As a trainee Probation Officer, and then later (during my initial years of working with offenders post qualification) one commonly used phrase I kept hearing was “Cognitive Distortions”. It was actually only much later on, if I am being honest, and after much research, that I felt confident of being completely sure about what they are, and how to spot them. So with that in mind, what are cognitive distortions? And, how do you spot them when working with offenders?
The idea of Cognitive Distortions was first proposed by Aaron Beck (1979) but then adapted for popularised use by David Burns (1980). In a very simplistic way, I like to interpret cognitive distortions as being the brain’s way of simplifying life by telling you something that is not entirely accurate, true or in some cases even logical. So, for example, someone who has been arrested by one Police Officer may then go on to state (or think) something along the lines of “all Police Officers hate me…. so I might as well carry on with this behaviour”.
However, in reality, not all Police Officers (if any) actually hate this person and so this statement is not entirely true. The statement is an overgeneralisation and exaggeration which enables the person to process and justify thoughts and behaviours as well as any unsettling or ambivalent feelings. This thought is then considered to not only be untrue but also unhelpful, and potentially it could lead that person to live up to a false image or ideal.
Cognitive distortions tend to be self-perpetuating and a person may filter evidence as they process it to give emphasis only to those facts which support the distortion whilst dismissing any facts which threaten to unseat it. For my own understanding I have, at times, found it easier to look at cognitive distortions as ‘thinking errors’,
So, what are the common cognitive distortions you may expect to find when working with offenders? As stated earlier, David Burns (1980) was able to categories the types of Cognitive Distortions you might find into around a dozen types. In my own practice, I have noted that there are two most common types of distortion within the offending population. These are as follows:
Black and White Thinking – In my own practice, when working with offenders, this appeared to be the easiest to spot and even address. But what is it? Well, the best way to explain it is by using an example of what a client might state, and this would be along the lines a statement such as “I am bad” or “I am a criminal”. Black and white thinking refers to a tendency to be rigid in one’s view of the world and of facts. There is no acceptance of a potential for any shade of grey. As regards the example statements, this person would have difficulty in moving away from a view of people as ‘good’ or ‘evil/bad’ and would not be able to separate the person from the crime.
Catastrophising – “I failed my exam, therefore I am a failure”. This form of cognitive distortion relates to individuals coming to (sometimes) very unconstructive assumptions about themselves based on one single piece of evidence. In my own practice, I have noted that the more thinking errors you came across with an offender, then the lower self esteem they had, and the higher the likelihood that the person would use substances to make themselves feel better.
In relation to thinking errors, in time, if you know the typologies well, you can spot them not only in the offending population, but in everybody! These ways of thinking, although unhelpful for our emotional wellbeing, are very common across the general population.
Beck, A. T (1979). Cognitive Therapies and emotional disorder. New York: New American Library.
Burns, D.D. (1980), Feeling Good: The new mood therapy. New York: New American Library.