Cognitive distortions were originally defined by Beck (1967) as the result of processing information in ways that predictably resulted in identifiable errors in thinking. In his work with depressed patients, Beck defined six systematic errors in thinking: arbitrary inference; selective abstraction; overgeneralization; magnification and minimization; personalization; and absolutistic, dichotomous thinking. Years later, Burns (1980) renamed and extended Beck's cognitive distortions to ten types: all-or-nothing thinking; overgener-alization; mental filter; discounting the positive; jumping to conclusions; magnification; emotional reasoning; should statements; labeling; and personalization and blame. Additional cognitive distortions, defined by Freeman and
DeWolf (1992) and Freeman and Oster (1999), include: externalization of self-worth; comparison; and perfectionism. Most recently, Gilson and Freeman (1999) identified eight other types of cognitive distortions in the form of fallacies: fallacies of change; worrying; fairness; ignoring; being right; attachment; control; and heaven's reward.
The conceptual framework of cognitive therapy is structured on the notion that an individual's subjective assessment of early life experience shapes and maintains fundamental beliefs (schemas) about self (Beck, 1970, 1976). In support of, or in defense against, early schemas, secondary beliefs develop and function as rules or assumptions about the self and the world. These beliefs define personal worth, are associated with emotions, and develop further into learned, habitual ways of thinking (Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1979; Ellis & Grieger, 1986). Habitual ways of thinking function to support core beliefs and assumptions by generalizing, deleting, and/or distorting internal and external stimuli, thus creating cognitive distortions. Cognitions and, specifically, cognitive distortions have been identified as playing an important role in the maintenance of emotional disorders.
Researchers have developed various information processing models in an attempt to understand the processing of cognitive information. Kendall (1992) proposed a cognitive taxonomy model with a description of the relevant aspects of cognition involved in the creation of cognitive distortions. Kendall's taxonomy includes the following features: cognitive content; cognitive process; cognitive products; and cognitive structures. These features form the overall cognitive structure that serves to filter certain cognitive processes. Cognitive distortions reside within the domain of cognitive processes.
Within the realm of cognitive processes, Kendall made distinctions between processing deficiencies and processing distortions. Deficient processing occurs when a lack of cognitive activity results in an unwanted consequence. Distorted processing occurs when an active thinking process filters through some faulty reasoning process resulting in an unwanted consequence. The difference is failure to think versus a pattern of thinking in a distorted manner (Kendall, 1985, 1992).
Finally, Kendall (1992) also suggested that more accurate perceptions of the world do not necessarily lead to more successful mental health or behavioral adjustment. Cognitive distortions skewed in an overly positive direction tend to be functional, and benefit the individual in maintaining positive mental health (although a "too positive" view might be interpreted as narcissism).
The opposite may also occur. In studies of depressed and nondepressed students, Alloy et al. (1999) reported that depressed subjects were more accurate in their perceptions and judgments as compared to nondepressed subjects, a phenomenon called "depressive realism." Subsequent research was less endorsing of this phenomenon, and researchers have concluded the process of distortion is more complex than merely perception (Ingram, Miranda, & Segal, 1998).
Within the fields of cognitive and social psychology, other information processing systems have been developed that suggest theories for the formation of cognitive distortions (e.g., Berry & Broadbent, 1984; Hasher & Zacks, 1979; Nisbett & Wilson, 1977; Schneider & Shiffrin, 1977). In addition, developmental psychologists have suggested thinking or distorting processes may develop from learned behavior, while evolutionary psychologists (Gilbert, 1998) have suggested the development of an evolutionary information processing system over time that has led to a "better safe than sorry" processing approach.
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