Grand Tour of Thinking Errors:
We have spent the past few weeks travelling through the wonderful landscapes of thinking errors in cognitive-behavioral therapy – also known as cognitive distortions or biases in information processing. Different writers and therapists identify them in different ways. As CBT has developed over the years, so new interpretations and nuances have entered the lexicon, so there is not one definitive list or description of the types of thinking errors. I have stuck closely to the original typology devised by David Burns (“The Feeling Good Handbook“, New York:William Morrow and Co, Inc. 1989), with a few personal tweaks.
Thinking errors can lead to situations and people being misunderstood or misinterpreted in the following systematic ways:
Dichotomous reasoning (black & white thinking) – thinking in mutually exclusive categories, all-or-none thinking, either….or…)
Arbitrary inference (jumping to conclusions) – mind-reading, fortune-telling, interpreting an event in the absence of supporting evidence or in the presence of contradictory evidence
Magnification/Minimisation (binocular trick – looking through the wrong end) – over-valuing the negative, under-valuing the positive
Personalisation – assuming responsibility for events beyond one’s control
Discounting the positive (reverse alchemy – turning gold into lead) – something positive (such as a compliment) is either ignored or turned into a negative
Over-generalisation (use of absolutes – always, never, everyone) – drawing a general conclusion on the basis of a single incident
Global judgements (labelling or awfulising)– judging on basis of single action or attribute, reacting to the label rather than to the event or person (look for terms such as awful, terrible, loathsome, dreadful…)
Moral imperatives (musts, shoulds and oughts – and their negatives)
Emotional reasoning – using feelings as the basis for judgements and ignoring other factors
Selective abstraction (mental filter) – judging a whole situation on the basis of one detail taken out of context.
It is important to realise that these thinking errors are activated in the moment-to-moment experiences of our daily lives. They represent our attempt to make sense of what is going on now. They flash on and off very rapidly so we may not be fully conscious of them at the time (hence the term negative automatic thoughts). They can be seen as unhelpful thinking habits, and like most habits they occur beyond conscious awareness. Our first indication that they have been activated will often be a strong negative emotional response. We find ourselves feeling very anxious, or sad, or angry, but may not be clear about how this happened. We tend to think that our first understanding of a situation and hence our reaction to it is the right one. For someone undergoing a course of cognitive-behavioral therapy, it is important that they can distinguish between ther thoughts and feelings, can identify their unhelpful thoughts by mentally stepping back from the moment, and then be able to correct any biases in their thinking.
Our Grand Tour (courtesy of Cognitive Behavioral Tours Ltd) has been exclusively overland. The features we see in the landscape are in fact shaped by unseen forces. Just below the surface we encounter what are known as Dysfunctional Assumptions – a set of unhelpful beliefs or “rules for living”, often taking the form of “If I do xx, then yy“. For example, if someone criticises me it means that I am worthless, and if I am worthless then I will be on my own. This is hugely distressing.
These dysfunctional assumptions are in turn shaped by even deeper forces known as schemas or core-beliefs. These are formed in the first few years of life and act as templates for how we view ourselves and the world at large. Many of these are helpful and adaptive, but given adverse circumstances and experiences in those early years, then some of them can become maladaptive. They can lie dormant for many years, until a critical life event (such as a significant loss or other trauma) that often has some resonance with the early life event activates the schema, and suddenly the world is being viewed through a different set of lenses.
In order to understand the world we need to perceive it, and to perceive it we need to attend. Here we come across attentional biases – we are drawn to aspects of the environment that have salience for us. If we have been fortunate enough to buy a new car, we will tend to notice that same make of car more often than before, or cars of the same color. I once worked with someone with a severe phobia of butterflies, and she claimed to be able to spot them several yards away. She scanned the environment for them all the time, in the same way as someone anxious will scan for threats and someone sensitive to criticism will be looking for signs that criticism is being levelled against them, even if it is not. So, while understanding the different types of thinking errors is important, they themselves are driven by an underlying pool of dysfunctional assumptions, which in turn arise from a much deeper pool. Thus negative automatic thoughts are localised disturbances on our lake of consciousness, beneath which mysterious currents and turbulence are at work.
And my parting gift to you after our Grand Tour is a mnemonic memento. I have taught CBT to many medical staff over the years, and they love mnemonics! The more astute among you will have noticed that the initial letters of the 10 thinking errors spell the phrase DAMP DOG MESs.
The final “s” is spare (after all, nothing is perfect! – or am I over-generalising?). A thinking error is only a thinking error if it is an unhelpfully biased understanding of the moment, leading to emotional distress. It is the match that lights the emotional fuse. Cognitive therapy is not about negating emotional experiences, it is a way of helping people to respond appropriately and proportionately to the challenges of daily life.
Thank you for following me thus far. More to come, but who knows what this will be? I certainly don’t!
You can find further CBT resources and information on my psychology website.