What are Cognitive Distortions?

Cognitive distortions are biased or exaggerated thought patterns or beliefs. They are usually irrational, or misrepresent reality in some fashion.  

The concept was first proposed by Aaron Beck, the founder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.  It was during his treatment of patients with depression that Beck realized his patients often expressed thoughts and beliefs that did not necessarily correspond with reality.  Beck recognized these negative cognitions often existed outside of conscious control and thus described them as “automatic thoughts.”  Beck hypothesized that these negative thoughts or thinking patterns could combine with negative emotional states to form maladaptive cycles capable of producing mental illness.  

Types of Distortions

Beck originally proposed 11 distortions in his book Depression:  Causes and Treatment.  Generally speaking, they can be broken down into categories that include:

  • Jumping to Conclusions – can cause people to make assumptions without any proof to back them up.  For example, a person may think that their supervisor does not like them if they don’t return their phone call promptly.  
  • Overgeneralization – involves taking a single negative experience as evidence of future failing.
  • Black and White / All-or-Nothing Thinking – involves thinking in absolute extremes.  Events are complete successes or absolute failures.  People are good and kind or simply out to hurt you.
  • Emotional Reasoning – reality is a reflection of the person’s feelings.  For example, if I believe that you don’t like me, then surely I’m worthless and undeserving of love. 

Implications for Mental Health

Cognitive distortions have been implicated in the following mental health diagnoses

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Suicide
  • Obsessions
  • Compulsions
  • Stress
  • Insomnia


How to Challenge Distorted Thinking

  • Use positive, self-talk
  • Obtain the opinions of other people to find out if your beliefs are reasonable
  • Analyze the evidence to see if there is a factual basis for your beliefs
  • Try to think in shades of grey, rather than pure absolutes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *