Aaron Beck in the introduction to his book Prisoners of Hate writes how he came up with the idea for cognitive therapy.

While conducting classical psychoanalysis with patients, I discovered--almost by chance--that they had not been reporting certain thoughts they were experiencing during free association.  Although they believed--and I assumed--that they were following the cardinal rule of disclosing everything that went through their minds during therapy, I discovered that they had certain highly significant thoughts at the fringe of their consciousness.  The patients were barely aware of, and were certainly not concentrating on, these preconscious thoughts.  Based on repeated observations, I suspected that the experience of an emotion or an impulse to do something was generally preceded by such thoughts. 

   When I coached a patient to focus on these thoughts, I realized that they helped to explain the emotional experience in a more understandable way than the more abstract psychoanalytic interpretations I had been offering.  A young woman, for example, was able to access the thought, "Am I boring him?" just prior to spurts of anxiety during therapy.  Another patient would have thoughts such as "Therapy can't help, I'm only going to get worse and worse," prior to a sad feeling.  In each instance, there was a logical and plausible connection between thought and feeling...

   I also noted, to my surprise, that these patients showed a regular pattern of thinking errors (cognitive distortions).  They would greatly magnify the significance of a noxious incident.  They exaggerated the frequency of such events: "My assistant always messes up," or "I never get things right." 

   Aaron Beck later discovered that Albert Ellis had already drawn these conclusions and had developed a therapy based on them which he called Rational Emotive Therapy. 

   The following is a partial list or errors in thinking taken from David Burn's Feeling Good Handbook.

  1. All or nothing thinking:  You look at things in absolute, black and white categories.
  2. Overgeneralization:  You view a negative event as a never ending pattern of defeat.
  3. Mental Filter: You dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives.
  4. Discounting the positives: You insist that your accomplishments or positive qualities "don't count".
  5. Jumping to conclusions:
    (A) Mind reading - You assume that people are reacting negatively to you when there's no definite evidence for this;
    (B) Fortune-telling--you arbitrarily predict that things will turn out badly.
  6. Magnification or minimization" You blow things way up out of proportion or you shrink their importance inappropriately.
  7. Emotional reasoning" You reason from how you feel: "I feel like an idiot, so I really must be one." Or "I don't feel like doing this, so I'll put it off."
  8. Labeling: You identify with your shortcomings.  Instead of saying "I made a mistake," you tell yourself, "I'm a jerk," or "a fool," or "a loser."
  9. Personalization and blame:  You blame yourself for something you weren't entirely responsible for, or you blame other people and overlook ways that your own attitudes and behavior might contribute to a problem.

    Dr. Burns describes a three column technique in his Feeling Good Handbook for overcoming depression.  In this technique one lists ones negative thoughts in the first column, identifies the distortion in the thoughts and lists them in the second column and then puts rational thoughts in the third column that substitute for the distorted ones.

    I have a depressed friend who constantly is fortune telling a negative future for herself which is item 5B in the above list.  She knows that she will never have a boyfriend, she knows that she will never get married and so on.   She's an attractive girl but she "Knows that she's ugly"  Actually knowing that she's ugly doesn't fit the above categories.  If one were to make such a category it might be being convinced that negative things about oneself are true.   This conviction about her future and about her low self worth is common in depression.  Conviction that false beliefs are true is common to most mental illness.   Where does that conviction come from?  Thoughts about this are discussed in the Holding on to Beliefs section of this web site.  Why do people make cognitive errors?  Are their brains simply calculating incorrectly like a malfunctioning computer?   

  Aaron Beck explained how distorted beliefs can result from distorted schemas or representations of reality in our minds.   This is discussed further in the Holding on to Beliefs section.  There may be emotional states such as paranoia that are influencing one's thinking.  This is discussed further on the Emotion and Physiology page.  People may want to believe certain things and so convince themselves of what they want to believe by distorting, exaggerating and selectively focusing on certain facts while ignoring other ones.  We have all encountered this in people we have arguments with.  In fact if we are honest with ourselves most if not all of us are guilty of the same thing.   We would rather believe we are right and justified and the other person is wrong and unfair than the other way around. 

    What people are doing in this case is boosting their own self esteem at the expense of generating paranoia toward another person who they are in conflict with.  What's bad about this is it prevents us from addressing what we are doing wrong that is contributing to the conflict.  It also starts forming a negative set of beliefs regarding the other person in our mind.  Those beliefs or schema make us more likely in the future to interpret the behaviors of that other person as hostile or bad thus creating a vicious cycle. 

   If one believes one is a heroic victim that can be a boost to one's self esteem. The tendency of people to rationalize until they believe what they want to believe is discussed further in the rationalization section of this web site. 

    Motivations to believe incorrect beliefs are discussed in the Happiness is a Choice section of this web site.  There are even motivations to create incorrect paranoid beliefs in others and that is discussed in the  Second Tablets section of this web site.

 

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