing on himself or herself. They may have been around parents who did this, or they did this previously and received a desirable response from others around them. The combination of shifting blame while receiving attention from others keeps a person executing this distortion.

If someone suffers from internal control cognitive, they likely saw a parent carry out this action as well repeatedly as well. Often if someone is unable to understand an event, they will place blame on themselves as it makes it easier to process. They give themselves more power by assuming they caused the situation.

Symptoms

Both internal and external forms of this cognitive distortion can lead to depression and anxiety. Some will become extremely negative publically as they push blame outward, away from themselves.

Treatment

Someone who experiences these cognitive distortion errors needs to understand they control themselves and nothing else. Due to this, if a person begins to push blame outward, they need to stop and think. Keeping a diary can help. Writing about an event and who they want to put the blame on while also looking at why they might have been responsible. For those on the opposite side of the spectrum, a journal also helps, but instead, it is best to look at why something is not their own fault.

Additional Reading

Excel At Life: When the Need for Control Gets Out of Control
CSUS EDU: Six common Fallacies
Kenneth S. Pope: Common Logical Fallacies in Psychology
Psychology Today: 18 Common Logical Fallacies and Persuasion Techniques

30. Biased Attention to Social Rejection, Not Attention to Acceptance

Humans are often the target of prejudice or social rejection. This can vary from certain groups at school not accepting a child to adults treating another adult differently based on their own cognitive distortion of superiority based on sociological, ethnic, religious or other differences. An individual who finds themselves the recipient of such rejection and treatment will focus most of their attention on these rejections and not (as much) attention on the social groups they were accepted by or the benefits they received for being part of a certain sociological, ethnic, religious or other classification.

This particular cognitive distortion has a close connection with focusing on the negatives and not spending as much time on the positives, but more on a social scale. There are also fewer prejudice connotations of this distortion, such as remembering someone yawning but not the signs of them paying attention to a speech.

Causes

Causes tend to stem from an early age, where a child witnesses a parent focus on the negatives and not on the positives. They witness, often repeatedly, how their parents dwell on these negative interactions and experiences. As the events become a pattern, a child becomes more likely to adapt and take on these cognitive distortions of their own. It may also come from a separate event in life, where a person felt embarrassed or was publically shamed and excluded. The polarizing event goes on to affect how a person views the world and thinks from then on.

Symptoms

A person may openly judge and condemn certain groups of people, either due to perceived prejudice or from past interactions. This may lead to depression or anxiety, especially when forced to interact with a group that has previously caused the sense of social rejection.

Treatment

One reason this leads to depression is, especially in the developmental years of childhood, an individual believes they had something to do with the rejection and will look inward, often blaming himself or herself. It is important for such an individual to keep a journal and write down the event and to mentally focus on how they did not cause the rejection. Writing this down helps with visualization and acceptance. Likewise, within the journal, someone who suffers from these cognitive errors needs to write about the positive social interactions. This helps prevent focusing on the negatives.

Additional Reading

PLOS One: Social Exclusion Leads to Attentional Bias to Emotional Social Information: Evidence From Eye Movement
Association For Psychological Science: Social Acceptance and Rejection: The Sweet and the Bitter
Peer-Reviews: The Association Between Negative Attention Biases and Symptoms of Depression in a Community
Wiley Online Library: The Role of Peer Rejection In Adolescent Depression

In Conclusion

Just about everyone experiences one, if not multiple cognitive distortions. The brain has evolved and adapted to help humans persevere, so many of these distortions come from self-perseverance and preservation. Identifying these issues within one’s own self isn’t always easy. It may take stepping outside of a comfort zone or have others assist in the diagnosis. However, taking a hard look at one’s own mental state is necessary to accurately identify these different cognitive distortions. For many, simply exiting an established comfort zone, remaining open to possibilities and exposure to change and alternative ways of thinking can affect, reduce and even eliminate most of these common cognitive distortions. It just takes time, practice and effort to undo how the brain has learned to cope with life and what a person goes through along the way.

Please share your thoughts in the comment box below 🙂


BipolarDigest
Helping others beat bipolar disorder. After living with Bipolar for over 16 years, I have self-educated myself to come up with creative ways to live a normal productive life. It`s time to give back by helping others transform!
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