Seven cognitive shortcuts that may worsen your problems
Our mind often plays bad tricks on our discerning and rational abilities, without us being aware of what is happening.
Cognitive biases are a form of cognitive ‘errors’ or shortcuts leading us to evaluate situations, events or people in a distorted and almost irrational way in a very short period of time.
Cognitive biases can be useful in these instances when we have little time to make decisions, but when systematically used, they may bring us to misinterpret information very easily, thus causing discomfort and/or maintaining psychological difficulties.
Let’s examine together what are the seven most common cognitive biases identified by Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive psychology.
1. Dichotomous thinking: Perceiving the world or ourselves in black-and-white can sometimes provide relief and reassurance in an unpredictable world. But the risk of doing so lies in judging ourselves or other people in a rigid and not integrated way.
Try to imagine a student - we are going to call him Jack - who believes that he must pass each and every exam of his course of study in order to be a good, successful student, whereas failing even one exam means being totally inept. Most probably Jack will have to deal with anxiety when studying and undertaking exams as he uses no grey-scale as a tool to interpret a potential failure.
2. Overgeneralisation: The tendency to apply expectations or evaluations with regard to a specific situation to others, without taking in consideration evidence outside that occurrence. Let’s go back again to Jack’s case, who, after failing one exam, might be inclined to think he will most likely fail all his exams in the future.
3. Personalisation: The tendency to self-attribute too much responsibility (positive or negative) on events over which we don’t have any control. For example, if our unlucky Jack gets stuck in traffic the morning of an exam, missing out on his exam session as a consequence of a car accident on his way to college, he might start thinking that this only is his fault as he should have expected an unfavourable outcome. Or that he should have got out of bed earlier as well as taking the tube instead of the car.
4. Catastrophising: The tendency to focus on the worst possible outcome with regard to a negatively perceived event. For instance, if Jack doesn’t know the answer to a question in a written yes/no answer-choice test, we may start envisioning a preposterous sequence of unlucky events such as: failing an answer may imply failing the entire test. He may think that this could cause clashes in his exam calendar and have him defer exam dates, thus delaying graduation and eventually having an impact on his job hunt so that… Jack might even think about ending up jobless!
5. Mind reading: The tendency to interpret (usually in a negative way) another person’s thoughts without having any evidence and without doubting that our interpretation might be incorrect. You can imagine the potential risk. Think of Jack during an oral examination: interpreting the professor’s glances as a negative sign (e.g. meaning the professor is not pleased or satisfied with Jack’s answers or that he thinks Jack hasn't studied enough) will probably cause a sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety that could potentially interfere with his performance.
6. Minimisation/magnification: Attributing too much or too little weight to a success or a failure. For example it is common of people with self-esteem issues to belittle their success, e.g. believing that one has achieved success thanks to good fortune, fate or other people’s abilities and maximising one’s errors.
7. Filtering: The tendency to focus only on specific information (that is usually congruent with our initial beliefs) and leave out other important details. For example, if Jack starts to personalise and read the professor’s glances as a negative sign during an oral examination, he will also probably start filtering and noticing only the signals that support the negative evaluation of his own performance.
The list of cognitive biases identified by psychologists is quite a long and extensive one, but these seven biases are some of the most common ones.
As you could see, cognitive biases may often contribute to raise and maintain anxiety, or in general psychological issues. It is therefore very important to undertsand whether or not we have a systematic tendency to use some of them and therefore make an effort to change their automatism.
Psychotherapy, and in particular cognitive behavioural therapy, can be very helpful in this regard.