Cognitive Distortions

Greetings Everyday Spy,

Cognitive distortions distort the way you receive information. They alter your view of yourself and the world, like a funhouse mirror. There are many cognitive distortions. We’re going to focus on four.

Emotional reasoning leads a person to react to new information according to their dominant emotion at the time. The way they ‘feel’ becomes the basis for their reaction to outside information. Emotional reasoning is best identified after it occurs, when you take a step back and observe the situation objectively. Once you find emotional reasoning using hindsight, it will be easier to catch it in real-time.

As discussed in the cognitive bias and dissonance lessons in NewsHacker, emotions are often used by those attempting to influence our thoughts, beliefs and behaviors. When a Listener uses emotional reasoning, they equate their emotions with truth, thereby creating a false belief. While emotions are important, it is equally important to judge reality based on rational evidence. The Listener must step away from their subjectivity and identify the facts so that an objective assessment can be made.

Loaded words, language that evokes a strong emotional response, are often used to influence a Listener. The good news is they are generally easy to recognize. The words used in a headline or title can be indicative of the tone of the entire article. Going in with an awareness that the Listener’s emotions are being targeted is the first step in gaining objectivity. Another easy method of combating emotional reasoning is for the Listener to identify if their conclusions are being influenced by their emotions.

All-or-Nothing thinking, also known as Black-and-White or Dichotomous thinking, causes a person to think in extremes. People who label themselves as perfectionists tend to employ all-or-nothing thinking. The same is true for people who label themselves as ‘failures’ or ‘losers’. All-or-nothing thinking blocks critical thinking and prevents you from making objective progress. It inhibits your ability to differentiate between competency and confidence.

The ‘False Dichotomy fallacy’ plays right into the All-or-Nothing cognitive distortion. Often, a Speaker will present a situation as having one of two possible outcomes, generally a good path and a disastrous path. However, the truth is often between the two. For most situations, there are more than two options with varying degrees of outcome. Life is not black and white. Situations are generally more complex than presented. It is up to the Listener to think critically about the information being provided.

A Listener can use their awareness to identify when all-or-nothing thinking has kicked in and take steps to recognize and evaluate all of the possibilities. What are the options being presented? What evidence is provided to support those conclusions? Are there alternatives not presented? Is there a spectrum of possibilities to be considered?

Overgeneralization occurs when a person reaches a conclusion about one thing, generally based on one experience, then applies it across the board. For example, a person may interact with one French person, then make broad assumptions about all French people based on this one encounter. Or a person may vote in an election once, and when their chosen candidate loses, they overgeneralize and feel their vote doesn’t count and as a result feel hopeless about the election process.

Multiple logical fallacies are used by those who want to influence because it plays to the cognitive distortion of overgeneralization experienced by many people. A Speaker can Overgeneralize their argument when presenting it. A Speaker can also use a ‘Weak Analogy’ or ‘Anecdotal fallacy,’ where they are hoping to tell a story that resonates with at least one experience the Listener has had. If the argument is about crime, for example, the analogy or anecdote can hit on a personal experience for many that will feel true due to overgeneralization but in reality is not representative of the norm. There is a good chance that the Listener has had a similar experience, or has known someone who has had an experience, or has heard about a friend of a friend who has had that experience. But those analogies, anecdotes, and personal experiences are not sufficient factual evidence to support an argument.

A Listener can combat overgeneralization through awareness. Is the Speaker applying a specific event or trait to a larger population? What is the evidence being provided to support that conclusion? Is the evidence sufficient to apply one example to the larger population?

Catastrophizing leads people to assume the worst when faced with the unknown. People who catastrophize basically make a mountain out of a molehill. They escalate ordinary worries into illogical catastrophic fears. For example, if a person goes on a date and doesn’t get a call from their date the next day, they might begin to think that the person didn’t like them. Catastrophizing will lead them to fear that not only did the date not like them, but what if they are hopelessly unlikeable, and as a consequence they will die old and alone.

When the media or a politician presents a ‘Slippery Slope fallacy’, they are playing to this cognitive distortion. Not securing the country’s borders leading to a surge in crime conducted by foreigners. Regulating the purchase of weapons leading to a stripping of fundamental rights and freedoms for the country’s citizens. The election of a President, that wasn’t the candidate the person voted for, leading to changes in policies that as a consequence bring down the entire nation. These are all examples of catastrophizing. People who want to influence public opinion will use this cognitive distortion to their advantage. 

The way to combat this Catastrophizing is through self awareness and fact finding. Take note of your thoughts. When you notice that you are beginning to fear a worst case scenario, ask yourself some questions. Do the claims you are being presented with incite emotion, particularly fear? What are the facts of the argument? Do the facts support the conclusion provided or a different conclusion? Are the facts only enough to support the likelihood of a near term consequence but not the slippery slope presented?

Remember that you most easily identify distortions using hindsight. With a new awareness, you can correct these cognitive distortions in the moment. But the practice comes first in reflecting.

Godspeed, #EverydaySpy


Your Best Life: Perfectionism—The Bane of Happiness

Development and validation of the Dichotomous Thinking Inventory


  • Introduce the concept of cognitive distortions to someone you know. Present two examples and ask them whether they think they have any cognitive distortions affecting them day-to-day. Do you agree with their answer?

© EverydaySpy 2019, All Rights Reserved.