The human mind is an incredibly efficient machine. Because of it, we can take in new information, store it, and synthesize it with other information to create new ideas. This complex process results in all of the marvels of human ingenuity from the invention of the wheel to the electronic device you are using to read this article. In this way, the human mind is a kind of computer.
Like any good computer, the mind learns shortcuts over time. These shortcuts speed up the way we process information. For instance, you put a dollar in a vending machine, and it eats your money. We apply the shortcut descriptor “broken” to the machine, and we know not to put any more money in it. Shortcuts can work pretty well.
Sometimes cognitive shortcuts actually result in less efficient information processing. If we misapply a shortcut, we end up coming away with a faulty conclusion. Take for example the person who interviews for a job and doesn’t get it. If that person applies the wrong shortcut, she may come away from the experiencing thinking “They didn’t want me, so I’ll never get a job.” It’s the same shortcut as with the vending machine, generalizing from past experience. But in this example it’s highly ineffective and will probably result in significant emotional pain. This kind of misapplied shortcut is referred to in the cognitive therapy literature as a cognitive distortion (Beck et al., 1979).
Cognitive distortions are patterns of thinking that lead to misunderstanding and painful emotions. Below is a list of common cognitive distortions we all engage in from time to time. Read through them, and take note of the ones you are especially familiar with.
- Mind Reading: Assuming you know what other people think. “He thinks I’m unintelligent.”
- Personalizing: Thinking you deserve the majority of the blame for something while discounting others’ responsibility. “Because of me we lost the game.”
- Fortune Telling: Making predictions that bad things will happen without actually knowing that this is the case. “I’m going to fail the exam.”
- All or Nothing Thinking: Thinking of people or situations in black and white terms. “If I don’t do it perfectly, then it’s horrible.”
- Catastrophizing: Believing the outcome of a situation will be so terrible that you won’t be able to handle it. “If I lost this job, I’d just fall apart.”
- Labeling: Assigning a one word descriptor to the entirety of a person. “He’s a jerk.”
- Overgeneralizing: Assuming something based on a limited amount of experience. “I’m late to everything.”
- Negative Filtering/Discounting Positives: Focusing on negatives while framing positives as unimportant. “I made an A on the test because it was easy, and besides I failed one of the quizzes, so I maybe I’m not cut out for…”
We are all guilty of most of these from time to time. You may find that you engage in one or more of these distortions on a regular basis. If you find that to be true, the next time you are aware you are making one of these distorted shortcuts, you’ll be able to recognize it and consider a more effective perspective.
For more information about cognitive therapy techniques, read this article about cognitive reappraisal.
Beck AT, Rush AJ, Shaw BF, Emery G (1979). Cognitive Therapy of Depression. New York: Guilford Press.
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