Tag Archives: theory of cognitive distortions

Disqualification of the positive

The disqualification of the positive is a specific instance of the disqualification of one pole, which applies to the Positive/Negative duality. The subject grants an arbitrary priority in the negative pole of the positive/negative duality, in order to qualify the elements of a given reference class. It consists then in the fact of attributing more importance to the negative pole rather than to the positive one, in the lack of objective motivation.

Disqualification of the positive is then a specific cognitive distortion that consists in an instance of the disqualification of one pole applied to the Positive/Negative duality.

For example, a specific instance of disqualification of the positive applies to the reference class including the facts and events of the subject’s life. The subject tends then to ignore positive events, by considering that they do not count, for any reason.


Franceschi P., Compléments pour une théorie des distorsions cognitives (in english), Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive, 2007, 17, 2, 84-88.


Ambiguous images Arbitrary focus Bistable perception Complementarity relationship Conflict resolution Conflict resolution with matrices of concepts Conflict types relating to matrices of concepts Contrary relationship Dialectical contextualism Dialectical monism Dialectical monism in Aztec philosophy Dialectical monism in Heraclitus Dichotomic analysis Dichotomic analysis applied to paradox resolution Dichotomous reasoning Disqualification of one pole Disqualification of the positive Dualities Dual poles Extreme opposition General cognitive distortions Instance of one-sidedness bias Matrix of concepts Maximization Mental filter Minimization Bistable cognition Omission of the neutral One-sidedness bias One-sided viewpoint Opposition relationship Principle of dialectical indifference Requalification into the other pole Reference class Reference class problem Reference class problem in philosophical paradoxes Reference class problem in the Doomsday argument Reference class problem in Hempel’s paradox Reference class problem in the surprise examination paradox Selective abstraction Specific cognitive distortions System of taxa Two-sided viewpoint Viewpoint of a duality Viewpoint of a pole

Requalification into the other pole

The requalification into the other pole is a general type of cognitive distortion. It is characterized by a reasoning which consists in re-qualifying an event belonging to a given duality A, in the other duality Ā.

The requalification into the other pole is part of the general cognitive distortions, as well as the disqualification of one of the poles, the omission of the neutral, the arbitrary focus, the minimization, the maximization.

A characteristic instance of requalification in the other pole consists in the specific cognitive distortion which applies to the class of the events of the subject’s life and to the Positive/Negative duality. This consists typically in re-describing as negative an event which should be objectively considered as positive.

By requalifying positive events in a negative way, the person can reach the conclusion that all events of his/her life are of a negative nature. For instance, by considering the past events of his/her life, the subject notes that he/she made no act of violence. He/she considers this to be “suspect”.

Another instance of requalification in the other pole consists in the specific cognitive distortion which applies to the class of the parts of the person’s body and to the Nice+/Ugly- duality. Typically, the subject re-qualifies as “ugly” a part of his/her body which is objectively “nice”.


Franceschi P., Compléments pour une théorie des distorsions cognitives (in english), Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive, 2007, 17, 2, 84-88.


Ambiguous images Arbitrary focus Bistable perception Complementarity relationship Conflict resolution Conflict resolution with matrices of concepts Conflict types relating to matrices of concepts Contrary relationship Dialectical contextualism Dialectical monism Dialectical monism in Aztec philosophy Dialectical monism in Heraclitus Dichotomic analysis Dichotomic analysis applied to paradox resolution Dichotomous reasoning Disqualification of one pole Disqualification of the positive Dualities Dual poles Extreme opposition General cognitive distortions Instance of one-sidedness bias Matrix of concepts Maximization Mental filter Minimization Bistable cognition Omission of the neutral One-sidedness bias One-sided viewpoint Opposition relationship Principle of dialectical indifference Requalification into the other pole Reference class Reference class problem Reference class problem in philosophical paradoxes Reference class problem in the Doomsday argument Reference class problem in Hempel’s paradox Reference class problem in the surprise examination paradox Selective abstraction Specific cognitive distortions System of taxa Two-sided viewpoint Viewpoint of a duality Viewpoint of a pole

Omission of the neutral

The omission of the neutral is a type of general cognitive distortion. It results from the absence, in the patient’s system of taxa, of the neutral taxon. It follows that the elements of the reference class which can objectively be defined as neutral with regard to a given duality A/Ā, are not taken into account by the patient.

The omission of the neutral sometimes plays an important role, notably when there is a gaussian distribution of the elements of the reference class, where the elements objectively corresponding to the neutral taxon are precisely those which are the most numerous.

The omission of the neutral is part of the general cognitive distortions, as well as the disqualification of one of the poles, the requalification in the other pole, the arbitrary focus, the minimization, the maximization.


Franceschi P., Compléments pour une théorie des distorsions cognitives (in english), Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive, 2007, 17, 2, 84-88.


Ambiguous images Arbitrary focus Bistable perception Complementarity relationship Conflict resolution Conflict resolution with matrices of concepts Conflict types relating to matrices of concepts Contrary relationship Dialectical contextualism Dialectical monism Dialectical monism in Aztec philosophy Dialectical monism in Heraclitus Dichotomic analysis Dichotomic analysis applied to paradox resolution Dichotomous reasoning Disqualification of one pole Disqualification of the positive Dualities Dual poles Extreme opposition General cognitive distortions Instance of one-sidedness bias Matrix of concepts Maximization Mental filter Minimization Bistable cognition Omission of the neutral One-sidedness bias One-sided viewpoint Opposition relationship Principle of dialectical indifference Requalification into the other pole Reference class Reference class problem Reference class problem in philosophical paradoxes Reference class problem in the Doomsday argument Reference class problem in Hempel’s paradox Reference class problem in the surprise examination paradox Selective abstraction Specific cognitive distortions System of taxa Two-sided viewpoint Viewpoint of a duality Viewpoint of a pole

Theory of Cognitive Distortions: Over-generalisation and Labeling

English translation of a paper published in French in the Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive, 2009, 19-4, pages 136-140 under the title “Théorie des distorsions cognitives : la sur-généralisation et l’étiquetage”.

In a previous article (Complements to a theory of cognitive distorsions, Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive, 2007), we introduced some elements aimed at contributing to a general theory of cognitive distortions. Based on the reference class, the duality and the system of taxa, these elements allow to define the general cognitive distortions as well as the specific cognitive distortions. This model is extended here to the description of two other classical cognitive distortions: over-generalisation and mislabelling. The definition of the two latter cognitive distortions is based on prior differentiation between three levels of reasoning: primary, secondary and ternary pathogenic arguments. The latter analysis also leads to define two other cognitive distortions which insert themselves into this framework: ill-grounded inductive projection and confirmation bias.

This article is cited in:

  • Richard-Lepouriel H., Bipolar disorder, self-stigma and cognitive restructuring: A first attempt to support, Journal de Therapie Comportementale et Cognitive, Volume 27, 2017
  • Juliette Marty, Et si vous étiez trop perfectionniste ? Eyrolles, 2021

Theory of Cognitive Distortions: Over-generalisation and Labeling

In Franceschi (2007), we set out to introduce several elements aimed at contributing to a general theory of cognitive distortions. These elements are based on three fundamental notions: the reference class, the duality and the system of taxa. With these three elements, we could define within the same conceptual framework the following general cognitive distortions: dichotomous reasoning, disqualification of one pole, minimisation and maximisation, requalification in the other pole and omission of the neutral. We could also describe as specific cognitive distortions: disqualification of the positive, selective abstraction and catastrophism. In the present article, we offer to define and to situate, within the same conceptual framework, two other classical cognitive distortions: over-generalisation and mislabelling.

Over-generalisation and mislabelling constitute two of the twelve traditionally defined cognitive distortions: emotional reasoning; over-generalisation; arbitrary inference; dichotomous reasoning; should statements; divination or mental reading; selective abstraction; disqualification of the positive; maximisation/minimisation; catastrophising; personalisation; mislabelling (Beck 1964, Ellis 1962). Over-generalisation is classically defined as a rough and ill-grounded generalisation, usually including either of the quantifiers “all”, “none”, “never”, “always”. Moreover, it is often described as a cognitive distortion including four subcategories: dichotomous reasoning, selective abstraction, maximisation/minimisation, and disqualification of the positive. Mislabelling is also classically defined as an extreme form of over-generalisation, consisting in the apposition of a label with a strong negative and emotional connotation to oneself or to an external subject.

1. Primary, secondary and ternary pathogenic arguments

Before setting out to define over-generalisation and mislabelling in the present context, it is worth describing preliminarily a structure of pathogenic reasoning (in the etymological sense: engendering suffering), with a general scope, susceptible of being found in some disorders of a very different nature, such as depression, generalised anxiety disorder, body dismorphic disorder, scrupulosity or intermittent explosive disorder. Such structure of reasoning includes several levels of arguments: primary, secondary and ternary. In a simplified way, primary pathogenic arguments are constituted by an enumeration of instances. Secondary pathogenic arguments consist of a generalisation from the latter instances. Lastly, pathogenic ternary arguments are constituted by an interpretation of the latter generalisation. Such reasoning as a whole presents an inductive structure.

At this stage, it is worth mentioning several instances of this type of reasoning. A first instance, susceptible to be found in depression (Beck 1967, 1987), is the following (the  symbol denotes the conclusion):

(11)I gave my ankle a wrench last Januarypremise1
(12)I lost my job last Februarypremise2
(13)Fifteen days ago, I had an influenza with feverpremise3
(14)I got into an argument with Lucy last monthpremise4
(…)(…)
(110)Today, my horoscope is not goodpremise10
(2)∴ Everything that occurs to me is badfrom (11)-(110)
(3)∴ I am a complete failure!from (2)

The patient enumerates first some events of his/her past and present life (11)-(110), that he/she qualifies as negative, through a primary stage which consists of an enumeration of instances. Then he/she performs a generalisation (2) from the previous enumeration, which presents the following structure:

(2)∴ All events that occur to me are negativefrom (11)-(110)

Lastly, the patient interprets (3) the latter conclusion by concluding “I am a complete failure!”. Such instance applies then to the reference class of the present and past events of the patient’s life and to the Positive/Negative duality.

One can also mention a reasoning that presents an identical structure, which is susceptible to be met in body dysmorphic disorder (Veale 2004, Rabinowitz & al. 2007). The patient enumerates then different parts of his/her body, which he/she qualifies as ugly. He/she generalises then by concluding that all parts of his/her body are ugly. Finally, he/she adds: “I am ugly!”. The corresponding reasoning applies then to the Beautiful/Ugly duality and to the reference class of the parts of the patient’s body.

In the same way, in a reasoning of identical structure, susceptible to be met in scrupulosity (Teak & Ulug 2001, Miller & Edges 2007), the patient enumerates several instances corresponding to some acts which he/she made previously or recently, and which he/she considers as morally bad. He/she concludes then: “Everything I do is bad, morally reprehensible”, and he/she further interprets it by concluding: “I am a horrible sinner!”. Such conclusion is likely to trigger an intense feel of guilt and a compulsive practice of religious rituals. The corresponding instance applies here to the duality Good/Evil and to the reference class of the present and past actions of the patient’s life.

Lastly, an instance of this structure of reasoning can contribute to the development of hostility, of a potentially aggressive attitude toward other people. In that case, the patient concludes regarding an external subject: “All acts that he committed toward me are bad”. He/she concludes then: “He is a bastard!”. Such conclusion can then play a role in intermittent explosive disorder (Coccaro & al. 1998, Galovski & al. 2002). In such case, the over-generalisation applies to the Good/Evil duality and to the reference class of the actions of an external subject with regard to the patient.

At this step, it is worth describing in more detail each of the three stages – primary, secondary and ternary – which compose this type of reasoning.

Primary pathogenic arguments

The first step in the aforementioned type of reasoning, consists for the patient to enumerate some instances. The general structure of each instance is as follows:

(1i)The object xi of the class of reference E has property Ā (in the duality A/Ā)premisei

In the aforementioned example applied to depression, the patient enumerates some events of his/her present and past life, which he/she qualifies as negative, under the form:

(1i)The event Ei of negative nature occurred to mepremisei

Different instances corresponding to this cognitive process can be described under the form of a primary pathogenic argument, the structure of which is the following:

(1a)The event E1 occurred to mepremise
(1b)The event E1 was of a negative naturepremise
(1)∴ The event E1 of a negative nature occurred to mefrom (1a), (1b)

By such cognitive process, the patient is led to the conclusion according to which some negative event did occur to him/her.

From a deductive point of view, this type of argument proves to be completely valid (the conclusion is true if the premises are true) since the very event presents well, objectively, a negative nature. However, this type of primary argument can turn out to be fallacious, when the very event presents, objectively, a positive or neutral nature. The flaw in the reasoning resides then in the fact that the premise (1b) turns then out to be false. Such can be case for example if the patient makes use of a specific cognitive distortion such as requalification in the negative. In such case, the patient considers as negative an event the nature of which is objectively positive.

Secondary pathogenic arguments

At the level of the above-mentioned reasoning, secondary pathogenic arguments are constituted by the sequence which proceeds by generalisation, from the instances (11) to (110), according to the following structure:

(2)∴ All elements xi of the class of reference E have property Āfrom (11)-(110)

Such over-generalisation leads then to the conclusion “All events that occur to me are bad” (depression); “All parts of my body are ugly” (body dysmorphic disorder); “All my acts are morally reprehensible” (scrupulosity); “All acts that he committed toward me are bad” (intermittent explosive disorder).

From a deductive point of view, such generalisation may constitute a completely valid argument. Indeed, the resulting generalisation constitutes a correct deductive reasoning, if the premises (11)-(110) are true. However, it often proves to be that the premises of the argument are false. Such is notably the case when the patient counts among the elements having property Ā, some elements which objectively have the opposite property A. The flaw in the argument resides then in a requalification in the other pole related to some elements and the enumeration of instances includes then some false premises, thus invalidating the resulting generalisation. In such case, secondary pathogenic argument turns out to be ungrounded, because of the falseness of some premises.

In other cases, the secondary pathogenic argument turns out to be fallacious from an inductive standpoint. For some positive (or neutral) events can well have been omitted in the corresponding enumeration of instances. Such omission can result from the use of general cognitive distortions, such as the omission of the neutral or disqualification of the positive. In such case, the elements of the relevant class of reference are only partly taken into account, thus biasing the resulting generalisation. The corresponding reasoning remains then logically valid and sound, but fundamentally incorrect of an inductive point of view, because it does only take partly into account the relevant instances within the reference class. Such feature of over-generalisation – a conclusion resulting from a valid reasoning from a deductive point of view, but inductively wrong – allows to explain how it notably succeeds in deceiving patients whose level of intelligence can otherwise prove to be high.

Ternary pathogenic arguments

It is worth mentioning, lastly, the role played by pathogenic ternary arguments which consist, at the level of the aforementioned reasoning, of the following sequence:

(2)All events that occur to me are of a negative naturepremise
(3)∴ I am a complete failure!from (2)

In such argument, the premise is constituted by the conclusion (2) of the secondary pathogenic argument, of which, in an additional stage (3), the patient aims at making sense by interpreting it. It consists here of a case of mislabelling. At the stage of a ternary pathogenic argument, mislabelling can thus take the following forms: “I am a complete failure!” (depression); “I am ugly!” (bodily dysmorphic disorder); “I am a horrible sinner!” (scrupulosity); “He is a bastard! “ (intermittent explosive disorder). In the present context, mislabelling proves to be an invalid argument, which constitutes a rough and unjustified interpretation of the over-generalisation (2).

2. Over-generalisation

At this stage, we are in a position to give a definition of over-generalisation, by drawing a distinction between general and specific over-generalisations. A general over-generalisation applies to any duality and to any reference class. It can be analysed as the ill-grounded conclusion of a secondary pathogenic argument, the premises of which include some general cognitive distortions: dichotomous reasoning, disqualification of one pole, arbitrary focus, minimisation/maximisation, omission of the neutral or requalification in the other pole. It consists of an ungrounded inductive reasoning, because the resulting generalisation is based on an incorrect counting of the corresponding instances. In the same way, a specific over-generalisation consists of an instance of a general over-generalisation, applied to a given duality and reference class. Thus, the specific over-generalisation “All events which occur to me are of a negative nature” (depression, generalised anxiety disorder) applies to the Positive/Negative duality and to the class of the events of the patient’s life. In the same way, “All parts of my body are ugly” (body dysmorphic disorder) is a specific over-generalisation that applies to the reference class of the parts of the patient’s body and to the Beautiful/Ugly duality.

3. Ungrounded inductive projection

At this step, it proves to be useful to describe another error of reasoning, which is likely to manifest itself at the stage of secondary pathogenic arguments. It consists of an ill-grounded inductive projection. The latter concludes, from the preceding over-generalisation (2), that a new instance will occur in the near future. Such instance is susceptible to be met in depression (Miranda & al. 2008), as well as in generalised anxiety disorder (Franceschi 2008). In the context of depression, such inductive projection presents the following form:

(2)All events that occur to me are of a negative naturepremise
(111a)The future event E11 of a negative nature may occurpremise
(111b)∴ The future event E11 of a negative nature will occurfrom (2), (111a)

The corresponding conclusion is susceptible of contributing to depression, notably by triggering the patient’s feeling of despair. Other instances of this type of conclusion are: “My next action will be morally reprehensible” (scrupulosity), or “The next act that he will commit toward me will be bad” (intermittent explosive disorder).

4. Confirmation bias

The cognitive process which has just been described illustrates how over-generalisation contributes to the formation of pathogenic ideas. However, a process of the same nature is also likely to concur to their maintenance. For once the over-generalisation (2) has been established by means of the above reasoning, its maintenance is made as soon as an instance occurs that confirms the generalisation according to which all elements xi of the reference class E have property Ā. This constitutes a confirmation bias, for the patient does only count those elements which present the property Ā, without taking into account those which have the opposite property A, thus disconfirming generalisation (2). Hence, in depression or generalised anxiety disorder, when a new negative event occurs, the patient concludes from it that it confirms that all events which occur to him/her are of a negative nature.

We see it finally, the above developments suggest a classification of cognitive distortions, depending on whether they manifest themselves at the level of primary, secondary or ternary pathogenic arguments. Thus, among the cognitive distortions which arise at the stage of primary pathogenic arguments, one can distinguish: on the one hand, the general cognitive distortions (dichotomous reasoning, disqualification of one pole, minimisation/maximisation, requalification into the other pole, omission of the neutral) and on the other hand, the specific cognitive distortions (disqualification of the positive, requalification into the negative, selective abstraction, catastrophising). Morevoer, among the cognitive distortions which manifest themselves at the stage of secondary pathogenic arguments, one can mention over-generalisation (at the stage of the formation of pathogenic ideas), ill-grounded inductive projection, and confirmation bias (at the stage of the maintenance of pathogenic ideas). Mislabelling, finally, is susceptible to occur at the level of ternary pathogenic arguments.

References

Beck A. Thinking and depression: Theory and therapy. Archives of General Psychiatry, 1964, 10, 561-571.

Beck, A. Depression: Clinical, experimental, and theoretical aspects, Harper & Row, New York, 1967.

Beck, A. Cognitive models of depression. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 1, 1987, 5-37.

Coccaro E., Richard J., Kavoussi R., Mitchell E., Berman J., Lish J. Intermittent explosive disorder-revised: Development, reliability, and validity of research criteria. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 39-6, 1998, 368-376.

Eckhardt C., Norlander B., Deffenbacher J., The assessment of anger and hostility: a critical review, Aggression and Violent Behavior, 9-1, 2004, 17-43.

Ellis A. Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy, Lyle Stuart, New York, 1962.

Franceschi P. Compléments pour une théorie des distorsions cognitives. Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive, 2007, 17-2, 84-88. English translation.

Franceschi P. Théorie des distorsions cognitives : application à l’anxiété généralisée. Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive, 2008, 18, 127-131. English translation.

Galovski T., Blanchard E., Veazey C. Intermittent explosive disorder and other psychiatric co-morbidity among court-referred and self-referred aggressive drivers. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 40-6, 2002, 641-651.

Miller C., Hedges D. Scrupulosity disorder: An overview and introductory analysis. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 2007, 22-6, 1042-1048.

Miranda R., Fontes M., Marroquín B. Cognitive content-specificity in future expectancies: Role of hopelessness and intolerance of uncertainty in depression and GAD symptoms. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 46-10, 2008, 1151-1159.

Tek C., Ulug B. Religiosity and religious obsessions in obsessive–compulsive disorder. Psychiatry Research, 2001, 104-2, 99-108.

Rabinowitz D., Neziroglu F., Roberts M. Clinical application of a behavioral model for the treatment of body dysmorphic disorder. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 2007, 14-2, 231-237.

Veale D. Advances in a cognitive behavioural model of body dysmorphic disorder. Body Image, 2004, 1, 113-125.

Theory of Cognitive Distortions: Personalisation

English translation of a paper published in French in the Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive, 2010, 20-2, pages 51-55 under the title “Théorie des distorsions cognitives : la personnalisation”.

In a previous paper (Complements to a theory of cognitive distorsions, Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive, 2007), we did present some elements aimed at contributing to a general theory of cognitive distortions. Based on the reference class, the duality and the system of taxa, these elements led to distinguish between the general cognitive distortions (dichotomous reasoning, disqualification of one pole, minimisation, maximisation) and the specific cognitive distortions (disqualifying the positive, selective abstraction, catastrophism). By also distinguishing between three levels of reasoning – the instantiation stage, the interpretation stage and the generalisation stage – we did also define two other cognitive distortions: over-generalisation and mislabelling (Théorie des distorsions cognitives : la sur-généralisation et l’étiquetage, Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive, 2009). We currently extend this model to another classical cognitive distortion: personalisation.

This article is cited in:

  • Juliette Marty, Et si vous étiez trop perfectionniste ? Eyrolles, 2021

Theory of Cognitive Distortions: Personalisation

In Franceschi (2007), we set out to introduce several elements intended to contribute to a general theory of cognitive distortions. These elements are based on three fundamental notions: the reference class, the duality and the system of taxa. With the aid of these three elements, we could define within the same conceptual framework the general cognitive distortions such as dichotomous reasoning, disqualification of one pole, minimisation and maximisation, as well as requalification in the other pole and omission of the neutral. In the same way, we could describe as specific cognitive distortions: disqualification of the positive, selective abstraction and catastrophising. In Franceschi (2009), we introduced three levels of reasoning – the instantiation stage, the interpretation stage and the generalisation stage, which allowed to define within the same conceptual framework, two other classical cognitive distortions: over-generalisation and mislabelling. In the present paper, we set out to define and to situate in this conceptual framework another classical cognitive distortion: personalisation.

Personalisation constitutes one of but twelve classically defined cognitive distortions: emotional reasoning; over-generalisation; arbitrary inference; dichotomous reasoning; should statements; divination or mind-reading; selective abstraction; disqualification of the positive; maximisation/minimisation; catastrophising; personalisation; mislabelling (Ellis 1962, Beck 1964). Personalisation is usually defined as the fact of attributing unduly to oneself the cause of an external event. For example, seeing a person who laughs, the patient thinks that it is because of his/her physical appearance. Also, the patient makes himself/herself responsible for a negative event, in an unjustified way. If his/her companion then failed his/her examination, the patient estimates that is due to the fact that he/she is depressed. In what follows, we propose first to clarify the definition of personalisation and to situate it in the context of the theory of cognitive distortions (Franceschi 2007, 2009). Secondly, we set out to clarify the relationships existing between personalisation and several close notions mentioned in the literature: personalising bias (Langdon et al. 2006), ideas of reference (Startup & Startup 2005, Meyer & Lenzenweger 2009) and delusions of reference.

Personalisation and post hoc fallacy

We will set out first to highlight the mere structures of the cases of personalisation. Let us consider the aforementioned example where the patient sees a person who laughs and thinks that this one laughs because of the patient’s physical appearance. This constitutes an instance of personalisation. We can describe more accurately the reasoning which underlies such instance (in what follows, the symbol  denotes the conclusion):

(P11)in T1 I went for a walkpremiss1
(P12)in T2 the peasant started to laughpremiss2
(P13)∴ in T2 the peasant started to laugh because he saw that in T1 I went for a walkconclusion1
(P14)∴ in T2 the peasant made fun of meconclusion2

The patient puts here in relationship an internal event (“I went for a walk”) with an external event (“the peasant started to laugh”). He/she concludes then that the internal event is the cause of the external event. In this stage, the patient “personalises” an external event, which he/she considers to be the effect of an internal event, while this external event is in reality devoid of any relationship with the patient himself/herself. In a subsequent stage (P14), the patient interprets the previous conclusion (P13) by considering that the peasant made fun of him.

At this stage, it is worth wondering about the specific nature of the patient’s error of reasoning. It appears here that both premises (P11) and (P12) constitute genuine facts and therefore turn out to be true. On the other hand, the conclusion (P13) which concludes to the existence of a relation of causality between two consecutive events E1 (“In T1 I went for a walk”) and E2 (“In T2 the peasant started to laugh”) appears to be unjustified. Indeed, both premises are only establishing a relation of anteriority between the two consecutive facts E1 and E2. And the conclusion (P13) which deducts from it a relation of causality turns out therefore to be too strong. The argument proves here to be invalid and the corresponding reasoning is then fallacious. The corresponding error of reasoning, which concludes to a relation of causality whereas there is only a mere relation of anteriority, is classically termed post hoc fallacy, according to the Latin sentence “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc” (after this therefore because of this). It consists here of a very common error of reasoning, which is notably at the root of many superstitions (Martin 1998, Bressan 2002).

In this context, we can point out that the case of post hoc fallacy which has just been described as an argument of personalisation, also constitutes a case of arbitrary inference, another classically defined cognitive distortion.

Steps of instantiation, of interpretation and of generalisation at the level of the arguments of personalisation

At this step, it proves to be useful to draw a distinction between the levels of arguments that lead to personalisation as cognitive distortion. This leads to differentiate three levels within the arguments of personalisation, among the reasoning’ stages. The latter correspond respectively to three different functions: it consists of the successive stages of instanciation, of interpretation and of generalisation. To this end, it is useful to describe the whole reasoning which underlies the arguments of personalisation and which includes the three aforementioned stages:

(P11)in T1 I went for a walkpremiss11
(P12)in T2 the peasant started to laughpremiss12
(P13)∴ en T2 the peasant started to laugh because he saw that in T1 I went for a walkconclusion11
(P14)∴ in T2 the peasant made fun of meconclusion12
(P21)in T3 I was leafing through a magazine in the librarypremiss21
(P22)in T4, the librarian smirkedpremiss22
(P23)∴ en T4 the librarian smirked because in T3 I was leafing through a magazine in the libraryconclusion21
(P24)∴ in T4, the librarian made fun of meconclusion22
(P31)in T5 I did enter in the show-roompremiss31
(P32)in T6, my colleagues started to laughpremiss32
(P33)∴ in T6, my colleagues started to laugh because in T5 I did enter in the show-roomconclusion31
(P34)∴ in T6, my colleagues were laughing at meconclusion32
(…)
(P105)∴ people make fun of mefrom (P14)-(P104)

Here, the instances of the previous arguments (P11)-(P13), (P21)-(P23), (P31)-(P33), etc. constitute primary stages of arguments of personalisation, by which the patient considers that an event related to him/her is the cause of an external event. This type of argument corresponds to the stage of instantiation. As mentioned earlier, such argument is fallacious since it is based on post hoc fallacy. In a subsequent stage the function of which is interpretative, and that is aimed at making sense of the conclusions (P13), (P23), (P33), … of the instances of arguments of the previous type, the patient interprets it by concluding that some people made fun of him. Such conclusions (P14), (P24), (P34) appear to be grounded, inasmuch as the premisses (P13), (P23), (P33) are true. Finally, in a subsequent stage of generalisation, the patient enumerates some instances or circumstances where he/she thinks that people laughed or made fun of him/her ((P14), (P24), (P34), …) and generalises then to the conclusion (P105) according to which people make fun of him/her. This last stage is of an inductive nature, and corresponds to an enumerative induction, the structure of which is the following:

(P14)in T2 the peasant made fun of meconclusion12
(P24)in T4, the librarian made fun of meconclusion22
(P34)in T6, my colleagues were laughing at meconclusion32
(…)
(P105)∴ people make fun of mefrom (P14)-(P104)

Given what precedes, we can from now on provide a definition of personalisation. The preceding analysis leads then to distinguish between three stages in arguments of personalisation. At the level of primary arguments of personalisation (stage of instantiation), it consists of the tendency in the patient to establish an unjustified relation of causality between two events, among which one is external and the other one is internal to the patient. The patient personalises then, that is to say puts in relationship with himself/herself, an external event, which proves to be in reality devoid of any relation of causality. The mechanism which underlies such argument consists then of the erroneous attribution of a relation of causality, based on post hoc fallacy. At the level of secondary arguments of personalisation (stage of interpretation), the patient makes sense of the previous conclusion by concluding that at a given time, a person (or several persons) made fun of him, laughed at him, etc. Finally, at the level of arguments of ternary personalisation (stage of generalisation), the patient concludes that, in a general way, people make fun of him.

Personalisation and personalising bias

At this step, it proves to be useful to distinguish personalisation as cognitive distortion from personalising bias. The latter is defined as an attribution bias (“personalising attributional bias”), by whom the patient attributes to other persons rather than to circumstances the cause of a negative event (McKay & al. 2005, Langdon & al. 2006). Personalising bias is often related to polythematic delusions (Kinderman & Bentall 1997, Garety & Freeman 1999, McKay & al. 2005) met in schizophrenia.

Considering this definition, the difference between the two notions can be thus underlined: in personalisation as cognitive distortion, the patient attributes the cause of an external event to an event which concerns the patient himself/herself; on the other hand, in personalising bias the patient attributes the cause of an internal event to external persons. This allows to highlight several fundamental differences between the two notions. Firstly, in personalisation as cognitive distortion, the “person” is the patient himself/herself, while in personalising bias, it consist of external “persons”. Secondly, in the structure of personalisation, an internal event precedes an external event; by contrast, in the scheme of personalising bias, it is an external event which precedes an internal event. Finally, in personalisation as cognitive distortion, the internal event is indifferently of a positive, neutral or negative nature, whereas in personalising bias, the internal event is of a negative type. Hence, it finally proves to be that both notions appear fundamentally distinct.

Personalisation and ideas of reference

It appears also useful, for the sake of clarity, to specify the relationships between personalisation and ideas of reference. It is worth preliminary mentioning that one usually distinguishes between ideas of reference and delusions of reference (Dziegielewski 2002, p. 266). Ideas of reference characterise themselves by the fact that a patient considers that insignificant events relate to himself/herself, while is not the case in reality. For example, the patient hears several persons laugh, and considers, in an unjustified way, that the latter make fun of him/her. In parallel, delusions of reference constitute one of the most salient symptoms noticed in schizophrenia, and leads the patient to be persuaded that the media, television, or the radio speak about him/her or issue messages concerning him/her. Several criteria allow to draw a distinction between ideas of reference and delusions of reference. First, ideas of reference have much less impact on the patient’s life than reference delusions of reference. Second, the degree of conviction which is associated with ideas of reference is far lesser than with delusions of reference. Lastly, ideas of reference (“the neighbour made fun of me”) are related with beliefs the degree of plausibility of which is much stronger than the one which is inherent to delusions of reference (“newspapers speak about me”).

In this context, the aforementioned arguments of personalisation (P11)-(P14), (P21)-(P24), and (P31)-(P34), by whom the patient concludes that some people make fun of him, corresponds completely to the definition of ideas of reference. It appears then that personalisation, such as it was defined above as cognitive distortion, identifies itself with ideas of reference.

Personalisation and delusion of reference

One traditionally distinguishes at the level of polythematic delusions met in schizophrenia between: delusions of reference, delusions of influence, delusions of control, telepathy-like delusions, delusions of grandeur, and delusions of persecution. Delusions of reference leads for example the patient to believe with a very strong conviction that the media, the newspapers, the television speak about him/her.

It is worth describing here a mechanism which is susceptible to lead to the formation of delusions of reference. Such mechanism appears to be grounded on a reasoning (Franceschi 2008) which includes, as well as the above-mentioned primary instances of personalisation, a post hoc fallacy:

(DR11)in T1 I was drinking an appetizerpremiss11
(DR12)in T2 the presenter of the show said: “Stop drinking!”premiss12
(DR13)∴ in T2 the presenter of the show said: “Stop drinking!” because in T1 I was drinking an appetizerconclusion11
(DR14)∴ in T2 the presenter of the show spoke about meconclusion12

Consider also this second instance :

(DR21)in T3 I hardly got out of bedpremiss21
(DR22)in T4 the radio presenter said: “Be forceful:”premiss22
(DR23)∴ in T4 the radio presenter said: “Be forceful:” because in T3 I hardly got out of bedconclusion21
(DR24)∴ in T4 the radio presenter spoke about meconclusion22

At the level of the instantial step (DR11)-(DR13), (DR21)-(DR23), … the patient concludes here that an internal event is the cause of an external event. In a further interpretative stage, he/she interprets the conclusions (DR13), (DR23), … of the preceding arguments by considering that the presenters of radio or of television speak about him/her. Finally, in a generalisation step, of inductive nature, the patient enumerates the conclusions (DR14), (DR24), … of secondary arguments (interpretation stage) and generalises thus:

(DR14)∴ in T2 , the presenter of the show spoke about me
(DR24)∴ in T4, the radio presenter spoke about me
(…)
(DR105)∴ the media speak about meconclusion

It proves then that the structure of the mechanism which leads to the formation of delusions of reference thus described, is identical to that of the reasoning which leads to ideas of reference which is associated with personalisation as cognitive distortion.

Finally, it appears that the preceding developments allow to provide a definition of personalisation and to situate it in the context of cognitive distortions (Franceschi 2007, 2009). Personalisation is then likely to manifest itself at the level of primary, secondary or ternary pathogenic arguments, which correspond respectively to the stages of instantiation, of interpretation, and of generalisation. At the level of primary pathogenic arguments, corresponding to a function of instantiation, it consists of instances, the conclusions of which lead the patient to conclude in an unjustified way that some external events are caused by some of his/her actions. At the level of secondary pathogenic arguments, which correspond to a function of interpretation, personalisation takes the form of a reasoning by which the patient interprets the conclusion of primary pathogenic argument by concluding for example that people make fun of him/her. Finally, at the level of ternary pathogenic arguments, associated with a function of generalisation, the patient generalises from the conclusions of several secondary pathogenic arguments and concludes that, in a general way, people make fun of him/her.

Lastly, it appears that the previous definition of personalisation as cognitive distortion allows to describe precisely the relationships between personalisation and close notions such as personalising bias, ideas of reference and delusions of reference.

References

Beck A. Thinking and depression: Theory and therapy. Archives of General Psychiatry 1964; 10:561-571.

Bressan, P. The Connection Between Random Sequences, Everyday Coincidences, and Belief in the Paranormal. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 2002, 16, 17-34.

Dziegielewski, S. F. DSM-IV-TR in action, Wiley, New York, 2002.

Ellis A. Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy, Lyle Stuart, New York, 1962.

Franceschi P. Compléments pour une théorie des distorsions cognitives. Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive, 2007, 17-2, 84-88. English translation: http://cogprints.org/5261/

Franceschi P. Une défense logique du modèle de Maher pour les délires polythématiques. Philosophiques, 2008, 35-2, 451-475. English translation.

Franceschi P. Théorie des distorsions cognitives : la sur-généralisation et l’étiquetage. Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive, 2009, 19-4. English translation.

Garety, P., Freeman, D., 1999. Cognitive approaches to delusions: a critical review of theories and evidence. British Journal of Clinical Psychology 38, 113-154.

Langdon R., Cornera T., McLarena J., Wardb P. & Coltheart M., 2006, Externalizing and personalizing biases in persecutory delusions: The relationship with poor insight and theory-of-mind, Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44:699-713

Kinderman, P., Bentall, R., 1997. Causal attributions in paranoia and depression: internal, personal, and situational attributions for negative events. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 106 (2), 341- 345.

Martin, B. Coincidences: Remarkable or random. Skeptical Inquirer, 1998, 22-5, 23-27.

McKay, R., Langdon, R. & Coltheart, 2005. M. Paranoia, persecutory delusions and attributional biases, Psychiatry Research, 136, 233–245

Meyer, E., Lenzenweger, M., 2009. The specificity of referential thinking: A comparison of schizotypy and social anxiety, Psychiatry Research, 165, 78-87.

Startup, M., Startup, S., 2005. On two kinds of delusion of reference, Psychiatry Research ,137, 87-92.

Theory of Cognitive Distortions: Application to Generalised Anxiety Disorder

English translation and postprint (with additional illustrations) of a paper published in French under the title “Théorie des distorsions cognitives : application à l’anxiété généralisée” in the Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive, 2008, 18, pp. 127-131.
This article follows the contribution to the general theory of cognitive distortions exposed in “Complements to a theory of cognitive distorsions” (Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive, 2007). The elements described, namely the reference class, the duality and the system of taxa, are applied here to generalised anxiety disorder. On the one hand, these elements allow to describe the cognitive distortions which are specific to generalised anxiety disorder, consistent with recent work emphasising the role played uncertain situations relative to future events. On the second hand, they allow to define a type of structured reasoning, of inductive nature, which leads to the formation and maintenance of anxious ideas.

This paper is cited in:

  • Étude des profils de distorsion cognitive en fonction des états anxieux et dépressifs chez des adultes tout-venant, Anita Robert, Nicolas Combalbert, Valérie Pennequin, Annales Médico-psychologiques, revue psychiatrique, Volume 176-3, 2018, pages 225-230
  • Deperrois Romain & Nicolas Combalbert, Links between cognitive distortions and cognitive emotion regulation strategies in non-clinical young adulthood, in Psychological Applications and Trends, Eb. by C. Pracana & M. Wang, InScience Press, 2019
  • Nawal Ouhmad, Nicolas Combalbert, Wissam El-Hage, Cognitive distortions and emotion regulation among post traumatic stress disorder victims, in Psychological Applications and Trends, Eb. by C. Pracana & M. Wang, InScience Press, 2019
  • A.Robert, N.Combalbert, V.Pennequin, R.Deperrois, N.Ouhmad, Création de l’Échelle de Distorsions Cognitives pour adultes (EDC-A) : étude des propriétés psychométriques en population générale et association avec l’anxiété et la dépression, Psychologie Française, 2021

Theory of Cognitive Distortions: Application to Generalised Anxiety Disorder

In Franceschi (2007), we set out to introduce several elements intended to contribute to a general theory of cognitive distortions. These elements are based on three basic notions: the reference class, the duality and the system of taxa. With the help of these three elements, we could define within the same conceptual framework the general cognitive distortions such as dichotomous reasoning, the disqualification of one pole, minimisation and maximisation, as well as the requalification in the other pole and the omission of the neutral. In addition, we could describe as specific cognitive distortions: the disqualification of the positive, selective abstraction and catastrophism.

In what follows, we offer to extend this work by applying it in a specific way to generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), in order to allow their use within cognitive therapy. The present study inserts itself in the context of recent work (Butler & Mathews 1983, 1987, Dalgleish et al. 1997), which notably underlined the major role played, in the context of GAD, by indeterminate situations, and especially by uncertain situations relating to future events. Recent developments, emphasising especially the intolerance with regard to indeterminate future situations, echoed this (Dugas et al. 2004, Canterbury et al. 2004, Carleton et al. 2007).

We shall be interested successively in two main forms of reasoning likely to occur in the context of GAD: on the one hand, the cognitive distortions which are specific to GAD; on the other hand, a structured argument relating to GAD and grounded on inductive logic, which is likely to include one or several of the aforementioned cognitive distortions.

Cognitive distortions in the context of generalized anxiety disorder

The optimal system of taxa

The conceptual framework defined in Franceschi (2007) is based on three fundamental elements: the duality, the reference class, and the system of taxa, which allow to define the general cognitive distortions. These three notions also allow to describe the specific cognitive distortions which are applicable to GAD. In this context, as we will see it, the reference class for the latter specific cognitive distortions identifies itself with the class of future events of the patient’s life. Moreover, the duality assimilates itself to the Positive/Negative duality. Finally, for the sake of the present discussion, we shall make use of the system of taxa (its choice is more or less arbitrary) described in Franceschi (2007), which includes 11 taxa, denoted by E1 to E11, where E6 denotes the neutral taxon. Such conceptual framework allows then to define the specific cognitive distortions in the context of GAD. We offer to examine them in turn.

Dichotomous reasoning

Dichotomous reasoning

An instance of dichotomous reasoning related to GAD consists for the patient to only consider future events from the viewpoint of the extreme taxa corresponding to each pole of the Positive/Negative duality. Hence, the patient only considers future events which present either a very positive, or a very negative nature. All other events, being either neutral, positive or negative to a lesser degree, are thus ignored. This type of reasoning can be analysed as an instance of dichotomous reasoning, applied to the class of the events of the patient’s future life and to the Positive/Negative duality.

Disqualification of one pole

The disqualification of one pole

An instance of the disqualification of one pole related to GAD consists for the patient to only envisage, among future events likely to occur, those which present a negative nature. The patient tends then to be unaware of positive future events that could happen, by considering that they do not count, for this or that reason. In the present context, this type of reasoning can be analysed as an instance of disqualification of one pole, applied to the reference class of the events of the patient’s future life and to the Positive/Negative duality, i.e. disqualification of the positive.

Arbitrary focus on a given modality

Arbitrary focus

In GAD, a typical instance of arbitrary focus, consists for the patient to focus on a possible future event, the nature of which turns out to be negative. This can be analysed as focusing on one of the taxa of the Positive/Negative duality, at the level of the class of the future events of the patient’s life.

Omission of the neutral

Omission of the neutral

A specific instance for GAD consists for the patient to be completely unaware of possible future events the nature of which is neutral, i.e. those which are neither positive nor negative.

Requalification into the other pole

Requalifcation into the other pole

In the context of GAD, the corresponding cognitive distortion consists in requalifying as negative a possible future event, whereas it should be considered objectively as positive. Such cognitive distortion consists of a requalification in the other pole applied to the reference class of the future events of the patient’s life and to the Positive/Negative duality, i.e. requalification in the negative.

Minimisation or maximisation

Maximisation and minimisation

A specific instance of minimisation applied to GAD consists for the patient to consider some possible future events as less positive than they truly are in reality. With maximisation, the patient considers some possible future events as more negative than they objectively are.

Primary, secondary and tertiary anxiogenous arguments

At this stage, it is worth also considering a certain type of reasoning, likely to be met in GAD, which can include several instances of the aforementioned cognitive distortions. This type of reasoning presents an anxiogenous nature, because it leads the patient to predict that a future event of negative nature is going to occur. Such reasoning is underlain by a structure which presents an inductive nature. Before analysing in detail the different steps of the corresponding reasoning, it is worth describing preliminarily its internal structure. The latter is the following (in what follows, the symbol ∴ denotes the conclusion):

(1) the event E1 of negative nature did occur to mepremiss
(2) the event E2 of negative nature did occur to mepremiss
(3) the event E3 of negative nature did occur to mepremiss
(…)premiss
(10) the event E10 of negative nature did occur to mepremiss
(11) all events that occur to me are of negative naturefrom (1)-(10)
(12) « I am always unlucky », « I am ill-fated »from (11)
(13) the future event E11 of negative nature may occurpremiss
(14) ∴ the future event E11 of negative nature will occurfrom (11), (13)

The essence of such reasoning is of a logically inductive nature. The patient enumerates then some events of his/her past or present life, the nature of which he/she considers as negative. He/she reaches then by generalisation the conclusion according to which all events that which occur to him/her are negative. From this generalisation, he/she infers a prediction relating to a future event, likely to happen, which he/she considers as negative. The patient is thus led to the anxiogenous conclusion that an event of negative nature is going to occur.

In such reasoning, it is worth pointing out that the reference class identifies itself with the class of past, present and future events, of the patient’s life. Typically, in this type of reasoning, the generalisation is grounded on present or past events, while a future event is the object of the corresponding inductive prediction. This is different from the reference class applicable to the cognitive distortions mentioned above, where the reference class identifies itself exclusively with the future events of the patient’s life.

At this stage, it proves to be necessary to identify the fallacious steps in the patient’s reasoning, to allow their use in cognitive therapy of GAD. To this end, we can differentiate several steps in the structure of the corresponding reasoning. It proves indeed that some steps are valid arguments (an argument is valid when its conclusion is true if its premises are true), while others are invalid. For this purpose, it is worth drawing within this type of reasoning, a distinction between primary, secondary or ternary anxiogenous arguments.

Primary anxiogenous arguments

The first step in the type of aforementioned reasoning, consists for the patient to think to a past negative event, in the following way:

(1) the event E1 of negative nature did occur to me

It is however possible to describe more accurately the corresponding cognitive process, under the form of an argument that we can term a primary anxiogenous argument, the structure of which is the following:

(1a) the event E1 did occur to me
(1b) the event E1 was of negative nature
(1) ∴ the event E1 of negative nature did occur to mefrom (1a), (1b)

By such cognitive process, the patient is led to the conclusion that some negative event did occur to him/her. This type of argument proves to be entirely valid inasmuch as the event in question presents well, objectively, a negative nature. However, it can also turn out to be invalid, if the event in question presents, objectively, a positive (or neutral) nature. What is then defective in this type of reasoning, is the fact that premise (1b) turns then out to be false. Such can notably be the case for example if the patient makes use of a cognitive distortion such as requalification in the negative. In such case, the patient considers then as negative an event the nature of which is objectively positive.

Secondary anxiogenous arguments

Anxiogenous secondary arguments are constituted, at the level of the above-mentioned reasoning, of the part that takes into account the instances (1)-(10) and proceeds then by generalisation. The patient counts thus some instances of events that did occur to him/her, the nature of which he/she considers as negative, and concludes that all events that did occur to him/her were negative, in the following way:

(1) the event E1 of negative nature did occur to me
(2) the event E2 of negative nature did occur to me
(…)
(10) the event E10 of negative nature did occur to me
(11) ∴all events that occur to me are of negative naturefrom (1)-(10)

Such generalisation may constitute a fully valid argument. For the resulting generalisation constitutes a fully correct inductive reasoning, if the premises (1)-(10) are true. However, such type of reasoning is most often defective from two different viewpoints, thus distorting the conclusion which results from it. Above all, as we have did just see it, some past events of positive nature can have been counted among the number of negative events, by the effect of a requalification in the negative. In that case, the enumeration of instances includes then some false premises, thus invalidating the resulting generalisation. Secondly, some past or present positive (or neutral) events can have been omitted in the corresponding enumeration. Such omission can result from the use of some cognitive distortions, such as disqualification of the positive. In such case, the relevant class of reference consisting in present and past events of the patient’s life is only taken into account in a partial or erroneous way. The corresponding reasoning remains then logically valid, but proves to be incorrect, since it takes into account only partly the relevant instances within the reference class, that of the present and past events of the patient’s life.

As we see it finally, the patient proceeds then to a reconstruction of the relevant reference class which proves to be erroneous, due to the use of the following specific cognitive distortions: requalification in the negative and disqualification of the positive (and possibly, omission of the neutral). The corresponding type of reasoning is illustrated on the figure below:

A series of events of the patient’s life, seen (objectively) from the optimal system of taxa
 After omission of the neutral
 After requalification in the negative
After disqualification of the positive Conclusion: «All events that occur to me are negative »
Incorrect construction of the reference class for induction, after omission of the neutral, requalification in the negative, and then disqualification of the positive

Such mechanism, as we did see it, illustrates how the formation of anxious ideas is made. However; a mechanism of the same nature is also likely to contribute to their maintenance. For once the generalisation (11) according to which all events which occur to the patient are of negative nature, has been established by means of the above reasoning, its maintenance is made as soon as an event occurs which confirms this latter generalisation. When a new negative event indeed happens, the patient concludes from it that it confirms generalisation (11). Such mechanism, at the stage of the maintenance of anxious ideas, constitutes a confirmation bias. For the patient only counts those events of negative nature related to him/her that confirm indeed the generalisation (11), but without taking into account those events of positive nature which occur to him/her and that would then disconfirm the idea according to which all events which occur to him/her are of negative nature.

Ternary anxiogenous arguments

Lastly, it is worth mentioning the role played by ternary anxiogenous arguments which consist, at the level of the aforementioned reasoning, in the following sequence:

(11) ∴all events that occur to me are of negative nature

(12) ∴« I am always unlucky », « I am ill-fated »

It consists here of an argument which follows the conclusion of the secondary anxiogenous argument (11), and which, by an additional step (12), aims at interpreting it, at making sense of it. The patient interprets here the fact that the events which occur to him/her are negative, due to the fact that he/she is unlucky, ill-fated.

As we did see it, the interest of drawing a distinction between three types of arguments resides in the fact that each of them has a specific function: the primary stage proceeds by enumerating the instances, the secondary stage operates by generalisation, and the ternary stage, lastly, proceeds by interpretation (Franceschi 2008).

The present study, as we see it, extends recent work (Butler and Mathews on 1987, Dalgleish et al. 1997) emphasising the role played, in GAD, by anticipations concerning indeterminate situations related to future events. In this context, the specific cognitive distortions as well as a reasoning of an inductive structure, contribute then to the vicious circle (Sgard et al. 2006), which results from the process of formation and maintenance of the anxious state.

References

Butler G & Matews A. Cognitive processes in anxiety. Advances in Behaviour Research and Therapy 1983 ; 5 : 51-62.

Butler G & Matews A. Anticipatory anxiety and risk perception. Cognitive Therapy and Research 1987 ; 11 : 551-565.

Carleton R, Norton M & Aslundson G. Fearing the unknown: A short version of the Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale. Journal of Anxiety Disorders 2007 ; 21-1 : 105-117.

Canterbury R, Golden A, Taghavi R, Neshat-Doost H, Moradi A & Yule W. Anxiety and judgements about emotional events in children and adolescents. Personality and Individual Differences 2004 ; 36 : 695-704.

Dalgleish T, Taghavi R, Neshat-Doost H, Moradi A, Yule W & Canterbury R. Information processing in clinically depressed and anxious children and adolescents. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 1997 ; 38 : 535-541.

Dugas M, Buhr K & Ladouceur R. The role of intolerance of uncertainty in etiology and maintenance. In R. Heimberg, C. Turk, & D. Mennin (Eds.). Generalized anxiety disorder: Advances in research and practice. Guilford, New York, 2004(143-163).

Franceschi P. Compléments pour une théorie des distorsions cognitives. Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive 2007 ; 17-2 : 84-88. English translation.

Franceschi P. Une défense logique du modèle de Maher pour les délires polythématiques. Philosophiques 2008 ; 35-2 : 451-475. English translation.

Sgard F, Rusinek S, Hautekeete M & Graziani P. Biais anxieux de perception des risques. Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive 2006 ; 16-1 : 12-15.

Complements to a Theory of Cognitive Distortions

English preprint of a paper published in French under the title “Compléments pour une théorie des distorsions cognitives”, in the Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive, 2007, 17-2, pp. 84-88.

The purpose of this study is to describe a conceptual framework for cognitive distortions, which notably allows to specify more accurately their intrinsic relationships. This conceptual framework aims at inserting itself within the apparatus of cognitive therapy and of critical thinking. The present analysis is based on the following fundamental concepts: the reference class, the duality and the system of taxa. With the help of these three notions, each cognitive distortion can be defined. A distinction is also made between, on the one hand, general cognitive distortions and on the other hand, specific cognitive distortions. The present model allows then to define within the same conceptual framework the general cognitive distortions such as dichotomous reasoning, disqualifying a given pole, minimisation and maximisation. It also allows to describe as specific cognitive distortions: disqualifying the positive, selective abstraction and catastrophism. Furthermore, the present model predicts the existence of two other general cognitive distortions: the omission of the neutral and requalifying in the other pole.


This paper is cited in:

  • Paul Franceschi, Théorie des distorsions cognitives : application à l’anxiété généralisée, Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive, Volume 18, Issue 4, December 2008, Pages 127-131, English translation
  • Paul Franceschi, Théorie des distorsions cognitives : la sur-généralisation et l’étiquetage, Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive, Volume 19, Issue 4, December 2009, Pages 136-140, English translation
  • Pramod Pandey, On the Nature of Reason in the present-day research, in Hasnain, Imtiaz, S. and Chaudhary, S. C. (eds.), Problematizing Language Studies: Cultural, Theoretical and Applied Perspectives- Essays in Honour of of Rama Kant Agnihotri. New Delhi: Aakar Books. Pp. 387-97, 2010.
  • Paul Franceschi, Traitement cognitif différentiel des délires oolythématiques et du trouble anxieux généralisé, Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive, Volume 21, Issue 4, November 2011, Pages 121-125, English translation
  • Lisa Wake, Karl Nielsen, Nandana Nielsen & Catalin Zaharia, Depression symptom clusters, in “The Clinical Effectiveness of Neurolinguistic Programming”, Routledge 2013, edited by Lisa Wake, Richard M. Gray and Frank S. Bourke
  • Masoumeh Nozari, Ali Razipour Jouybari, Azam Nozari, Roya Raoufi Ahmad (2013) The Relationship between Moral Intelligence and Cognitive Distortions among Employees, Journal of Basic and Applied Scientific Research, 3(9), pages 345-348.
  • Lizet Fernandez-Jammet, Evaluation longitudinale de l’efficacité d’une prise en charge cognitivo-comportementale de groupe destinée à des patients atteints de fibromyalgie, dissertation doctorale, 2016
  • Hélène Richard-Lepouriel, Trouble bipolaire, auto-stigmatisation et restructuration cognitive : une première tentative de prise en charge, Journal de Thérapie Comportementale et Cognitive, Volume 27-4, November 2017, Pages 177-183
  • Valérie Pennequin & Nicolas Combalbert, L’influence des biais cognitifs sur l’anxiété chez des adultes non cliniques, Annales Médico-psychologiques, Volume 175, Issue 2, February 2017, Pages 103-107
  • Anita Robert, Nicolas Combalbert, Valérie Pennequin, Etude des profils de distorsion cognitive en fonction des états anxieux et dépressifs chez des adultes tout-venant, Annales Médico-Psychologiques 176 (2018) 225–230
  • Nawal Ouhmad, Nicolas Combalbert, Wissam El-Hage, Cognitive distortions and emotion regulation among post traumatic stress disorder victims, in Psychological Applications and Trends, Ed. by C. Pracana & M. Wang, InScience Press, 2019
  • Paul Franceschi, For a Typology of Auditory Verbal Hallucinations Based on their Content, Activitas Nervosa Superior, volume 62, pages 104–109, 2020
  • A.Robert, N.Combalbert, V.Pennequin, R.Deperrois, N.Ouhmad, Création de l’Échelle de Distorsions Cognitives pour adultes (EDC-A) : étude des propriétés psychométriques en population générale et association avec l’anxiété et la dépression, Psychologie Française, 2021
  • Deperrois Romain & Nicolas Combalbert, Links between cognitive distortions and cognitive emotion regulation strategies in non-clinical young adulthood, in Psychological Applications and Trends, Ed. by C. Pracana & M. Wang, InScience Press, 2021
  • Ouhmad, Nawal & El-Hage, Wissam & Combalbert, Nicolas. (2022), Maladaptive cognitions and emotional regulation in PTSD, 3-7, Conference: International Psychological Applications Conference and Trend, doi:10.36315/2022.

Complements to a Theory of Cognitive Distortions

Paul FRANCESCHI

The cognitive distortions, introduced by Aaron Beck (1963, 1964) and Albert Ellis (1962) are traditionally defined as fallacious reasoning that plays a crucial role in the emergence of certain mental disorders. The cognitive therapy in particular is based on the identification of these cognitive distortions within the everyday way of thinking of the patient, and their replacement by alternative reasoning. Traditionally, the cognitive distortions are represented as one of the twelve following irrational modes of reasoning: 1. Emotional reasoning 2. Overgeneralization 3. Jumping to conclusions (or arbitrary inference) 4. Dichotomous reasoning 5. Should statements (Ellis 1962) 6. Fortune telling or mind reading 7. Selective abstraction 8. Disqualifying the positive 9. Maximisation and minimisation 10. Catastrophism 11. Personalisation 12. Labelling.

Under their classical form which is that of an enumeration, the cognitive distortions plays a central role within the field of cognitive therapy. Considering also their widespread nature in normal reasoning, one can think however that an accurate understanding of the cognitive distortions proves also to be useful outside the field of psychopathology. In particular, the cognitive distortions can also be seen as part of the apparatus which constitutes critical thinking. For these reasons, it appears that a conceptual framework, notably allowing to define the relationships between the different cognitive distortions, could also turn out to be useful. In what follows, we shall set out to present a general theory of the cognitive distortions, which brings a certain number of supplementary elements in comparison with classical theory.

1. Main notions

The present framework allows to represent several classical cognitive distortions: dichotomous reasoning, disqualification of one of the poles, selective abstraction, minimisation and maximisation. To these, one can add two other cognitive distortions of which the present model allows to predict the existence and which are closely related to the classical cognitive distortions, although they do not appear, to the knowledge of the author, to the number of these last. It consists of the omission of the neutral and the requalification in the other pole.

The cognitive distortions can be constructed, in the present model, from three main notions: the reference class,the duality and the system of taxa. It is necessary, in a preliminary way, to set out to describe these three notions. The reference class, above all, is constituted by a group of phenomena or objects. Several examples can be given here: the class composed of the events and facts of the patient’s life; the class of the future events of the patient’s life; the class constituted by all the parts of the patient’s body; the class which is made up of the patient’s character’s traits.

The notion of duality, second, corresponds to a pair of concepts such as Positive/Negative, Internal/External, Collective/Individual, Nice/Ugly, etc. A duality corresponds then to a criterion under the angle of which the elements of the reference class can be considered or evaluated. Let us denote by A/Ā a given duality, where A and Ā constitute then dual concepts. An enumeration (necessarily partial) of the dualities is as follows: Positive/Negative, Internal/External, Quantitative/Qualitative, Visible/Invisible, Analytical/synthetic, Absolute/Relative, Abstract/Concrete, Static/Dynamic, Unique/Multiple, Aesthetics/Practice, Definite/Vague, Finite/Infinite, Simple/Composite, Individual/Collective, Implicit/Explicit, Intentional/Unintentional.

Finally, thepatient’s system of taxa consists of a taxonomy which allows the patient to evaluate and to classify the elements of the reference class, according to the criterion corresponding to a given duality A/Ā. These taxa can be considered as “what can see” the patient. It consists of a system of values that is inherent to the patient or of a filter through which the patient “sees” the elements of the reference class, i.e. the phenomena or the objects of reality. The figure below represents an optimal system of taxa.

Fig.1. The optimal system of taxa

This last is composed of 11 spheres which represent each a given taxon. The system of taxa is optimal, because all taxa are present. On the other hand, if the patient does not have some taxa, he cannot see nor count the corresponding elements. For example, if he/she lacks the taxa of the duality A/Ā corresponding to pole A, he cannot see the corresponding elements. In the same way, if the patient has no neutral taxon in his/her system of taxa, he cannot see the neutral elements of the reference class. More formally, let us consider then a series of n elements E1, E2, …, En such that each of them has, in a objective way, a degree d[Ei] in a duality A/Ā comprised between -1 and 1 (d Î [-1, +1]). We can consider then a series including 11 elements, E1, E2, …, E11, which present an objective increasing degree (the choice of 11 elements is here arbitrary, and any other number would also do the job). Let us pose then: d[E1] = -1, d[E2] = -4/5, d[E3] = -3/5, d[E4] = -2/5, d[E5] = -1/5, d[E6] = 0, d[E7] = 1/5, d[E8] = 2/5, d[E9] = 3/5, d[E10] = 4/5, d[E11] = 1. Let us also define a subjective degree D[Ei] such that it is attributed by the patient to each of the Ei. So, E1-E5 corresponds to the pole A of duality A/Ā, E6 to the neutral taxon and E7-E11 corresponds to the pole Ā. Moreover, this optimal system of taxa can be assimilated with one Likert scale with 11 degrees.

At this stage, we are in a position to define the main cognitive distortions, and it is worth considering them in turn. The cognitive distortions can be defined as a type of reasoning which leads to favour, without objective grounds, a subset of the taxa applicable to a given duality A/Ā, in order to qualify a given reference class. It also proves to be useful to draw a distinction, in a preliminary way, between the general cognitive distortions and the specific cognitive distortions. The general cognitive distortions relate to all reference classes and all dualities. By contrast, the specific cognitive distortions are mere instances of the general cognitive distortions which are inherent to a given reference class and to a given duality.

2. The cognitive distortions

2.1 Dichotomous reasoning

In the present context, dichotomous reasoning (or all-or-nothing thinking) can be defined as a general cognitive distortion which leads the patient to consider a given reference class only according to the two extreme taxa which relate to every pole of a given duality. With this type of reasoning, the patient ignores completely the presence of degrees or of intermediate steps. In his/her taxa system, the patient has as well the two extreme taxa corresponding to poles A and Ā. The defect in that way of considering things is that facts or objects corresponding to intermediary taxa are not taken into account. So it results from it a reasoning without nuances nor gradation, which proves to be maladapted to properly apprehend the diversity of human situations. Formally, dichotomous reasoning consists in taking into account only the elements of the reference class such as|d[Ei]| = 1, ord[E1] = 1 ord[E11] = -1, by ignoring all the others.

Fig. 2. Dichotomous reasoning

2.2 The disqualification of one of the poles

In the present model, the disqualification of one of the poles is the general cognitive distortion which leads to grant an arbitrary priority in one of the poles of a given duality, in order to qualify the elements of a reference class. It consists then in the fact of attributing more importance to one of the poles rather than to the other one, in the lack of objective motivation. The taxa corresponding to one of the poles of a given duality are lacking in the patient’s system of taxa. So, the patient sees things only through the prism of pole A (respectively Ā), by ignoring completely the viewpoint of the opposed pole Ā (respectively A). Formally, the disqualification of one of the poles leads to consider only the Ei such that d[Ei] ≤ (respectivelyd[Ei] ≥ 0), by ignoring any events such thatd[Ei] > 0 (respectivelyd[Ei] < 0).

Fig. 3. The disqualification of one of the poles

An instance of the disqualification of one of the poles consists in the disqualification of the positive. This last can be analysed, in the present context, as a specific instance of the disqualification of one of the poles, which applies to the Positive/Negative duality and to the reference class including the facts and events of the patient’s life. The patient tends then to ignore positive events, by considering that they do not count, for any reason. Such instance finds to apply in the cognitive therapy of depression.

Another instance of the disqualification of one of the poles also applies to the Positive/Negative duality and to the reference class which comprises the character’s traits of the patient. This one completely ignores his/her positive character’s traits (qualities) and only directs his/her attention to his/her negative character’s traits (defects). This encourages then him/her to conclude that he/she “is worth nothing”, that he/she is “a failure”. Such instance also applies in the cognitive therapy of depression.

2.3 Arbitrary focusing on a given modality

Another type of cognitive general distortion consists in arbitrary focusing on a modality of a given duality. In the present context, this type of general cognitive distortion leads to favour one taxon in the patient’s system of taxa, by ignoring all the others. In arbitrary focusing, the taxon being discussed is present in the patient’s system of taxa, and is affected to an unique element of the reference class. There is eclipsing (in general temporary) of others taxa and other elements of the reference class, so that the patient is haunted by this specific element.

Fig. 4. Arbitrary focusing

A particular instance of this type of general cognitive distortion, relates to the reference class of the facts of the patient’s life, and to the Positive/Negative duality. It is a specific cognitive distortion, which consists in focusing on a negative event of the patient’s life. It is then one of the classical cognitive distortions, defined as selective abstraction (Mental filter), which consists in the fact of choosing one detail with a negative connotation and to focalise on it. Suchlike, the patient sees only this detail, and his/her vision{view} of reality is darkened because it is entirely tinted with this particular event. Such instance applies in the cognitive therapy of depression.

One can also mention another instance of arbitrary focusing, which also applies to the Positive/Negative duality, but relates to the class of reference composed of the hypothetical future events of the patient’s life. In that case, the patient focalises on the possible happening of a very negative event. Such instance finds to apply in the cognitive therapy of generalised anxiety disorder.

Another specific instance of arbitrary focusing applies to the Nice/Ugly duality and to a reference class which identifies itself with all the parts of the patient’s body. The patient focalises then on a detail of his/her anatomy which he considers to be ugliness. The patient has well, in his/her system of taxa the Ugly taxon in question. Moreover, he/she affects this taxon to an unique part of his/her body, while all the others taxa are temporarily eclipsed. Such specific cognitive distortion finds to apply in the cognitive therapy of body dysmorphic disorder (Neziroglu and Yaryura-Tobias 1993, Veale and Riley 2001, Veale 2004).

2.4 The omission of the neutral

The present model also leads to predict the existence of another type of general cognitive distortion, which consists in the omission of the neutral. This latter cognitive distortion results from the absence, in the patient’s system of taxa, of the neutral taxon. It follows that the elements of the reference class which can objectively be defined as neutral with regard to a given duality A/Ā, are not taken into account by the patient. Formally, the patient omits to consider the Ei such that d[Ei] = 0. The omission of the neutral sometimes plays an important role, notably when there is a gaussian distribution of the elements of the reference class, where the elements objectively corresponding to the neutral taxon are precisely those which are the most numerous.

Fig. 5. The omission of the neutral

2.5 The requalification in the other pole

The present model also leads to predict the existence of another type of general cognitive distortion. That is the reasoning which consists in re-qualifying an event belonging to a given duality A, in the other duality Ā. Formally, the subjective degree attributed by the patient to a given event E is the opposite of its objective degree, so that: D[E] = (-1) x d[E].

Fig. 6. The requalification into the other pole

A characteristic instance of requalification in the other pole consists in the specific cognitive distortion which applies to the class of the events of the patient’s life and to the Positive/Negative duality. This consists typically in re-describing as negative an event which should be objectively considered as positive. By requalifying positive events in a negative way, the patient can reach the conclusion that all events of his/her life are of a negative nature. For instance, by considering the past events of his/her life, the patient notes that he/she made no act of violence. He/she considers this to be “suspect”. This type of instance also finds to apply within the cognitive therapy of depression.

Another instance of requalification in the other pole consists in the specific cognitive distortion which applies to the class of the parts of the patient’s body and to the Nice/Ugly duality. Typically, the patient re-qualifies as “ugly” a part of his/her body which is objectively “nice”. Such specific cognitive distortion relates to the cognitive therapy of body dysmorphic disorder.

2.6 Minimisation and maximisation

This general cognitive distortion consists in attributing to an element of the reference class, a taxon according to the criterion of a duality A/Ā which proves to be lower (minimisation) or greater (maximisation) than its objective value. It consists here of a classical cognitive distortion. The subjective degree D[E] which is attributed by the patient to an event E differs significantly from its objective degree d[E]. In minimisation, this subjective degree is distinctly less than, so that |D[E]| < |d[E]|. In maximisation, by contrast, the subjective degree is distinctly greater, such that |D[E]| > |d[E]|.

Fig. 7. Maximisation and minimisation

A specific instance of minimisation relates to the class of the facts of the patient’s life and to the Positive/Negative duality. The patient tends to consider certain facts of his/her existence as less positive than they in reality are. In maximisation, he/she considers certain facts of his/her life as more negative than they really are. In the present context, the classical cognitive distortion of catastrophism (or dramatisation) can be considered as a specific cognitive distortion, which consists of a maximisation applied to the negative pole of the Positive/Negative duality. The patient attributes then a subjective degree D[E] in the Positive/Negative duality to an event, while the absolute value of its objective degree d[E] is very distinctly lesser. Such instance applies to the cognitive therapy of depression.

3. Conclusion

As we see it, the present theory provides several elements, in comparison with classical theory, that allow to define and to classify the classical cognitive distortions, within the same conceptual framework. These last are considered, either as general cognitive distortions, or as specific cognitive distortions, i.e. as instances of the general cognitive distortions which relate to a given reference class and duality. Thus, dichotomous reasoning, maximisation and minimisation constitute general cognitive distortions. In addition, disqualification of the positive, selective abstraction, selective negative focus and catastrophism constitute then specific cognitive distortions. Besides, the present analysis allowed to describe two additional general cognitive distortions: the omission of the neutral and the requalification in the other pole.

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