Fooling Ourselves

Cognitive distortions are exaggerated and irrational thoughts.  We all have them.  Unfortunately, most of us do not recognize them in ourselves or in others. We are, for a number of reasons, often literally fooling ourselves.

In psychology, these distortions supposedly perpetuate certain psychological disorders, as first proposed by David D. Burns, MD.   Dr. Burns believed that understanding and managing these distortions and negative thoughts would improve mood and discourage maladies such as depression and chronic anxiety.

It is not my intent to pursue the in-depth psychological details of these distortions.  However, I do believe that understanding these concepts better is a tremendous tool for improving communication.  More specifically, I believe that…

1.  If we understand ourselves better, we can share our ideas better and in a way they will be better received.

2.  If we understand those we are communicating with, we can listen better and shape our messages for better reception.

In most literature on this topic, there are ten typical cognitive distortions:

1.   All-or-nothing thinking – Thinking of things in absolute terms, like “always”, “every”, “never”, and “there is no alternative”. Few aspects of human behavior are so absolute.

2.   Over generalization – Taking isolated cases and using them to make wide generalizations.

3.   Mental filter – Focusing almost exclusively on certain aspects of an event or person while ignoring other different types of aspects. For example, focusing on a tiny imperfection in a piece of otherwise useful clothing.

4.   Discounting the positives – Continually reemphasizing or “shooting down” positive experiences for arbitrary reasons and even insisting your accomplishments have no value.

5.   Jumping to conclusions – Drawing conclusions (usually negative) from little (or no) evidence. Two specific subtypes are also identified:

Mind reading – Assuming special knowledge of the intentions or thoughts of others.
Fortune telling – Exaggerating how things will turn out before they happen.

6.   Magnification and minimization – Distorting aspects of a memory or situation through magnifying or minimizing them such that they no longer correspond to objective reality.

7.   Emotional reasoning – Making decisions and arguments based on intuitions or personal feeling rather than an objective rationale and evidence.

8.   Should statements – Patterns of thought which imply the way things “should” or “ought to be” rather than the actual situation the person is faced with, or having rigid rules which the person believes will “always apply” no matter what the circumstances are.  “You should just know!”

9.   Labeling and mislabeling- Explaining behaviors or events, merely by naming them; related to overgeneralization. Rather than describing the specific behavior, a person assigns a label to someone that implies absolute and unalterable terms. Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.

10.   Personalization - Attribution of personal responsibility (or causal role) for events over which the person has no control. This pattern is also applied to others when attributing blame.

In the coming days, I will be writing more about specific cognitive distortions and ways you can recognize them and overcome them in your daily work and communications.

For now, just keep this list in mind and how you may be sabotaging your own communications and relationships.  I have this list printed and posted at my desk.  It helps remind me to listen, consider and only then (after consideration) respond.  Some days I am better at this than other days.  However, communication is a skill and, as such, practice improves the skill over time.  This practice includes understanding ourselves and others.


About the Author

Glenn S. Phillips works with leaders who want to leverage technology and understand risks within. An author and blogger, Glenn is often quoted in national media, plays a really ugly tuba (it even has a bullet hole) and is a fan of dark chocolate and great puns.