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  • Writer's pictureEli

Helpful shortcuts or dangerous sabotage: Understanding and Overcoming Cognitive Biases

Updated: May 5, 2023


Cognitive Distortions, aka. cognitive biases refers to a pattern of thinking that is inaccurate, negative, and unhelpful. It can involve interpreting situations in ways that are biased, irrational, or unrealistic, leading to negative emotions, behaviors, and outcomes. Cognitive distortions can include black-and-white thinking, catastrophizing, overgeneralizing, and personalization, among others. By becoming aware of our cognitive distortions, we can challenge and reframe them, leading to more accurate, positive, and helpful thinking patterns. We often fall into the trap of believing that external events and circumstances are responsible for our emotional state. We say things like, "I feel bad because I didn't get the job," or "I feel sad because my partner criticised me."However, the reality is that it's not the external circumstances – a situation or people that dictate how we feel, but the meaning we give to those events affects our emotions and behavior. What matters more than the actual events that occur is the interpretation we give them. Following the three-component model of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are interconnected, and by changing our thoughts and behaviours, we can improve our emotional well-being. Imagine you receive feedback from your boss on a project you worked on. The feedback points out some areas for improvement and suggests that you could have done better. You might think to yourself:
  1. "My boss thinks I'm incompetent."

  2. "I'm not good enough at my job, and I'll never improve."

  3. "I'm going to get fired if I can't do better on the next project."

These thoughts reflect the cognitive triad: negative thoughts about the situation (the feedback), negative thoughts about oneself (perceived incompetence), and negative thoughts about the future (potential job loss). As a result of these thoughts, you might feel discouraged, anxious, or overwhelmed. You might then behave in ways that reinforce these negative thoughts, such as avoiding seeking out new challenges or opportunities to grow.
However, if you challenge these negative thoughts and reframe the situation differently, you might have a different emotional and behavioural response. For example, you might think:
  1. "My boss is providing me with feedback to help me improve."

  2. "I'm still learning and growing in my role, and there's always room for improvement."

  3. "I can use this feedback as an opportunity to develop new skills and become a better employee."

These thoughts reflect a more balanced and positive interpretation of the situation. This might lead to a more positive emotional state and constructive behaviours, such as seeking additional training or mentorship to improve your skills.
 

When it comes to thinking, we often assume that we're always logical and rational. However, research suggests that we only use our logical skills about 10 - 20% of the time, usually when we're trying hard to be analytical and strategic. The rest of the time, our mind is on autopilot, running on past experiences and learned behaviours. This subconscious thinking is lightning-fast and automatic but can be prone to errors because it doesn't always consider all available information. In contrast, when we engage in deliberate, rational thinking that involves planning and logical reasoning, we can arrive at accurate conclusions about what's happening to us. However, this kind of thinking is slower and more effortful, making us feel tired.

Two ways of thinking

When we rely on our automatic thinking, about 80 - 90% of the time!, we may fall prey to inaccurate and negative thinking patterns that arise from our core beliefs and cognitive biases. Core beliefs are deep, fundamental beliefs that we hold about ourselves, others, and the world around us. They are often formed during childhood and can powerfully influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors throughout our lives. Cognitive biases, on the other hand, are patterns of thinking that cause us to make judgments and decisions that aren't entirely logical or based on facts. They are like mental shortcuts that might lead to errors, inaccurate conclusions, and negative thinking patterns.
Although falling victim to cognitive biases is a natural human tendency, and it's not a sign of weakness or inadequacy, it can make our lives more challenging, causing us to suffer unnecessarily and experience stress. But the good news is that we can overcome cognitive biases by recognising negative thought patterns and learning to challenge them. With Mind Management, you can take control of your thoughts, reduce unnecessary stress and enhance your overall quality of life.

Simple Science-Based Strategies for Cognitive Bias Recognise – Challenge – Reframe

The first step - becoming aware Identify a thought or a pattern that tends to come up for you. For example, let's say your partner comes home from work and seems distant. You might assume they are angry with you for some reason, even though they haven't said anything to indicate that. This could make you feel upset, sad, or defensive, which could cause tension in the relationship. A typical example of cognitive distortion in a relationship is mind-reading. One partner assumes they know what the other person is thinking and jump to conclusions without checking or asking for clarification. The second step – challenging
Take a step back and assess whether your thoughts are an accurate representation of reality. These psychological tools can help you understand your thought patterns and determine if your thinking is logical or distorted.
  • Examine the evidence - gain a more objective and balanced perspective To avoid assuming that your negative thoughts are true, examine the evidence by following these steps: 1) Make a list of evidence supporting your current thinking 2) Look for exceptions to your negative thoughts 3) List things confirming the opposite

  • Cost-benefit analysis - determine whether your current thought is helpful or harmful 1) List the perceived benefits of your thought 2) List the perceived costs or drawbacks of your thought 3) List the perceived benefits of changing the thought 4) List the perceived costs or drawbacks of changing the thought 5) Compare the advantages and disadvantages of a negative thought to decide if it's better to keep it or replace it with a more helpful one

  • Double Standard Method - reduce the impact of personal bias by applying the same standards to yourself as you would to others 1) Imagining a friend or loved one in the same situation 2) What advice would you give them

The third step – reframing
In step two, we challenged the way we usually think about things.
Collect these insights and reframe your thoughts by making sure that your new thought is accurate, evidence-based, logical, and a true representation of reality.
Once you have it, try to add a supportive or helpful element to it as well. Our inherent negativity bias means we tend to remember and focus on negative things more than positive ones. To counteract this, we can deliberately choose accurate thoughts and serve us by providing a supportive edge.
 
Let's apply Recognise - Challenge - Reframe to our example and examine the accuracy of our thought.
  1. Recognise how you feel and what you think 1)"my partner is angry with me"

  2. Challenge

  • Examine the evidence: 1) Make a list of evidence supporting your current thinking: - My partner seems distant - They didn't greet me with their usual enthusiasm - They didn't ask about my day 2) Look for exceptions to your negative thoughts - My partner might be tired or preoccupied with something that has nothing to do with me - They might be feeling unwell or stressed about something at work 3) List things confirming the opposite of your negative thought - My partner might be happy to see me but just not showing it in a way that I expect - They might be dealing with a personal issue that they don't want to burden me with


By examining the evidence, we can see that there are several reasons why our partner may seem distant. It's essential to avoid jumping to conclusions and assuming that our partner is angry with us without any clear evidence to support that belief.
  • Cost-benefit analysis 1) List the perceived benefits of your thought - There is no real benefit to assuming something without evidence to support it - Maybe reflecting on my behaviour might help me identify how to be a better partner 2) List the perceived costs or drawbacks of your thought - If I assume that my partner is angry with us, I might feel anxious, sad, or defensive, which can create tension in the relationship - I might become preoccupied with this assumption and may spend time and energy trying to figure out what I did wrong when there may be no issue in reality. 3) List the perceived benefits of changing the thought - Increased trust: By not jumping to conclusions and assuming the worst, I can demonstrate trust in my partner and our relationship - Reduced anxiety: By not assuming my partner is angry, I can avoid unnecessary worry, stress or conflict - Improved communication: By approaching my partner with an open mind and without assumptions, I can communicate more effectively, avoid misunderstandings and improve our relationship - Increased self-awareness: By examining my behavior and reactions, I can gain insight into my own patterns and work towards personal growth 4) List the perceived costs or drawbacks of changing the thought: - It might be uncomfortable or difficult to acknowledge that my partner's behavior is not about me - I might have to confront my own insecurities and anxieties about the relationship - It could be harder to communicate my own needs and concerns in the relationship if I am not assuming my partner is upset with me

Based on this analysis, it seems that it would be more beneficial to avoid jumping to conclusions and assuming our partner is angry with us without any clear evidence. Instead, we can approach the situation with an open mind and consider alternative possibilities to maintain a healthy, supportive relationship built on open communication and understanding.

  • Double Standard Method: 1) Imagining a friend or loved one in the same situation - If a friend told you that their partner came home seeming distant, would you encourage them to jump to conclusions and assume their partner is angry with them without any evidence? 2) What advice would you give them - We might suggest that they talk to their partner or give them some time and consider alternative explanations for their behavior.

By applying the same standard to ourselves, we can create a more objective perspective and reduce the impact of personal biases. We can recognise that just because our partner seems distant, it doesn't necessarily mean they are angry with us. There could be many other reasons for their behavior that have nothing to do with us.

3). Reframe My partner came home and seems distant. Maybe something happened at work or they're just having a bad day. I'll check in with them and see if there's anything I can do to support them.

This way, you are acknowledging the distance without jumping to conclusions and assuming that it's because of something you did. By checking in and offering support, you are showing care and concern for your partner, and opening up a communication channel that could help you both feel more connected.

 

Remember, reframing your thoughts takes practice and persistence. But by challenging your biases and looking at situations from a different perspective, you can become more effective at problem-solving and decision-making. There are many other ways to help you determine if your current thoughts are accurate or distorted. These tools can help you avoid unnecessary stress. Some examples include thinking in shades of grey, defining terms, using the semantic method, and re-attributing blame. As humans, we are all susceptible to cognitive biases, which can lead us to make inaccurate judgments and decisions. Unfortunately, catching and reframing these biases can be challenging, especially regarding our own thinking. Thankfully, seeking the help of a counsellor or therapist is becoming increasingly common and accepted. More and more people recognise that therapy isn't just for those struggling with serious mental illness but can provide valuable insights and perspectives to anyone looking to lead a happier and more fulfilling life. Working with a psychological professional can help us better understand ourselves, our biases, and our thinking patterns. With their guidance, we can learn to recognize and reframe inaccurate thoughts, leading to greater self-awareness and a more positive outlook.



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