Thoughts, Emotions, Behaviour and Cognitive Distortions – A Primer

1. Introduction:

One of the most unique human ability is thought. We will not get into the nitty-gritty of trying to define thought, but you know what I mean when I say that we are thinking beings. I have always been fascinated by human thought process because that is what decides our actions. What interests me even more is the fact that many people tend to believe in things that are blatantly wrong and for which there is no adequate evidence; the converse is also true, so that many people are cynical about things which have benefited us immensely and for which favourable evidence abounds. So, I came to the conclusion there is obviously a problem in the way we think. In my effort to find out what the problem was, I started to reach out for books that deal with human thought process.

In 2009, I started reading the book Feeling Good, by Dr David Burns. It is a great book that deals with cognition, cognitive distortions and mood disorders. The central theme of this book is what I want to share with you in this article; it is, for me, an important source of knowledge about the way we think and feel, and also the inspiration which gave me some fresh insights into traits that make us human.

2. Thoughts (Cognition), Emotions and Behaviour

We receive information about the world around us through our sense organs and apply our cognition to interpret it. Cognition is the process of thought; it refers to our perceptions, beliefs, mental attitudes, biases, imagination and knowledge; it includes the way we think about things – what we say about something or someone to ourselves. It is the central processor, which receives input from our sense organs, and modulates both our emotions and behaviour. Thus, cognition gives meaning to the reality we perceive through our senses. It is our cognition which gives us the unique ability to think rationally, to make moral judgements, to appreciate beauty, to form complex societies and nations, and, to wonder who we really are and what our place in this Universe is.

Another fundamental concept in elucidated in the book Feeling Good is that our emotions are a direct result of our cognition – our thinking patterns profoundly affect our feelings and moods. In other words, our thoughts produce our feelings! Like so many fundamental truths about reality, this may appear counter-intuitive. After all, it appears that we feel first and then think later; moreover, it is the emotions that feel very real and so profoundly affect us, doesn’t it? Read on to clarify this very important misconception.

The relationship between thoughts, emotions and behaviour is shown in the following figure:


The next important concept is that, in people with depression, thoughts are profoundly negative; and these thoughts have little or no correlation with external reality. Such thoughts are caused by one or more cognitive distortions.

3. Cognitive Distortions

Suppose, imagine you overslept and were late for an important meeting with your boss. Instead of acknowledging that it is human to make mistakes and trying to learn from the experience, you brand yourself as totally flawed. There is a critical inner voice inside you which harangues you with statements like, ‘I’m a failure’, ‘I can’t do anything right’, ‘I will always goof things up’, ‘I’m a born loser’, ‘I’m no good’ etc. It is most important to realise that this type of negative thinking produces negative emotional responses such as fear, anger, guilt, shame, jealousy, frustration, bitterness, resentment, apathy etc. The end result is a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle of depression, low self-esteem, mental torture, paralysis of will power and more dangerously, suicidal thoughts.

It is of utmost importance to realise that these cognitive distortions are precisely what they are – distortions! They do not interpret the external reality in a rational manner. Therefore the emotional responses such distorted interpretations produce are also inappropriate. Sometime during our lifetimes, many of us unfortunately pick these cognitive bad habits of interpreting life’s events with these kinds of irrational thoughts; these thinking disturbances then become so much a part of our personality that they become automatic.

Though the abnormal emotional responses are due to irrational thinking patterns, the emotions that are produced and thus experienced are real. So we tend to wrongly assume that the cognitive distortions which produce them are real and valid in the first place.

The following diagram summarises the relationship between automatic thoughts and negative emotions –


These automatic thoughts (cognitive distortions) and emotional responses occur very quickly, former followed by the latter, in response to a trigger – usually within a few milliseconds. Moreover, automatic thoughts are very transient and fleeting. So it is easy to miss the fact that it is the distorted thinking pattern which produced the abnormal emotional response. That is why the concept that our thoughts produce our emotions appears counter-intuitive.

Dr Burns describes 10 such cognitive distortions. They include –

1. ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING: Tendency to see things in black or white categories. If your performance falls short of your idealistic or perfectionist expectations, you see it as a failure.
‘I came second in the final examinations; I’m a total failure!’

2. OVERGENERALISATION: Arbitrary conclusion that a bad thing that happened once will happen over and over again.
‘Birds are always crapping on my car window!’

3. MENTAL FILTER: Tendency to pick out only negative details in an event, thus perceiving whole situation as negative.
‘Life is unfair!’
‘The world is a nasty place!’

4. DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE: Tendency to transform positive experiences into negative ones.
‘He is only praising me because he is trying to be nice to me!’

5. JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS: Tendency to jump to negative conclusion that is not justified by facts. It includes –

– MIND-READING: Arbitrarily conclude that people have a negative opinion about you, without bothering to check this out.
‘He didn’t wish me; so he doesn’t like me anymore!’

– FORTUNE-TELLER ERROR: You predict that things will turn out badly and mistake this prediction as a fact.
‘What is the point in giving the exam? I will do badly anyway!’

6. MAGNIFICATION AND MINIMISATION: You exaggerate your own imperfections, fears and errors.
‘My God! I made a mistake! How awful!’

Minimisation means you inappropriately shrink your own desirable qualities.
‘My honesty doesn’t count in my profession.’

7. EMOTIONAL REASONING: You take your negative emotions as evidence for the truth.
‘I feel like a dud, therefore I am a dud!’

8. SHOULD STATEMENTS: You try to motivate yourself by saying,
‘I should do this’ or ‘I shouldn’t do this.’

9. LABELLING AND MISLABELLING: Creating a completely negative self-image based on your errors – an extreme form of overgeneralisation (see above).
‘I’m a born loser!’

Mislabelling involves describing an event with language that is highly coloured and emotionally loaded.
‘How disgusting of me! I ate like a pig!’

10. PERSONALISATION: You assume responsibility for a negative event even when there is no basis for doing so.
‘It is my fault that my son is not doing well at school.’

Initially this classification of cognitive distortions can be a bit confusing and overwhelming. But, in my opinion, knowledge about these cognitive distortions is one of the most useful you will ever gain.

As an aside, Feeling Good also talks about a treatment technique – cognitive therapy or cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). The basic concept of CBT is this – all you have to do is capture the distorted, automatic thoughts, identify what types of distortions they are and give rational responses to counter them. In effect, you learn to talk back to the critical inner voice; your eventual aim is to turn it off. As you keep doing this, you will notice significant improvement in your mood. Why? – Because you are trying to replace irrational and hurting thoughts with more rational and soothing ones. In effect, you are learning to think better. And therefore, you start feeling better. The trick is to capture the distorted thoughts and not the emotions they produce; familiarity with the types of cognitive distortions listed above is therefore essential.

4. System 1 and System 2 Types of Thinking

Dr. Burns’ book may be a few decades old now, but its concepts are still valid. You will have noticed that Dr. Burns describes two types of thought – automatic and rational thought. That concept has found support more recently. Cognitive psychologists, such as the great Daniel Kahnemann, have classified human thinking into two systems: System 1 and System 2 which roughly correspond to automatic and rational thoughts respectively. I came across the following in the book The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (one of my intellectual heroes):

System 1, experiential, effortless, automatic, fast, opaque (we do not know that we are using it), can lend itself to errors. It is what we call intuition and performs quick acts of prowess … System 1 is highly emotional, precisely because it is quick. It produces shortcuts called heuristics that allow us to function rapidly and effectively, heuristics are fast and frugal, but they are also quick and dirty – they are virtuous since they are rapid but at times they can lead us into some severe mistakes. Emotions are the weapons system 1 uses to direct us and force us to act quickly – emotional reaction to the presence of danger is useful since we can react fast before we become aware of he danger.

System 2, the cogitative one, is what we normally call thinking. It is what you use in classroom, is effortful, reasoned, slow, logical, serial, progressive and self-aware. It makes fewer mistakes and, since you know how you derived your result, you can retrace your steps and correct them in an adaptive manner…

…Much of the trouble with human nature resides in our inability to use much of system 2.

Since I had written the initial draft of this article, Dr Kahnemann has written a whole book on System 1 and System 2 types of thinking, titled Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. It is very good book, very informative. Please do read it.

The two types of thinking are summarised below:-


Please note that we are naturally programmed to use automatic thoughts, where as rational thought requires conscious effort. In my opinion, the idea that we use two types of thinking is a profound one and has the power to change the world for the better.

5. Cognitive Biases – A Teaser

Closely related to cognitive distortions are another type of thinking disturbances called cognitive biases. They refer to the human tendency to make systematic errors of perception, interpretation and judgment under certain circumstances. Please note that the term used is “systematic” and not “abnormal” or “irrational”. It seems that we are, by nature, hard-wired for such mental errors! Cognitive biases can be thought of as milder forms of thinking disturbances when compared to cognitive distortions and are accompanied by much less prominent negative emotional component. But milder does not mean less important, and some cognitive biases profoundly affect our interpretation of the world around us and our resultant behaviour, mostly, in my opinion, for the worse. I soon plan to post another article elaborating on cognitive biases. (Update: I have posted an article on cognitive biases (and heuristics), which can be found here)

6. Conclusions

That is about the primer on the triad of thoughts, emotions and behaviour, as well as cognitive distortions. Please remember that our thoughts produce our emotions; many of us use cognitive distortions which, in turn, produce negative emotions; we can think better by learning to use rational thoughts which can counteract negative automatic thoughts. In my opinion, the world is a better place when we think better.