Cognitive therapy focuses on the distortions of thinking. Here are some of the more common distortions in thought that can create negative feelings and unrealistic beliefs in people.
Arbitrary inference: This refers to “jumping to conclusions” without any evidence. Arbitrary means to decide something based on nothing more than personal whims. Example: “Suzy canceled our lunch date – I’ll bet she’s seeing someone else!”
Selective thinking: In selective thinking, the person focuses only on one aspect of a situation, leaving out other relevant facts that might make things seem less negative. Example: Peter’s teacher praised his paper but made one comment about needing to check his punctuation. Peter assumes that his paper is lousy and that the teacher really didn’t like it, ignoring the other praise and positive comments.
Overgeneralization: Here a person draws a sweeping conclusion from one incident and then assumes that the conclusion applies to areas of life that have nothing to do with the original event. Example: “I insulted my algebra teacher. I’ll flunk and I’ll never be able to get a decent job – I’ll end up on welfare.”
Magnification and minimization: Here a person blows bad things out of proportion while not emphasizing the good things. Example: A student who has received good grades on every other exam believes that the “C” she got on the last quiz means she’s not going to succeed in college.
Personalization: In personalization, an individual takes responsibility or blame for events that are not really connected to the individual. Example: When Sandy’s husband comes home in a bad mood because of something that happened at work, she immediately assumes that he is angry with her.
A cognitive therapist tries to get clients to look at their beliefs and test them to see how accurate they really are. The first step is to identify an illogical or unrealistic belief, which the therapist and client do in their initial talks. Then the client is guided by the therapist through a process of asking questions about that belief, such as “When did this belief of mine begin?” or “What is the evidence for this belief?”
Cognitive therapy really is a kind of critical thinking, but it is thinking specifically about one’s own thoughts and beliefs rather than outside events and experiences. Just as cognitive psychology grew out of behaviourism, therapies using cognitive methods have behavioural elements within them as well, leading to the term cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).