Cognitive errors

We tend not to think too hard about the way that we think, the manner in which we process information, but there are a number of ways in which poor thinking patterns can result in our experiencing negative emotions. These are ways in which we distort or ignore evidence that result in our coming to the wrong conclusions.

Fortune telling

Fortune telling is thinking we can predict the future, often in an inaccurate and negative way; it’s often used as a way of talking ourselves out of doing something.


One problem with fortune telling is that because it stops us from doing something, we don’t get to see the evidence that our prediction is wrong. Even if we do the activity, we don’t notice how our prediction was wrong.

Mind reading

Mind reading is assuming that we know what someone else is thinking.


Even when someone tells you something explicitly, it’s still possible to mishear what they said or what they meant. And if they don’t say anything, there’s no way that you can know what they’re thinking. Don’t make assumptions.


Personalizing is assuming that events are related to you personally and overlooking all other factors.


This assumption that it is all about you leads to extreme emotions – in the examples above, angry at the other driver, social anxiety with the neighbour, paranoia and anxiety at work, and depression and loss of self-esteem at the ending of the relationship.

All or nothing thinking

This is also called black and white thinking and is seeing everything in absolute terms, “always”, “every” or “never”. People either love you or hate you, something is entirely your fault or you are completely blameless, something is perfect or a disaster.


There are very few absolutes in life; that you’re doing the course at all is evidence that you are not stupid. If you make a fair comparison with others on the course, you’re probably somewhere in the middle, and even the people who appear to be smart won’t be top at every subject. Think in shades of grey (or even better, in colour) rather than the absolute black and white terms.

Emotional reasoning

Just because we feel something to be true, doesn’t make it so. Relying too heavily on our feelings can lead us to make mistakes. Feelings are not evidence, not facts.


Emotions are a result of thinking.


This is thinking in stereotypes about yourself and other people; if you label the world as being “unsafe”, you will be too anxious to go out into it; if you label other people as useless, you may become angry with them.


Labelling yourself is especially dangerous because it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy – if you label yourself as being stupid or a failure, you might then avoid situations where the label might be shown to be true, and you don’t get to test whether the label is accurate.


This is the process of seeing one negative event as a never ending pattern of “always” or “never”.


If you catch yourself generalizing from a single bit of evidence, the this is over-generalizing and the thought can be challenged by looking at all the times the opposite happens.

Mental filtering

This is selecting the evidence that matches your belief about how you are and the world is, and not looking for evidence that disconfirms your beliefs.


If you find yourself making comparisons of yourself to others, then are you comparing yourself to the average or unfavourably comparing yourself to the best, smartest, prettiest or youngest?

Disqualifying the positive

This is another biased way of processing information so that events that should be interpreted positively are actually interpreted negatively.


If you find it hard to accept compliments from others, then you probably also find it hard to accept compliments from yourself. If you do brush off compliments from others, they might stop making them.

Making demands

Any time you find yourself using words such as “should”, “must”, “ought to”, “need to”, “have to” or “got to” you are making inflexible demands on how you or somebody else has to be.


If you make demands of other people, then it is certain that other people will break your rules, and you will be making yourself angry. If you make demands of yourself, and you break your rules, you might be angry with yourself, or depressed, or anxious. And if you or others do meet your demands, it is quite likely that you will just raise the bar and make it even harder.


This is taking a relatively minor event and building a mountain from the molehill, imagining the worst possible scenario. Whatever it is you’re catastrophizing about, it is the worst possible thing and it is too awful to contemplate.


It would be better to have a more realistic view of the event based on the evidence – it is possible that your partner has had an accident but unlikely, and remember that you thought this way yesterday when they were late and that this is just a pattern of thinking.

Low frustration tolerance

This is the error of assuming that because something is difficult to tolerate that it is “intolerable” and so long term benefits are sacrificed to short term comfort. This often manifests itself as “it’s too hard” or by rationalizations and justifications why coping can be put off.


The best way of fighting this tendency is to develop the alternative attitude of high frustration tolerance: note what the long term goal is (getting something done perhaps) and getting on and doing it, putting up with any discomfort. Afterwards, make sure you pat yourself on the back for having achieved your goal and noticing both that it wasn’t as hard as you thought it would be and that you can tolerate any discomfort.


You may do all of these, and you may do some of them often. In some situations you may fall into more than one of these traps at the same time: mind reading and fortune telling are often seen together in that you might be assuming how someone else will behave in a given situation, and mental filtering with disqualifying the positive are an evil combination.

They are all fairly extreme ways of thinking and they are so much a part of us that we don’t notice them in ourselves. However, now you know about them, you will find you see them from time to time in other people, and partnering with someone and discussing your and your friend’s thinking patterns can be very helpful.

The good news is that once you have spotted a pattern as it happens, awareness of what you are doing can be enough to stop you doing it, or at least, of suffering the emotional consequences.