Thinking Errors

thinking errors

Thinking errors are the distortions that most of us make when evaluating information that affects us on a personal level. When made, we mistake these errors for a realistic evaluation of the situation and they go on to fuel the emotions and drive us further away from logic. Unfortunately, the stronger we feel about something, the more we want to believe it irrespective of the damage it is doing to us. We then feel that the situation has caused us the consternation when, truth be told, it is the way we have processed the goings on. Thinking errors play a significant role in the onset and maintenance of many of the troublesome psychological conditions we endure including stress, anxiety and depression.

Learning what the thinking errors are, identifying them quickly and then challenging them can change the way we think almost completely. Given time and practice we will find these challenges easier to make and more comfortable, happy that our first thoughts and impressions aren’t necessarily correct and eventually we will even begin to make fewer of them.

The classic list of thinking errors comes from the psychotherapist, Aaron Beck. Beck is one of the leading lights in the world of cognitive behavioural therapy and amongst many other works wrote Cognitive Therapy of Depression alongside colleagues, Rush, Shaw and Emery. It remains a must read for all cognitive and behavioural therapists and sits proudly on my own bookshelf, coming down once again for this article.


In their book, Beck et al, identify thinking errors as faulty information processing.  They list 6 errors. These are:

  1. Arbitrary Inference
  2. Selective Abstraction
  3. Overgeneralization
  4. Magnification and Minimization
  5. Personalization
  6. Absolutistic Thinking

As models have developed over the interceding decades a number of changes have occurred which have made them a little more user friendly. We may refer to Arbitrary Inference as Jumping to Conclusions. Added to the list would be Emotional Reason and Catastrophising. It can be a good idea to recognize where we Label and Mislabel and indeed when we Disqualify the Positives.

Self help models for most psychological conditions will add a list of thinking errors. Some of these will be named slightly differently and some will have greater emphasis but the message is always the same – change the way you think and you will change the way you feel. Change the way you feel and you will change the way you react. Change the way you react and you send out a strong message to yourself that you are better at dealing with life’s difficulties now than you once were! Recognizing and challenging thinking errors creates a virtuous cycle and gets us off the treadmill of viciousness we have previously walked unchecked.

In Rick Norris’s book, Think Yourself Happy, nine thinking errors are identified. These are:

  1. All or Nothing Thinking
  2. Over Generalisation
  3. Disqualifying the Positives
  4. Magnification and Minimisation
  5. Jumping to Conclusions
  6. Emotional Reason
  7. Labelling and Mislabelling
  8. Personalisation
  9. Should Statements

You can see the similarities between Beck’s list and Rick’s and hopefully you will see how the language might have changed but the philosophy remains the same.

After following a programme of challenging one’s thinking errors we find it becomes much more easy to accept that our first thoughts might not be 100% valid, we appreciate the grey areas more and become more flexible and philosophical in our outlook.


In the next article in the series, we will begin to examine in greater detail how thinking errors affect us, some classic examples of thinking errors and how we can begin to challenge them.

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