Common Cognitive Distortions in Daily Life


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by Jayaram V

Summary: It is difficult to think clearly and rationally or make rational judgments and decisions without falling into the trap of conformity and convenience, since our minds are prone to rely upon many mental shortcuts to save time and effort. Without our knowing, every day we make mistakes and wrong choices and suffer from the consequences. This essay lists 15 common thinking errors which lead to logical fallacies, irrational thinking and perceptual problems and which in turn lead to many other problems.

By itself reason does not reveal truth. For that, the mind must be free from cognitive errors and logical fallacies. Reason is vulnerable to misuse just as religion is in the hands of wicked people. Just as science can be misused by scientists who are without character and integrity, reason can be misused or manipulated by selfish people to achieve personal ends or cover up their questionable actions.

The proper use of reason depends upon various factors that govern our minds and control our perception and cognition. It is also affected by the natural limitations and mental shortcuts (heuristics) to which the mind is susceptible. Therefore, we cannot exclusively depend upon reason to validate knowledge or establish facts. We rather need a comprehensive and integrated approach in which we rely upon all the faculties of the mind, including intuition, to compensate for their individual limitations.

Modern psychology recognizes the problems we face in our thinking and perception. They recognize the role of cognitive distortions, which act as the mental filters, and which are largely responsible for our irrational behavior. In spiritual traditions they are considered to be main obstacles to our knowledge and wisdom. According to modern cognitive psychology, they interfere with our ability to make judgments or draw conclusions or ascertain truths, which in turn impair our thinking, moods and behavior. One of the pioneers in this field, David Burns published a book in 1980,” Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, in which he listed several cognitive distortions to which most people are susceptible. They are briefly explained below.

1. Filtering: The reason people differ from others and rigidly hold on to their opinions is mostly because they do not consider all facts before making judgments. They selectively choose them according to their desires and expectations, losing in the process objectivity and balance, and develop a rather skewed or limited view of the world. You can see it regularly happening in daily life, on social networks and in media, where people filter available information to confirm or project their biases, beliefs, likes and dislikes. Rather than seeing the complete picture or considering all possibilities and alternatives, they remain constricted and narrow-minded, sticking to their one-sided opinions, limited knowledge and perspective.

2. Polarized Thinking: Also known as Black-and-White Thinking or Either-Or Thinking, it is the fallacy of seeing reality in its extremities or rigid categories as this or that, rather seeing the middle or the common ground or other possibilities. People who are prone to it see only extreme polarities. For them people are either good or bad, friendly or unfriendly, perfect or imperfect, reliable or unreliable, and so on. As a result, they do not comprehend the complexities of life or establish balanced relationships. They also struggle to reconcile their differences with others or make peace with them.

3. Overgeneralization: This is making general conclusions, based upon a single incident or meager evidence. For example, we meet a few people of a particular ethnic or racial group and we act and talk as if we know every one of them. If we find one defective product or have an unpleasant experience with one customer service representative, we generalize our opinion about the whole company and all its products. Similarly, in many cultures, the rich are portrayed as greedy and selfish, and the cops are vilified as aggressive, corrupt or inhuman. Racial or religious discrimination and stereotyping are closely related to this type of thinking. Because of the actions of a few, a whole community, profession or classes of people attract the blame as they are collectively judged as a single entity, instead of acknowledging their unique individualities.

4. Jumping to Conclusions.: This is drawing hasty conclusions about people or situations based upon assumptions, feelings and emotions, without knowing facts. It is as if one can predict outcomes or read another person’s mind, and instantly know what is going on. It can often lead many problems and misunderstanding, especially if you are not inclined to give the benefit of doubt to others. For example, an employee may anxiously conclude that her boss is angry or upset because she did not pay her attention, while there can be many other reasons for her behavior. One may see a man and a woman walking together and have an intimate conversation and conclude that they are having an affair or going to have an affair soon. A wife may see her husband moody and assume that he lost interest in her.

5. Catastrophizing: Many a time, people unreasonably overreact or underreact to situations, ignoring the reality. They may greatly magnify a problem out of proportion, or completely ignore it as if it does not matter at all. Faced with problems, some people think and act as if the world is coming to an end or their lives are in great peril, while some ignore serious problems and go on with their lives as if nothing happened. In both instances, the reality of the situations does not warrant such unrealistic or irrational responses. It is also common for people to minimize their personal failures and shortcomings, while treating those of others with little consideration.

6. Personalization: In this, a person thinks and acts as if the world revolves around him or her, taking personal responsibility for everything that happens or attributing other people’s reactions and responses to one’s own thinking and behavior, even if there is no real cause or connection. It also makes people see others in comparison to them to know who is better or superior. Because of that, people may also take personal responsibility for problems or the behavior of others, even if they are not responsible for it at all. For example, a mother may blame herself if her daughter fails to get good grades, thinking that she has not done enough to support her.

7. Control Fallacies: It is the fallacy of what one can control or what controls one. It is reasonable to believe that you have some internal control over yourself, but unreasonable to believe that you can always control others. You have little or no control over what others think or act. Yet, some people suffer from the fallacy and feel disappointed when their expectations are proven wrong. Some people also suffer from the irrational belief that somehow, they are under the control of an external entity or power such as fate, the world, an organization, society or the people in their lives. Such expectations lead to inconsistent and irrational behavior as they make people assume responsibility for things for which they are not truly responsible or disown responsibility for which they are truly responsible.

8. Fallacy of Fairness: It is the fallacy that the world and others should be fair to us. It is a tall demand. If you expect the world and others to treat you fairly, you are bound to be disappointed since it does not always happen. Life is not always fair. In career or life, your honesty and straightforwardness may prove to be a great disadvantage. Good work is not often well rewarded. All the effort which you may put into a project or a task may result in failure because someone sabotaged it. After making many sacrifices, parents may find their children ungrateful and resentful. Therefore, if you are fair to others, do not blindly expect that they will reciprocate. People have their own reasons and justification to be what they are or what they do. You cannot lose your mind over it.

9. Blaming: While in personalization, people blame themselves for other’s pain and suffering taking responsibility for it, the opposite happens in blaming, where they blame others and hold grudges, even if they are not responsible for it. By doing so, they disown responsibility for their thinking and behavior and shift the blame to others as if they have been greatly wronged, while it may not be true at all. For example, children may blame parents for their own problems and failures, even though the parents may not have played any role in their personal failures or behavioral problems. When such an attitude becomes internalized and habitual, it alienates them and makes them feel increasingly resentful towards others. The truth is, no one can make you happy or unhappy, unless you are willing.

10. Musts and shoulds: This is the rather the irrational expectation that everyone should live according to a set of common rules or a code of conduct. When they are broken, people feel upset, guilty or resentful. It is OK to create a set of rules or a value system for yourself and abide in it. It becomes a problem when you oppress yourself with it and lead a guilt-ridden life, or when you insist that everyone should follow it. Nowadays, you will find this behavior on social networks and on college campuses, where people expect others not to say certain words or expressions. They become hostile, angry or aggressive when others fail to follow.

11. Emotional Reasoning: This is the assumption or the irrational belief that feelings and emotions can reliably be used to draw conclusions about oneself or others, since they reflect reality. The truth is that feelings and emotions are internal responses. They do not necessarily reflect the truth of things or have a logical basis. For example, you can feel negative about yourself or others for any number of reasons, not necessarily because you are a negative person. If you feel in a certain way about a person or situation, it need not be because your feelings reflect the truth. It may be because of hidden reasons or internal blockages, which you may not even know. Therefore, while you may rely upon emotions to make sense of the world or yourself, you cannot blindly depend upon them, without subjecting them to scrutiny and analysis.

12. Fallacy of Change: This is the irrational belief or assumption that we can control others or change their behavior or attitude according to our expectations or requirements through persuasion, intimidation, coercion, social control or such methods. When it does not happen, people become angry or frustrated or withdraw from relationships. The fact is people build their opinions, individuality and worldview overtime and they do not easily change. Sometimes they may fake it to keep someone happy, but internally they remain the same. Everyone is unique. You cannot simply change them by putting pressure to feel good about yourself or reach your ends. It is better to respect their individuality and their freedom to be themselves.

13. Global Labeling: This is an extreme form of generalizing or filtering in which people pick one or two striking aspects of others and translate them into labels to define their whole character or personality or pass judgments. One common example is the use of nicknames or epithets. Sometimes people do it to themselves to inflict self-humiliation or degradation. They may describe themselves as losers or failures. In some instances, people mischaracterize others by using emotionally loaded words, puns or words with hidden meaning.

14. Always Being Right: This is the irrational attitude or thinking that one is always right, no matter whether the opinion is justified or not. For those who engage in this behavior, losing an argument is equal to accepting defeat or losing their self-esteem in the eyes of others. It is as if every time they have an argument, they are on trial or have to prove themselves. Therefore, they will use every available argument and reason to demonstrate their debating skills or win the argument. Most of us often get into this mode of thinking and vehemently defend our views or beliefs, ignoring the impact it may leave upon others or upon our relationships or reputation. When we give more importance to being right than showing consideration to the feelings and opinions of others, we may win the argument but lose the goodwill.

15. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy: This is the erroneous belief or thinking that one will eventually be rewarded or compensated for the good deeds by the universe, God or some invisible law, and the sacrifices will not go in vain. When it does not happen for any number of reasons, it creates feelings of bitterness and disappointment.

The distortions in our thinking and perception can be corrected to some extent by understanding their causes and addressing them. Most of them can be resolved by verifying the underlying assumptions and beliefs in our reasoning, thoughts and conclusions and challenging them, by keeping a record of one’s daily reflections of events and situations to create self-awareness, by practicing mindfulness and by recognizing habitual thought and behavioral patterns in our daily interactions and responses.

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