Posted by: counselorcarmella | July 28, 2011

Cognitive Traps

The Seven Cognitive Traps


Cognitive Psychologist Aaron Beck believes that thinking better leads to feeling better. He describes seven common errors in reasoning that people make. Eliminating these can help us to view the world more clearly and accurately.  Some of the names make them sound complicated, but the concepts are pretty easy to understand.  See if you have unknowingly fallen into any of these traps.


1. Arbitrary Inference – This means you draw Conclusions about yourself and others without any real or solid evidence for your belief.  For example, you may think a coworker doesn’t like you, but have no “proof” for this idea. 

 2.  Selective abstraction – This is when you take one small detail out of an event and draw conclusions based on that single detail.  When this happens, other information is ignored, and the event cannot be seen in its proper context.  For example, if you recently gave a talk, or sang a solo, you focus on the one time you messed up instead of reviewing the entire performance and noticing how well you did the rest of the time, and how positively others responded.

3.  Overgeneralization – This is when we hold extreme beliefs on the basis of a single incident and apply these beliefs inappropriately to unrelated and dissimilar situations.   For example, if you met a cat once who hissed and clawed at you, you might conclude that all cats are mean and respond by disliking all cats and refusing to be near one.  You would continue to respond this way even though someone you knew had a cat who was obviously gentle and even-tempered.  

4.  Double M (maximization and minimization)  – This is when we give something too much or too little importance.  You might assume that a minor mistake you made at work will cost you your job, or underestimate your contributions to a project as “nothing really” when they were actually very valuable. 

5.  Personalization – This is when we assume that events must have something to do with us, even when there is no basis for making them personal.  If a friend doesn’t return your phone calls, you may assume that you must have made that person angry somehow.   In actuality, your friend may simply be very busy or be out of town. 

6.  Labeling – We sometimes label ourselves based on past imperfections or mistakes. Then, we base our identity on these labels and allow them to define who we are. If you were once known as the “class clown,” for instance, you may still think you have to be the life of the party even when you don’t feel like joking around.  Or, you may continue to think of yourself as “stupid” long after not doing well on your SATs.

7. Polarized thinking – This is when we think in extremes and use words like “always” and “never.”  We think of things as either completely right or completely wrong, black or white. This classification system doesn’t allow us to see any gray areas and excludes anything in between the two extremes.  Thinking this way leads to statements like “You always make me the bad guy,” or “You never listen to me,” Or, “Either you do things my way, or this relationship is over.”


All of these are ways of thinking about the world that keep us off balance. Sometimes, these thoughts happen so automatically we don’t even realize what we’re telling ourselves or how we’re perceiving a situation. We can test the accuracy of our beliefs by asking ourselves LOGICAL questions such as, “How do I know this is true?”  “What other explanation might there be for this?”  “How else can I think about this?” or “What other information do I need before  I decide what this means?” Learning to critically evaluate our thoughts is important because  thoughts lead to  feelings.  We can often change our feelings by changing how we choose to look at a particular situation.


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