What Are Cognitive Distortions?

A cognitive distortion is an exaggerated or irrational thought pattern. These distortions tend to lead to common psychological states, such as depression and anxiety. They are ways that people twist information they receive from the environment. These biases often reinforce negative thought patterns and are the focus of CBT - Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (click here to learn about CBT).

Common Cognitive Distortions



Catastrophizing is an irrational thought a lot of us have in believing that something is far worse than it actually is. Catastrophizing can generally can take two different forms: making a catastrophe out of a current situation or imagining making a catastrophe out of a future situation.

Arbitrary Inference

AKA jumping to conclusions when a judgement of an event is formed in the absence of supporting evidence. This is when people partake in mind reading and attempting to fortune telling.


Personalization is a distortion where a person believes that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to them. They literally take virtually everything personally, even when something is not meant in that way. A person who experiences this kind of thinking will also compare themselves to others, trying to determine who is smarter, better looking, etc.

Selective Abstraction

Selective abstraction is a type of cognitive bias or distortion in which a detail is taken out of context and believed while everything else in the context is ignored. Example: Someone attends a party and afterward focuses on the one awkward look directed her way and ignores the hours of smiles.


Overgeneralizing is a cognitive distortion that results in some pretty significant errors in thinking and has the potential to cause us a lot of unnecessary emotional pain. When we draw a faulty conclusion about something based on just one example, we are overgeneralizing. Example: Believing that if one public speaking event went badly that all of them will.

Dichotomous Thinking

Dichotomous thinking involves viewing situations as binary rather than continuous. Dichotomous sometimes called “black or white” thinking, ignores shades of gray. A dichotomous thinker only acknowledges right-wrong or success-failure. Example: Believing that people are either excellent in social situations or terrible, without recognizing the large gray area in-between.


Labeling is a cognitive distortion in which we generalize by taking one characteristic of a person and applying it to the whole person. Example: Feeling awkward at a party leads to the conclusion: “I’m an awkward person.”

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