Common Cognitive Distortions: Mind Reading

Cognitive distortions are errors or biases in thinking that can lead to faulty assumptions, and can worsen mood. Cognitive Therapy teaches that much of what fuels depression and anxiety are patterns of distorted thinking. Thus to reduce depression and anxiety, it can be very helpful to learn to recognize and respond to common cognitive distortions.

One common cognitive distortion is mind reading, which is assuming you know what other people think. In small doses, mind reading is a very helpful skill. We know that certain behaviors, words, and reactions can give us clues about what someone is thinking. For instance, when we tell someone something and his/her jaw drops, we automatically assume the other person is surprised. This is a kind of mind reading that is helpful in interpersonal encounters, and not an example of a cognitive distortion. However, when used too much, or without much evidence to go on, mind reading can be problematic. Take the example of someone eating alone in a cafeteria thinking everyone thinks she is a loser for eating alone. Or if you get to work a few minutes late, and you think everyone else is thinking about your tardiness. Engage in enough distorted mind reading, and you can feel pretty miserable after a while.

Below are a few questions and different perspectives designed to help you think through mind reading, and take on a more helpful way of thinking about difficult situations.

First, identify what exactly it is you predict the other person is thinking. Sometimes just writing down or saying the prediction out loud can help you see the holes in logic, and get you a little distance from the unhelpful thought.

What are the costs and benefits of believing this thought? Although we usually don’t think about thoughts in terms of their costs and benefits, they all have costs and benefits. With mind reading, you may think that you are protecting yourself from some bad outcome, or some kind of a surprise. These would be benefits. Costs are things like increased anxiety, more self-consciousness, and ruminating. Now compare the potential benefits to the actual costs, and ask yourself, “Would you want to buy these thoughts given their price?”

What is the evidence for and against your thoughts? When we engage in a lot of mindreading, we usually only consider evidence that confirms our predictions. Rarely do we ever pit our assumptions against evidence that steers us away from our predictions. By collecting the evidence for and against our mind reading, you can determine which side has more evidence, and more importantly, consider the quality of the evidence you have. This is a more objective approach to testing your thoughts, and can help you detect common cognitive distortions.

Imagine the thought were true. Would it mean more about you, or more about the other person? For instance, if the thought is that someone doesn’t like you because of the clothes you’re wearing, what does that mean about the other person? And do you expect everyone to like you? Is that a realistic expectation?

Can you test out the thought? What would need to happen for you to be absolutely convinced? Try it out as an experiment.

Try acting counter to the thought. If you are feeling like avoiding eye contact, instead, approach the other person and introduce yourself. Their reaction may indicate your assumption was totally inaccurate. Our behavior often has a way of making self-fulfilling prophesies. Trying something new, and might get you a result you didn’t expect.

By learning to recognize and challenge the common cognitive distortion of mind reading, you can begin to reduce self-consciousness, shyness, and negative feelings such as anxiety and depression. This is one technique that comes from cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety and depression. For more information about CBT, explore the links at the top of the page. 


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