Cognitive Distortion: Fortune Telling

Fortune telling is a cognitive distortion in which you predict a negative outcome without realistically considering the actual odds of that outcome. It is linked to anxiety and depression, and is one of the most common cognitive distortions that arise during the course of cognitive restructuring.

We have to be able to predict the future to some degree. Now I’m not referring to clairvoyance. I mean the natural ability we develop to predict that one outcome is likely given a certain set of circumstances.  For instance, predicting that if we drink the expired, foul-smelling milk, we will probably be sick. That is a way of predicting the future. Or when we board a plane headed for San Francisco, we expect that when we get off the plane we will be in San Francisco.  To function as an adult, we make these sorts of predictions constantly, and in this way our ability to predict the future is a necessary skill.

Predicting the future becomes the cognitive distortion fortune telling, when we assume that some event or events will end badly for us, that we will fail at something or we will be in danger, more as an assumption rather than an educated guess. Of course, some events do have the potential for danger, and we need to be able to assess the risk in those situations. However, fortune telling is not an accurate assessment based on evidence, it is a global assumption we make without considering the real odds. For example, thinking “I’m not going to get the job,” is a great example of fortune telling. Although we have some sense of our performance in a job interview, there are numerous factors that go into whether we will actually get the job. Do you know your competitors? Do you know their experience? Do you know whether their goals match up with the job better than yours? Do you know if their personality was a better fit with the interviewer? Are our salary expectations less consistent with those of the other applicants? Usually we have very little idea of any of these factors, so to assume we will not get the job, is to do so without considering the majority of the evidence.

Below are some different ways of thinking about fortune telling when you recognize it in your own mind:

What is the evidence for and against your prediction? It is important to examine the actual evidence, and even more importantly, the quality of that evidence. We may be able to come up with lots of reasons that support the fortune telling if we feel particularly bad about it, but would this evidence hold up in court? And consider why it would not be as convincing to someone else.

Examine the function of your worry. Are there benefits to making a negative prediction? Does it prepare you for a difficult task? How about costs? Does your prediction instead make you feel powerless or demoralized?  Overly anxious? Given the cost-benefit analysis, is your fortune telling more helpful or harmful?

Consider your track record for making similar predictions. In similar situations, what kinds of predictions have you made, and how do the situations actually turn out? How might your track record inform the prediction you’re making now?

How difficult would it be for your predicted outcome to occur? What are all of the things that would have to go wrong for this prediction to come true? Now, list as many things that might happen that would prevent this prediction from happening. Then  list the things you have control over that you could use to influence the situation in your favor.

Are there equally plausible possible outcomes? Find three positive outcomes, and write out how these other outcomes might actually occur.

After considering these different perspectives, you may find that you no longer believe the fortune telling as much. By continually spotting fortune telling when it arises, and by finding more effective ways of making sense of unknown future situations, you will believe these dire predictions less and less, helping you to feel more confident about the future. 


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