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Common Types of Thought and Belief Mistakes

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 25th 2016

People attempting cognitive restructuring for the first time typically are at a loss for how to correct their automatic thoughts and core beliefs. They have taken these thoughts and beliefs at face value for a long time. It feels strange to take them apart. Also, people aren't sure what sorts of mistakes they may be making with their thoughts and beliefs. They need a reference listing common types of thought and belief mistakes that people make so as to know what look for. Just such a list, adapted from multiple sources including Dr. David Burns' fine book "Feeling Good", appears below:

  • Overgeneralization is a common cognitive bias that causes people to mistakenly conclude that things are worse than they really are. Overgeneralization occurs when a person develops an exaggerated or distorted appraisal about an event or situation. "I failed to get a second interview", says the overgeneralizing depressed person, "so that must mean that I am a failure as a person". It does not follow that failure at one event means that a person is therefore a failure at all events, but this is exactly the sort of trap into which many depressed people fall. There are a few different ways of overgeneralizing:

  • The Mental Filter bias (also known as Selective Attention) occurs when someone systematically attends only to a portion of the information present in an event while forming their appraisal of that event. generally, this occurs when people learn to only take the negative information about an event seriously, and discard any positive information as irrelevant "Our vacation is ruined because of this rain!" says the depressed person, failing to pay attention to the fact that he is on vacation in the first place. "I got a C in that subject on the report card and that is terrible" says the depressed person, failing to give proper credence to the fact that she earned As and Bs in other subjects.

  • Magnification (otherwise known as Catastrophization) bias occurs when a negative event is blown out of proportion and takes on layers of meaning it does not actually contain. "That woman looked at me funny" says the depressed person, "and that must mean that she hates me because I am ugly". The original event is perhaps uncomfortable, but the finished catastrophized event is "terrible, awful, and unbearable".

  • A related bias, Minimization, occurs when people deflate the actual meaning of a very positive event. "It's great that I just graduated from medical school", says the depressed person, "but all I can think about now is those enormous loans I have to pay back.". "Besides, continues the new doctor, "I'm not really much of a doctor after all - I only passed my tests because they were being kind to me".

  • Related to Minimization is the Disqualifying the Positive bias, which occurs when people pay attention to positive information but then find a reason to not count it as they form their appraisals. "It is true that Johny calls me all the time and asked me out on a date last week", says the depressed person, "but he's only doing that because someone put him up to it. Really, he doesn't like me and I'm a loser."

  • All-or-Nothing Thinking occurs when appraisals become highly polarized. Where there was originally shades of meaning in a variety of whites, grays and blacks, there is now only black or white, but nothing in between. "I did not get that A on the test, says the depressed person, "so that means I am a total failure".


Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Punctuation and proofreading - DV - Jan 25th 2009

I, too, find your information to be helpful.  However, I am a bit irritated that you do not follow conventional American rules regarding the placement of quotation marks in relation to periods and commas.  Besides that there are some blatant errors such as double periods, etc., which could be easily found with a simple proofread.  This lack of attention to detail just makes it difficult to take the information as seriously as I'd like.

Font issue - DT - Aug 14th 2008
Could you please use the same font consistently in this document?  Please check the HTML tags on the bulleted list.  MAkes for easier reading.  (BTW -- am loving the info -- very helpful!)

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