Cognitive distortions are exaggerated and irrational thoughts, identified in cognitive therapy and its variants, which in theory perpetuate some psychological disorders. The theory of cognitive distortions was presented by David Burns in The Feeling Good Handbook in 1989, after studying under Aaron T. Beck. Eliminating these distortions and negative thoughts is said to improve mood and discourage maladies such as depression and chronic anxiety. The process of learning to refute these distortions is called "cognitive restructuring".
- All-or-nothing thinking (splitting) – Conception in absolute terms, like "always", "every", "never", and "there is no alternative". (See also "false dilemma" or "false dichotomy".)
- Overgeneralization – Extrapolating limited experiences and evidence to broad generalizations. (See also faulty generalization and misleading vividness.)
- Magical thinking - Expectation of certain outcomes based on performance of unrelated acts or utterances. (See also wishful thinking.)
- Mental filter – Inability to view positive or negative features of an experience, for example, noticing only a tiny imperfection in a piece of otherwise useful clothing.
- Disqualifying the positive – Discounting positive experiences for arbitrary, ad hoc reasons.
- Jumping to conclusions – Reaching conclusions (usually negative) from little (if any) evidence. Two specific subtypes are also identified:
- Magnification and minimization – Magnifying or minimizing a memory or situation such that they no longer correspond to objective reality. This is common enough in the normal population to popularize idioms such as "make a mountain out of a molehill." In depressed clients, often the positive characteristics of other people are exaggerated and negative characteristics are understated. There is one subtype of magnification:
- Catastrophizing – Inability to foresee anything other than the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or experiencing a situation as unbearable or impossible when it is just uncomfortable.
- Emotional reasoning – Experiencing reality as a reflection of emotions, e.g. "I feel it, therefore it must be true."
- Should statements – Patterns of thought which imply the way things "should" or "ought" to be rather than the actual situation the person is faced with, or having rigid rules which the person believes will "always apply" no matter what the circumstances are. Albert Ellis termed this "Musturbation".
- Labeling and mislabeling – Limited thinking about behaviors or events due to reliance on names; related to overgeneralization. Rather than describing the specific behavior, the person assigns a label to someone or himself that implies absolute and unalterable terms. Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
- Personalization – Attribution of personal responsibility (or causal role or blame) for events over which a person has no control.