OCD Tips: 7 tips for cognitive biases

Understanding and Managing Cognitive Distortions: Empowering Individuals with OCD Through Cognitive-Behavioral Techniques

What are cognitive biases?

Cognitive biases are systematic errors in the way we think, perceive, and remember information. They arise from various mental shortcuts, known as heuristics, that our brains use to speed up decision-making and problem-solving processes. While these shortcuts can be helpful in certain situations, they can also lead to distortions and inaccuracies, particularly when they become automatic and unconscious.

Here are a few reasons why cognitive biases can be difficult to deal with:

  1. Unconscious Processing: Many cognitive biases operate at an unconscious level, meaning we’re often not aware of their influence. For example, you might unconsciously favor information that confirms your existing beliefs (confirmation bias) or focus excessively on negative details while ignoring positive ones (negativity bias).
  2. Self-Perpetuating Nature: Cognitive biases can be self-reinforcing. For instance, if you have a bias toward interpreting ambiguous events negatively, this can lead to increased stress and worry, which in turn can make you even more likely to interpret events negatively in the future.
  3. Normalization: We often consider our perceptions and interpretations of the world as accurate and normal, making it difficult to recognize when our thinking is biased. For example, if you’ve always had a tendency to expect the worst (catastrophizing), you might think this is just a part of who you are, rather than a cognitive bias that could be addressed.
  4. Resistance to Change: Changing thought patterns can be difficult, particularly if those patterns have been reinforced over a long period. Furthermore, people sometimes resist changing their biases because they serve a protective function, such as preparing them for potential disappointment or harm.
  5. Complexity: There are many types of cognitive biases, and they can interact with each other in complex ways. For instance, the hindsight bias (believing after an event that you knew it would happen) can reinforce the confirmation bias (favoring information that confirms your existing beliefs), making it even more challenging to recognize and address these biases.

To mitigate cognitive biases, techniques such as mindfulness, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and other forms of self-awareness and cognitive restructuring can be beneficial. With practice, it’s possible to recognize cognitive biases when they occur and challenge them with more rational and balanced thinking. However, this often requires ongoing effort and, in some cases, professional support.

7 Tips for cognitive biases

Let’s focus on some of the most common ones and how you might approach them from a cognitive perspective, especially in the context of OCD.

  1. Confirmation Bias – The tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information that confirms our preexisting beliefs. Tip: Actively seek out information that contradicts your beliefs. For instance, if you believe that touching a doorknob will always lead to contamination, intentionally seek out information that challenges this belief. Remind yourself that millions of people touch doorknobs every day and do not get sick.
  2. Catastrophizing – Focusing on the worst possible outcomes of a situation. Tip: Practice cognitive restructuring. Try to identify when you’re catastrophizing, and then evaluate the evidence for and against your fears. Ask yourself how likely is the worst-case scenario and what are some other possible outcomes.
  3. Black-and-White (All-or-Nothing) Thinking – Viewing situations, people, or self in extremes with no middle ground. Tip: Practice identifying shades of gray. For example, rather than thinking “If I have one intrusive thought, my whole day is ruined”, try to think, “I had one intrusive thought, but that doesn’t dictate how the rest of my day will go.”
  4. Overgeneralization – Taking a single incident or point in time and using it to make broad generalizations. Tip: Remember that one incident does not define everything. For instance, if you’ve had one intrusive thought, it does not mean you will always have these thoughts.
  5. Mind Reading – Believing we know what others are thinking, usually about us. Tip: Remind yourself that you cannot know what others are thinking. Try to not base your actions on assumptions and instead focus on your own thoughts and beliefs.
  6. Fortune Telling – Predicting the future, usually while assuming negative outcomes. Tip: Remind yourself that you cannot predict the future. Challenge negative predictions by examining their evidence base and considering other possible outcomes.
  7. Personalization – The belief that one is the cause of events outside of their control. Tip: Practice distinguishing between things you can control and things you can’t. You’re not responsible for all the negative things that happen around you.

Each of these tips involve cognitive strategies to challenge distorted thinking. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is built around these types of strategies, and a therapist trained in CBT can be a great resource for helping manage these cognitive biases.