Going Critical: Cognitive Distortions

The process of becoming a critical thinker starts in different places for different people.  Part of the job of teachers is to challenge the way that people think.   Why?   Because without being challenged periodically, we won’t be able to distinguish our good ideas from the bad ones.  Often times the worst of our thinking is about our selves.

How often do we lie to ourselves?    Being able to look at yourself rationally will help to deal with the rest of the world more reasonably as well.   When examining truth claims from others, examining their evidence/reasoning and checking for fallacies is a good idea.    So here are some common cognitive distortions that people often use on themselves.      The roots of these things are harder to sort out… they can be anything  from attempting to make yourself look good to yourself (we all self-edit to a certain degree) to more serious issues like trying to cope with abuse or mental illness.

Please note:   these are all things we all engage in to one degree or another.   Don’t freak out if you recognize that you have done these things, but do think about how to address them.

  • Emotional Reasoning–   Judgments based on your feelings aren’t necessarily true.   Emotions are not actually evidence.  People will justify things to themselves based on feelings rather than facts.   This gets to be a bad thing when we throw in some poor reasoning or justifications for other people’s actions.   “I feel bad, so I’m a bad person.”   Or “I love her, so whatever she does is okay”  (abusers exploit this).    Put together with some of the other cognitive distortions, this type of cognitive distortion can be devastating to a persons self-image.   For instance, people can discount the positive information about themselves and minimize their own needs to their own detriment.   Conversely they can develop a vastly exaggerated opinion of themselves and their abilities and hurt others by inflating their own wants and needs (narcissists do this).


  • Control/Causal Fallacies – These are areas where we try to assume control outside of our influence, or try to assign control to people or events where it doesn’t really belong.   How often do you hear the phrases “you made me jealous” or “they made me angry?”    A person is responsible for their own actions and reactions (and jealous/angry is not the only possible response to the behaviors of others).   Personalization is taking responsibility for the actions of another – like a child or a spouse.    The opposite of this is blame.  Then there are the times when people base their expectations on arbitrary rules of fairness, or expectations that other people will change to make you happy (i.e. basing your feelings entirely on the actions of others is both illogical and dangerous!).   If you find yourself “should”ing all over yourself, be very careful.


  • Categorization Errors  – One example of sloppy thinking is categorization errors.   Categorization is a normal and healthy thing for people to do – it helps to organize data, as well as come up with general responses to things.   But what happens when we mislabel or make hasty categorizations?     A VERY common thing to do is in dichotomous thinking (or sometimes black and white thinking).   This removes any spectrum or nuanced approach to things.   “Either you are with us, or you are against us.”   (Trust me, more people will be indifferent to you).   When used in conjunction with emotional reasoning,  it can be incredibly damaging.   For example, any bad experience can lead to a hasty categorization of yourself as bad, stupid, unlovable, or unskilled.


  • Jumping to conclusions –  Often times we want answers.   Sometimes people will invent answers in the absence of information, which is a good example of jumping to conclusions  or simply faulty reasoning.   Ever known a parent who immediately thought that when a their child was late it meant that they were dead in a ditch?    When used with some other cognitive errors you can make some terrible categorizations:   “Any male over the age of 35 playing with a child is either a father, or a pedophile.”   Yikes!     Another type of behavior that falls under this category is mind readers fallacy, where you can make assumptions about what another person is thinking or feeling.   Note:  what you think they are thinking is more of a reflection on yourself than what the other person is actually thinking!


Again, this is not a comprehensive list of thinking errors that people can make in their day-to-day life.   Once you are able to spot some of these cognitive distortions in yourself, then you can start to address them.    I will say that it takes some humility to admit that you have some flaws in how you think.   Sometimes it is even harder admitting to yourself that you have more worth than you thought.

Yes, it isn’t easy.   Worthwhile things rarely are.

Remember:   we judge ourselves based on our thoughts, we judge others based on their actions.

Think about it.

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