Emotional reasoning and other cognitive distortions

It’s always interesting coming back to pieces that I’ve covered in the past and seeing how a few years later, I’m engaging with them in a different way.

Recently, this has happened to me with:

The Coddling of the American Mind

Which I was inspired to re-read after hearing Jonathan Haidt’s interview on the Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast promoting his new book of the same name.

Two things struck me reading the post I wrote about it 3 years ago:

1. I rarely make predictions in this blog, but boy I got this one right

Here’s an excerpt from my old post explaining my “odd” decision to cover a piece like that in an organization-oriented blog:

But why am I covering a piece about campus culture in a blog about business organizational effectiveness? I’m glad you asked:

*) Today’s college culture problems are tomorrow’s business culture problems, as current students leave college and join the workforce, with this cultural indoctrination in mind.

*) Looking at the direction that typical “office sensitivity training programs” are headed, and the way that some related incidents are handled, some may argue that this culture has already started trickling into the work place.

*) Tech companies will be affected first as their demographic tends to skew young.

*) No matter on which side of the academic debate on “whether it’s the colleges’ job to prepare students for post-college life” you fall, this piece suggests that the skills/culture gap is widening. If colleges are not stepping up to address it (and some may argue, are making it worse), workplaces will have to.

Since then, interest in dealing with matters of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging (DIB) in business has grown exponentially…

2. While back then I was intrigued mostly by the marco-pattern, nowadays I’m interested a lot more in the nuanced cognitive distortions that are covered in the article

I’m curious about those because they are part of the “so what?”, a piece of the puzzle that is a way to address this rising organizational challenge/opportunity.

So what are “cognitive distortions”? you may ask. Well, here’s a rather pithy definition:

Tendencies or patterns of thinking or believing, that are false or inaccurate, and have the potential to cause psychological damage.

It’s that latter piece about the psychological damage that sets them apart, in my mind at least, from the broader category of cognitive biases that they are part of.

Cognitive distortions are the foundation of a psychological therapy approach known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT has identified these thinking patterns as highly correlated with disorders like depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses and developed protocols for addressing these disorders through changing these patterns of thought.

In the lightweight research that I’ve done on this topic, I couldn’t find a list of cognitive distortions that is as MECE as I would have liked. But the one that Haidt and Lukianof included in their original article, is a decent reference list that I’m going to try and keep closer by from this point on:

  • Emotional reasoning. You let your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, my marriage is not working out.”
  • Mind reading. You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks I’m a loser.”
  •  Fortune-telling. You predict the future negatively: things will get worse, or there is danger ahead. “I’ll fail that exam,” or “I won’t get the job.”
  • Catastrophizing. You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it. “It would be terrible if I failed.”
  • Labeling. You assign global negative traits to yourself and others. “I’m undesirable,” or “He’s a rotten person.”
  • Discounting positives. You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial. “That’s what wives are supposed to do — so it doesn’t count when she’s nice to me,” or “Those successes were easy, so they don’t matter.”
  • Negative filtering. You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who don’t like me.”
  • Overgeneralizing. You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “This generally happens to me. I seem to fail at a lot of things.”
  • Dichotomous thinking. You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get rejected by everyone,” or “It was a complete waste of time.”
  • Blaming. You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings, and you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. “She’s to blame for the way I feel now,” or “My parents caused all my problems.”
  • What if? You keep asking a series of questions about “what if” something happens, and you fail to be satisfied with any of the answers. “Yeah, but what if I get anxious?,” or “What if I can’t catch my breath?”
  • Inability to disconfirm. You reject any evidence or arguments that might contradict your negative thoughts. For example, when you have the thought I’m unlovable, you reject as irrelevant any evidence that people like you. Consequently, your thought cannot be refuted. “That’s not the real issue. There are deeper problems. There are other factors.”
Emotional reasoning and other cognitive distortions

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