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Personality Theories: An Introduction , Seventh Edition
Barbara Engler, Union County College
Chapter 16: Cognitive-Behavioral Theories: Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, Arnold Lazarus

Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive therapists such as Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis view cognitive distortions as causal to many forms of psychopathology. In other words, they believe that people become depressed, anxious, or otherwise psychologically impaired as their thinking becomes irrational.

Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive therapists such as Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis view cognitive distortions as causal to many forms of psychopathology. In other words, they believe that people become depressed, anxious, or otherwise psychologically impaired as their thinking becomes irrational.

Beck identified numerous specific cognitive distortions, including the following:
  • Dichotomous thinking-thinking in "black and white" terms rather than "shades of gray." As a result, any experience that is not a complete success is a complete failure.
  • Personalization-blaming one's self for unwanted external events, when in fact they may have other causes.
  • Magnification and minimization-"making a mountain out of a molehill" when unwanted events take place, and to do the opposite when positive events occur
  • Overgeneralization-mistakenly inferring broad, general conclusions from isolated unwanted events
  • Selective abstraction-taking a detail out of context allowing it to determine your conclusions while ignoring all other explanations
  • Arbitrary inference-reaching a conclusion that is not supported or may be disconfirmed by evidence
Experienced cognitive therapists often conclude that particular cognitive distortions can lead to particular forms of psychopathology. For example, magnification can lead to depression by unrealistically increasing the perceived importance of an unfortunate or undesired event. Depression can also result from dichotomous thinking, in that a person who falls short of perfection views his or her performance as a complete disappointment rather than more accurately placing it somewhere in the middle ground. Beck himself identified the "cognitive triad"-a negative view of the self, the world, and the future-as an underlying factor in depression. Dichotomous thinking, magnification, or a number of other cognitive distortions can produce this "negative view." In addition to depression, disorders involving anxiety (generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social phobia, etc.) are another clinical area in which cognitive therapies have been used successfully. Personalization can produce clinically significant anxiety by unduly placing excessive responsibility on the individual for an unwanted event that has happened or may happen in the future. ("If [a negative event] happens, it'll be my fault"). Selective abstraction can also generate enough anxiety to interfere with daily life if an individual concentrates so exclusively on troubling or disturbing aspects of a situation that he or she misrepresents it as unrealistically problematic.

Cognitive psychotherapy, of which cognitive distortions such as those described by Beck are the centerpiece, has accumulated significant empirical support. In recent decades, many psychotherapy outcome studies have concluded that this approach is efficacious or effective in the treatment of depression, anxiety, and many other clinical conditions.

Andrew M. Pomerantz, Ph. D.
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

Critical Thinking Questions:
  1. If you were a psychotherapist specializing in anorexic clients, which cognitive distortions would you expect to see most frequently? Explain the link between those distortions and the anorexic symptoms.
  2. Consider Paranoid, Dependent, and Avoidant Personality Disorders. If you were a psychotherapist specializing in clients with one of these disorders, which cognitive distortions would you expect to see most frequently? Explain the link between those distortions and the personality disorder symptoms.
  3. Can cognitive distortions ever be beneficial? Can you think of an example of a person who, by thinking in irrational ways, could actually enhance his or her mental health rather than jeopardizing it?
Web Links:
http://depression.about.com/cs/psychotherapy/a/cognitive.htm
A list of examples of many categories of cognitive distortions such as all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, and personalization.

http://groups.msn.com/AaronBeckHomepage
An Aaron Beck homepage.

http://www.fenichel.com/Beck-Ellis.shtml
A summary of the appearances of Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck at the 2000 Convention of the American Psychological Association.




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