Blog #16 – Cognitive distortions
Sometimes, as it relates to individual well-being, we can be our own worst enemy. To be more specific, the patterns of thinking that we develop can be actively detrimental to our happiness.
When these patterns move from rational to irrational thinking, we can fall prey to what psychologists refer to as cognitive distortions. All of us will experience such distortions at one time or another, but some individuals can fall into a pattern where it becomes a reflex to engage in what is effectively defective thinking when faced with particular circumstances or sets of situations.
It is a peculiar area, in that until we become specifically aware of what cognitive distortions are, we might never consider their existence, but once we realise what this tendency refers to, then we can see example after example all around us, sometimes in our own thinking, and sometimes in the thinking of friends, colleagues, and loved ones.
So, what is an example of a cognitive distortion? When looking to elaborate on this point in a lecture hall setting, nervous laughter and nods of recognition usually follow in short order after mention is made of ‘mind reading’. This refers to the all-too common human tendency to convince ourselves that we know exactly what someone else is thinking in a given situation and that we also know why they might have engaged in a certain behaviour. A marker of this tendency is to make it somehow about ourselves, i.e., this person whose mind we have read is thinking about us and/or they are behaving in this way because of us. An additional element is that we then convince ourselves that we are being thought about in a negative way, that the individual has become hostile towards us on account of some imagined slight.
Consider a not uncommon scenario – you pass a friend or acquaintance on the street and they don’t say hello or don’t return a salute. In such an instance, the mind-reading tendency can go into overdrive. Very quickly, people can convince themselves that they have been deliberately ignored and that the person in question has become hostile towards them.
This can become particularly problematic when we react in such ways that make the imagined hostility real. In this sense, there can be a self-fulfilling prophecy element to the experience of a cognitive distortion like mind reading. So, if you think you have been snubbed, you may in turn behave with hostility towards that person, who may then return that hostility in kind. For the mind-reader, this might act as confirmation that they were right in the first place, but that may not have been the case.
Lest any of us need reminding, we cannot read the minds of other human beings. If any of us could, we would most likely be either on a stage in Las Vegas or poked and prodded in a laboratory somewhere. When we engage in this kind of thinking, we are relying on intuition and guesswork, and nothing more. Yes, every once in a while these negative interpretations may prove to be correct, but only in the same sense that a stopped clock will be right twice a day. It has to happen every now and then, based purely on the law of averages, but it’s not a reliable strategy.
Consider the alternatives. If someone passes you on the street without saying hello, they may be preoccupied with something going on in their personal life, they might have received bad news about their health or that of a loved one mere minutes beforehand. The point is, you cannot know, and so to draw definitive conclusions from such encounters is not rational and does nothing for our own psychological well-being.
On a simple and somewhat glib level, we can look at the mind-reading tendency and quickly detect the biggest problem with it; namely, it is predicated upon the assumption that other people are as obsessed with you as you are, when in actual fact they are probably just like you, i.e., they are as wrapped up in themselves and their life as you are with yours and the rest of us are with ours. So, when you pass someone on the street and feel ignored, it most likely isn’t about you, it’s more likely to be about them – just as it would be with you in the exact same situation 99 times out of a hundred.
Another example of a common distortion is the idea of the mental filter. Consider the following scenario, which most of us will no doubt find at least vaguely familiar. Let’s say you’re having a night out with some friends. It’s a lot of fun, there are a lot of laughs, and you’re really enjoying yourself. However, at some point a comment that you perceive as snide is made towards you. You note it, but you carry on, and the night continues in a more positive vein. It really has been an overwhelmingly positive night out, aside from one ambiguous moment, which may or may have been intended to offend. If you are exhibiting the mental filter distortion, very shortly after the night ends, you will start to home in on that one negative incident and perhaps even begin to obsess over it, to the point that by the following morning you might have glossed over all the positives in your mind, and can only think about that one incident. In such a scenario, you can obsess to the point that you forget all the positives and think only of the one negative, even though that incident might have accounted for mere seconds of an otherwise fun night out. Again, I’m willing to assume that many of us can relate to that scenario, and yet we most likely have never taken half-a-step back mentally and realised the absurdity of obsessing to that extent and draining the positive thoughts from our own minds.
These are merely two examples of cognitive distortions. There are many more. We will continue on this track in the next post, and will also talk about what we can do about it. After all, identifying our tendency for irrational thinking is one thing, acting to break the pattern is another. That said, the first step is to recognise that we engage in irrational thinking; so, in that sense, we have already set the table for positive change.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.