Cognitive Distortions

When we choose a way of making meaning that we have reason to know is not an accurate rendering of what is happening we are engaging in a cognitive distortion.

All maps worked to some degree when we first created them or we would not have chosen them. But just because a map had some utility in the past doesn't mean it is a good map now, and it certainly may not be the best map available now.

Some maps that used to be great are just out of date. My old city map doesn't have some newer roads on it. The map I used to figure out how to please Mrs. McKinley, my first grade teacher, didn't work at all with Mr. Wolfe, my ninth grade teacher.

Some maps are great for some problems but don't work at all for others. My Kansas City map doesn't help with St. Louis. My map for how to be successful as a psychotherapist doesn't help me much in dealing with my family. They just tell me to quit acting like a therapist. My map for teaching my dog to fetch isn't going to work with my cat.

Some maps are either too simple or too complex for the task at hand. With a web-based mapping program we can scroll in or scroll out to get the level of detail we are looking for. I don't need the names of the side streets when I am trying to get to Chicago. But once I get to Chicago, I need more detail to know where I am going. Newtonian physics works great for simple tasks of calculating the properties of objects in motion when they are my size, but it doesn't work for sub-atomic properties or the motion of planets.

So we find that we have maps which don't work as tools for solving the problem at hand. They may have worked before, or they may work in a different context, but for this problem they don't bring clarity. So we set them aside. Except that sometimes we don't. Sometimes we cling to an old familiar map even though it isn't working for us. When we do this, the map becomes what we call a cognitive distortion.

Cognitive Distortions

All maps are simplifications of reality which help us know what is going on, what we want to have happen, or what we must do to create the outcome we desire. No perspective is perfect. We are seeking perspectives which balance ease of use with accuracy. The more accurate the point of view, the harder it is to see from it. The easier the paradigm, the less complexity it has and thus the likelihood it is to be accurate. Again, as Einstein pointed out, we want to find a way of looking at things which is as simple as possible, and no simpler.

Thus, every perspective is also inaccurate. It has flaws or limitations. It may be said that all cognition is to some degree distorted. But we are going to limit our use of the term cognitive distortion to a narrower meaning, one that takes into account not only the flaws of the map, but the flaws in the process by which we choose a particular map.

I may well choose a perspective or paradigm only to discover that it doesn't help me solve the problem I am trying to address. When it doesn't fit, it is best for me to put it down and find a better map. But, from time to time, we find that a point of view doesn't explain the reality we are viewing and yet we cling to the point of view and insist that the experience we are having must be wrong. We choose the map over the experience we are trying to explain. These are cognitive distortions.

We all harbor cognitive distortions. We all view the world in which we live in ways that don't match the reality we are experiencing, and, yet, we cling to the perspective and insist it must be right. We all do this. And we don't know when we are doing it. We are all blind to our own cognitive distortions.

The most pernicious cognitive distortions come from a willfulness not to see. We may have reason to know that something is affecting us and our circumstances and yet we choose not to look at it. The man who flies into a rage at his wife may then apologize and tell himself that it is over and assumes that things are fine between them. The company pays someone to haul off the toxic byproducts of its manufacturing and gives no thought to where the toxins will end up or who they will poison. The civilization sates its thirst for energy by mining carbon from the ground and discharging it into the atmosphere and then only looks at the "progress" this theft creates.

If we don't come to recognize our cognitive distortions we will continue to do the same things over and over and expect a different result. My grandpa, a wood pattern maker, used to tell of the carpenter who said, "I've cut that board three times and it still isn't long enough." If cutting a board is something one does to make it the right length, then cutting it should work.

The global economic meltdown in 2008 happened, in part, because the experts in understanding the market in mortgage derivatives were people who stood to gain financially from the accuracy of the forecasting models they were using and promoting. They had reason to favor the cognitive maps they were using and didn't have an incentive to discover the shortcomings in those maps. They were blinded by the chance to make money and, thus, didn't see their own cognitive distortions.

Since becoming able to see our own cognitive distortions is essential to our own safety and satisfaction it is important that we explore some ways we can make our own distortions more visible to us. We can sometimes spot our cognitive distortions by listening to the ways we talk about things. If we notice the words should, ought and supposed to we can sometimes catch ourselves in our own cognitive distortions. If we say that something should be a particular way, we can then try the same sentence without the should. If we know the resulting sentence is false, then we know it is a cognitive distortion.

For example, try the statement, "Children should do what their parents tell them to do." Most of us would agree with that statement. But what if we take the should out. "Children do what their parents tell them to do." No they don't. Not always. In some families it is not even usually. Children do what they want to do, just like the rest of us. Children do what we tell them to do when they want to please us and when they know how to do what we want. And when they don't want to or don't know how to, they don't.

Let's look at a somewhat more complex example of a cognitive distortion in Joe and Jane's relationship.

As Joe and Jane are getting dressed for work on a Wednesday morning, Joe notices how beautiful Jane is. He feels his desire for her and he wishes they could take the day off and be together. He tries to give her some affection and she pushes him away saying, "I'm late!"

Joe has an early day so he picks up the boys from day care and is home by 4:30. Jane gets off at 5:00 and is usually home by 5:15. When she isn't home by 5:20, Joe starts to worry. At 5:25 he starts to pace and by 5:30 he calls her mobile phone and doesn't get an answer. He can't figure out what is going on.

Joe has a choice of maps he can use to interpret the meaning of these events. He can use the one he got from his dad when his dad was upset with his mom for hanging out at the local bar. That one is a lot like the one he built for himself when in high school he dated the captain of the cheerleading squad who dumped him at Homecoming to be with the star quarterback. By this map he can see how much he is at risk of losing Jane to some other guy and how careful he must be to let her know he is watching her.

Or he can use the cognitive map he built for himself the year he worked on the other side of town past the highway construction that caused huge traffic jams every evening. It took hours to get home. By this map he can see how stressed she must be and how much she is at risk driving in this traffic and how scared he should be for her safety.

In either case he will be using his perspective on what is happening to help him decide what is going on, what he wants things to be like, and what he will do to create what he wants. His behavior will be a product of how he interprets his perceptions.

The perception Joe has that Jane is late is a product of his expectations. But he doesn't see this as his choice. He sees that she is late. It is true that she isn't home and she does get off work at 5:00 and she works 15 minutes from home and she left home looking really good this morning. Those are all simply observations of fact. Joe gets to decide whether he will pay attention. And he gets to decide to what he will pay attention. But he doesn't get to decide what is actually happening. We all have the opportunity to choose whether we pay attention and to what. But we are simply noticing what has already happened.

We do, however, get to decide what the event means. We filter our perceptions through our core beliefs in order to construct an interpretation of what these events mean. We get to select a map by which we will determine the meaning of the events we observe. Then based on the interpretation we have come to as to the meaning of this event, we will choose our behavior.

Thus, Joe may be all up in Jane's face when she gets home wondering who she has been with and why she isn't answering her phone. Or he may be concerned and attentive and urge her to sit down and put her feet up while he fixes her a cup of tea and tells her how glad he is that she made it home safely. Each is a potential action he may take. And there are infinite other options of how he can interpret the data and choose to act.

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