What causes cognitive distortions?

In the next article we are going to answer the question ‘’What causes cognitive distortions?’’ We will talk about what causes cognitive distortions, what they are, their types and what can be done to face them.

What causes cognitive distortions?

Negative feelings (anxiety, anger, depression) cause irrational thoughts called cognitive distortions. These thoughts hide, ignore or disguise reality and will make our efforts to achieve what we want to do in vain.

Cognitive distortions are those wrong ways we have to process information, that is, misinterpretations of what is happening around us, generating multiple negative consequences. People with depression have a view of reality in which they play a significant role in cognitive distortions.

To a greater or lesser extent, we can all present at some time, some kind of cognitive distortion.Knowing how to recognize and evaluate them will allow us to have a clearer mind and build attitudes that are more rational and, above all, optimistic.

What are the most important cognitive distortions?


Overgeneralization is the tendency to believe that if something has ever happened, it will happen many times. For example, Pedro has been left by Sonia after two and a half years of relationship. 

Pedro thinks “no one else will love me”, “I will never find anyone who wants to be with me”.

Maximization and minimization

The cognitive distortion known as Maximization and Minimization consists of magnifying your own mistakes and the successes of others, and minimizing your own successes and the mistakes of others. For example: “I don’t care about the successes you have achieved in the past, they no longer matter. What matters now is that I have made that grave mistake. “

Polarized thinking

Polarized thinking consists of evaluating events in an extreme way, without taking into account the intermediate aspects. See things black or white, true or false.

For example, “If I can’t get this job to be perfect, the effort will have been useless, it will be a disaster” or a person who can’t find a job who thinks “I’m incompetent and useless.” It is one of the most commonly used cognitive distortions in discussions with others when we use terms such as “always”, “never”, “all” or “nothing”.

Emotional reasoning

Emotional reasoning refers to the assumption by people that their emotions reflect the way things are. Believing that what you feel emotionally is necessarily true.

If a person is irritated, it is because someone has done something to irritate him. “I feel incompetent, therefore I am incompetent” or “I feel that way, therefore it has to be true.”

Affirmations of “should”, “have to”

The “shoulds” or “haves” are rigid and inflexible beliefs about what one or the others should be like. Demands centered on oneself, favor self-criticism, while those directed towards others favor rage, anger and aggressiveness.

Some examples might be, “I should have been more attentive to my husband and that way he wouldn’t have left me”, “I must not make mistakes”, “others should act well with me” or “I have to like everyone.”

Arbitrary inference

Another type of cognitive distortion is arbitrary inference, which consists of taking certain assumptions for granted, although there is no evidence for it. There are two ways to do it:

Divination of thought. Believing you know what other people think and why they behave the way they do. “What she wants is to make me nervous”, “What she wants is to laugh at me”, “Feel sorry for me” or “She is with you for your money”.

Divination of the future. Expecting things to go wrong, without allowing yourself the possibility that they are neutral or positive. “I’m going to suspend.”

How do we control cognitive distortions?

Today we are going to meet some mechanisms that act in all of us, that play a very important role and that often go unnoticed. We could say that they are something like perfect authors of crimes. However, before defining what cognitive distortions are, I am going to present a fragment of the story of a patient who came to the psychology consultation:

“Every time I get depressed I feel like I have been hit by a sudden cosmic shock and I start to see things differently. The change can occur in less than an hour. My thoughts turn negative and pessimistic. When I examine my past I am convinced that nothing I have done has value.

Every happy period seems like an illusion to me. My accomplishments seem as true as a western movie set. I come to convince myself that my true personality has no value or meaning. I cannot advance in my work because doubt paralyzes me. I can’t stay still because the suffering is unbearable ”.

This is the case of a patient suffering from depressive symptoms, although she could also have reported anxious symptoms, that is the least of it. The important thing is that these symptoms are the result of a situation, an event or something that has happened to you. Or not.

We usually say that we feel a certain way because a certain “thing” has happened to us, as if one point necessarily leads us to another and we have nothing to say. However, we tend to ignore the thoughts we have or, what is the same, those internal messages that we say to ourselves after the perception of a fact.

The role of thoughts or of our internal dialogue is essential to understand how we have come to the emotional state in which we find ourselves. 

Thus, our thoughts will influence how we feel as much or more than the event itself. Putting a culinary simile, the taste of the food will influence the composition of said food, but also, and a lot, the way in which we chew it.

“This way of” chewing the facts “is what ultimately determines that we feel sadness, anger, anger, happiness or fear”

Our thoughts give way to our emotions.

The negative thoughts that invade our mind are the true cause of our emotions. The reverse also works, so thoughts are the starting point to consider if we want to do good emotional management.

I propose an exercise. Whenever you feel depressed about something, try to identify what thought you were having at that precise moment. Since thoughts create moods, we can change them by changing those thoughts.

Someone is probably skeptical of all this. The reason is that your negative thinking has become so integrated into your life that it has become automatic. 

Many thoughts pass through the mind automatically and fleetingly, without our being aware of it. They are as obvious and natural as the way a fork is held.

It is an obvious neurological fact that before we can experience any event we must process it in our mind and give it meaning, either consciously or unconsciously. 

Thoughts, in general, are fed by the dialogues we have with ourselves. Thus, this phrase with centuries of history makes sense:

Differences between rational and irrational thinking

The rational means that which is true, logical, pragmatic and based on reality (at least in this article we are going to give it that meaning). Therefore, it makes it easier for people to achieve their goals and purposes.

On the other hand, the irrational is what is false, illogical, that is not based on reality and that makes it difficult or prevents people from achieving their most basic goals and purposes (at least in this article we are also going to give it that meaning). Irrational is what interferes with our survival and happiness.

Albert Ellis, a pioneer psychologist in cognitive therapy, identified a number of basic irrational ideas that existed in most people. Let’s look at some examples of irrational ideas:

  • It is an extreme necessity for the adult human being to be loved and approved by practically every significant person in his community.
  • It is tremendous and catastrophic that things do not go the way one would like them to go.
  • The misfortune originates from external causes. People have little or no ability to control their distress and disturbance.
  • Certain kinds of people are vile, evil and infamous. They must be seriously blamed and punished for their wickedness.

There are more irrational ideas, but we are not going to expose them all because we are going to focus on cognitive distortions.

Types of cognitive distortions

All or nothing thinking

It is a distortion in which we tend to perceive anything in an extreme way, without middle terms. It is the typical “all or nothing” or “black or white” thinking. We consider that things can only be good or bad, one has to be perfect or one is a failure. 

Example: “Either I am successful in everything I undertake or I am completely useless.”

Excessive generalization

It is about drawing general conclusions from particular events, that is, if something negative has happened on one occasion, you have to hope that it will happen again and again.

For example, if a young man is rejected by a girl, he can generalize thinking that all women will reject him in the future.

Mental filter

The person chooses a negative detail of any situation and looks exclusively at it, thus perceiving that the whole situation is negative. 

Example: the wife who only tries to highlight how disorderly her husband is to others, without commenting on the various aspects that are in fact greater than the negatives such as “responsible”, “hardworking”, “loving”, among others.

Thought reading

It is about assuming the reasons or intentions of other people, taking this interpretation as the only valid one when in reality there are several possible ones. 

We think we guess exactly what others are thinking, making mistakes most of the time. This means that we hastily conclude by reading the thoughts of others.

Example: “you are not paying attention to me, surely you are not interested in what I say.” This is one of the cognitive distortions that occurs most when we interact.


It is the tendency to relate something of the environment with oneself. That is, we think that everything revolves around us, so we tend to distort the facts. Another type of personalization is when we compare ourselves with others. 

For example, if someone makes an open comment about people’s irresponsibility, consider that they say it for me. The person who is very sensitive to personalization thinks he is the recipient of constant hints.

Emotional reasoning

At the root of this distortion is the belief that what the person feels should be true. We take our own emotions as proof of the truth in the absence of objective data. 

Example: “If I feel like a loser, then it is because I am a loser.”

Hasty conclusions

It is a distortion in which we draw certain conclusions without having all the data we need to do so. The conclusion we reached is therefore arbitrary and without foundation. 

Example: “Surely this food that I am making is not going to please my family.”

Magnification and minimization

Magnification occurs when we look at our mistakes, fears, or imperfections and exaggerate their importance: “My God, I made a mistake. How terrible! Horrible!”. Minimization occurs when we minimize our qualities: “I’m not that smart or that good at math. Getting a 9 on the exam doesn’t prove anything. “

The “should”

In this distortion, the person behaves according to inflexible rules that should govern the relationship of all people. The words that indicate the presence of this distortion are should or would have. With this rule not only are others judged, but the person himself uses it with himself.

For example: “Others should understand me, they shouldn’t treat me that way”, “You shouldn’t behave that way” …


It is an extreme form of excessive generalization. Instead of describing the mistake we have made, we put a negative label on ourselves: “I am a loser.” When someone’s behavior doesn’t sit well with us, we put another negative label on them: “He’s a liar.”

The way to combat our irrational thoughts is through:

• Realize when we feel bad.

• Identify what thoughts are presenting in our mind at that moment.

• Assess whether they correspond to any of the cognitive distortions that we have presented.

• Change them for more adaptive thoughts, modifying our language and inner dialogue.

In one way or another, we have all been victims of one of these cognitive distortions at some time and we will continue to be.

On the other hand, the more familiar we are with them and we understand how they act in us in a particular way, the more we can control their effect and even take advantage of it in our favor

FAQS: What causes cognitive distortions?

Where do cognitive distortions come from?

In his work with suicidal patients in the 1960’s, Aaron Beck first noted cognitive distortions. In his cognitive theory of depression and, later, cognitive behavioral therapy, they formed a central part.

Is distorted thinking a mental illness?

A pattern of incorrect, harmful perceptions is skewed thinking, often called cognitive distortions. Distorted thought, for both generalized and social anxiety and personality disorders, is a common symptom in many different mental health disorders.

Are cognitive distortions normal?

Cognitive distortions are common, but if you do not know what to look for, they can be difficult to recognize. Most emerge as automatic thinking. They are so natural that the thinker does not always know that he or she has the power to alter them. A lot of people think that’s just the way things are.

How do you teach cognitive distortions?

One way to handle cognitive illusions is to teach your students that their prefrontal cortex, which is the more rational, sensible part of the mind, is enabled to hijack their amygdala. Teach learners to ‘talk back’ to their amygdala, externalizing the patterns of negative thinking.

How can I improve my cognitive thinking?

Discover five simple, yet powerful, ways to enhance cognitive function, keep your memory sharp and improve mental clarity at any age.

1. Adopt a growth mindset.

2. Stay physically active. 

3. Manage emotional well-being. 

4. Eat for brain health. 

5. Restorative sleep.

In this article we answered the question ‘’What causes cognitive distortions?’’ We talked about what causes cognitive distortions, what they are, their types and what can be done to face them.


Burns, D. (1980), Feeling good. A therapy against depression.

Gabalda, I. (2007), Theoretical-practical manual of Cognitive Psychotherapies. Descleé de Brouwer.

Ellis, A. (1992), Manual of Rational Emotive Therapy, Bilbao: Descleé de Brouwer.

Montes, J. (2006), Manual for handling irrational thoughts.

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