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“Make it Stink” - To Save the World, Slay Cognitive Distortions and Build a Wiser Society

The world is waking up to the extent of our mental health challenges, particularly of anxiety and depression, and particularly in wealthier countries. It seems most acute in the youngest generations of the upper middle class, and in the United States, the second most anxious and depressed country in the world. In the US in particular there is a growing mental health crisis among young people. Rates of clinical anxiety among young US adults *doubled* in the ten years prior to the pandemic. A majority of US college students now report having been “overwhelmed by anxiety” in the past week.


This crisis isn’t just about people being more sensitive or introspective or willing to admit their challenges, or better mental health reporting. Because the suicide rate is tracking very closely with rising anxiety and depression rates.


There are many compelling theories about why this is happening, from pressure to achieve, to screen time, social media and social shaming, to climate change and cancel culture, to declining religiosity and a crisis of meaning, to ‘safetyism’ on the part of parents and schools that has left many affluent young adults in the US in particular unable to cope with normal life adversity.


Alongside all this, the world is increasingly aware of a growing crisis of liberal democracy. Where polarization, populism, radicalism, tribalism and authoritarianism, both home grown and stoked by the ‘cognitive warfare’ operations of autocratic regimes, are threatening to overwhelm the culture and institutions that have nurtured some of the most successful societies in human history.


What’s clear is that part of both the cause and consequence of these sufferings are what psychologists call “cognitive distortions”. They define them as exaggerated or irrationally negative or fearful beliefs that create an inaccurate view of reality.


Cognitive Behavioural Theory (CBT) is a gold-standard for treatment of anxiety and depression. So much so that in some countries this is the only type of counselling that health insurance will cover. CBT focuses on identifying and removing cognitive distortions and the thought patterns they form from one’s thinking, in order to improve emotions, mental health, relationships, work and overall quality of life.


Consider this list of 13 of the most common cognitive distortions that individuals struggle with:

  1. Catastrophization - imagining the worst possible things that could happen and then significantly overestimating their likelihood of actually happening.

  2. Negativity bias/filtering - evaluating ourselves and/or others with a strongly negative bias, filtering the information we get to accept the negative and reject the positive.

  3. Negative Exaggeration, Magnification - focusing narrowly on negative aspects of something and exaggerating them and their importance to color or discount an entire person or thing.

  4. Positive Minimization - downplaying positive aspects or developments as inconsequential or irrelevant or far less meaningful than they are.

  5. Splitting, black and white thinking, demonization - splitting the world and people into good and bad, seeing things as all good and all bad - an inability to see complexity, grey, nuance.

  6. Overgeneralization, labelling, stereotyping - inaccurately judging and classifying or labelling people, groups or things by an insufficient or unholistic consideration of evidence.

  7. Emotional reasoning - assuming that because you or someone else feels strongly about something, that feeling must establish or correspond to some objective truth or reality, rather than be a misperception, misunderstanding, and/or the product of our internal life.

  8. Personalization - a tendency to mistakenly take things personally that are actually due to things that aren’t personal at all, or feel at fault/responsible for things that are beyond our control.

  9. Blame/Victim Mentality - excessively blaming others, or oneself, for negative outcomes, thereby undermining an accurate perception of responsibility and causation and adopting 'learned helplessness'.

  10. Jumping to Conclusions and Negative judgments - based on insufficient evidence to arrive at that conclusion.

  11. Moralization, Outrage - a tendency to not accept the world and ourselves as we are but morally judge in a way that produces “should” and “must” statements that induce shame and outrage but not understanding and constructive behaviour.

  12. Mindreading - thinking you can infer or know and arrive at judgments about what others are thinking and feeling without asking or listening to them.

  13. Confirmation bias, inability to disconfirm - a lack of openness or ability to admit evidence that challenges your view and changes your mind, particularly about the distortions you believe.

It’s very clear I think that our society, media, workplaces, and social and political movements are afflicted by these distortions, and where we are least healthy, drowning in them.


And while we might be concerned at a mental health crisis, the truth is most everyone is on a spectrum for various traits and proclivities that, at some point, psychologists deem illness.


What’s also clear is that the bias in all of these - the ways we typically misperceive reality - overwhelmingly tends toward the negative. In general we tend to be more negative, fearful, disgusted, angry, ashamed, anxious, insecure and depressed than reality suggests we should be, or is good for us. This is why psychologists identify “positive affectivity” or attitude as opposed to “negative affectivity” as key to mental health, relationship happiness, and professional excellence.


What’s also clear is that these distortions are at work in every aspect of our lives. Our internal feelings of insecurity or shame, our perceptions of our romantic partners, our workplace cultures and peer groups, our social and political environments. They exist in an eternal tension with the positives within us - our hope, love, optimism, trust, confidence, security, joy and happiness.


Both dark and light have a role of course, including in seeing reality clearly, but human weakness seems to be decisively in the direction of giving the dark more due than it deserves to the degree that we can become captured by false and overly negative realities.


Our level of health and flourishing and capability to fulfill our potential is continuously determined by the degree to which we are mindful of and counteract these cognitive distortions. And that’s true at every level of humanity - individuals, groups, and society as a whole.


When we let them run wild, we become anxious and depressed, our relationships and workplaces and communities become ridden with drama and distrust, and our societies tend towards conflict and even war.


The problem becomes particularly acute when socialized - when groups of people travel into cognitive distortions together. Because of other biases such as social proof (which makes things far more believable to us if peer groups believe it) and social conformity bias (which makes us strongly want to believe the same things as our ‘tribe’) and group polarization (the phenomenon that groups of people with similar beliefs tend to become more radical over time).


Not just conspiracy theories, but whole political movements and ideologies are built upon cognitive distortions and the emotions they generate. That is on prominent display in the US today, as whole movements on the left and right are constructed from “big lies” that radically exaggerate problems to smear, delegitimize and demonize the ‘enemy’.


This is a lense through which to understand the “psy ops” nature of modern warfare (aka ‘cognitive or hybrid warfare’), which focuses heavily on disinformation which spreads negative falsehoods and perspectives which undermine trust, motivation and human connection. Political adversaries, from the gossip of office politics to strategic rivalry among nations, will weaponize these dynamics to weaken relationships and societies. Just persuading a target group of one or two cognitive distortions can be enough to ‘sour’ an individual or group on someone or something.


Throughout the last few years, two phrases have echoed through my head, both from Russian government officials. The first was “the Americans think we’re messing with their democracy. Actually, we are messing with their minds.” And more viscerally for me, another quote talking about how the Kremlin sought to dispirit Russian citizens about the ways they were newly connecting on the internet. The official talked about deploying trolls to spread highly negative views and behaviour across the net. He said: “You need to fill it with shit, you need to make it stink.”


That’s what the dynamics of demonizing and outraged politics and disinformation and the broader culture they’re fostering is doing to us - going house to house, workplace to workplace, relationship to relationship, and democracy to democracy, and making it all stink.


Something ‘stinking’ or ‘smelling’ isn’t just about our thoughts or judgments, it’s a gut visceral response, a negative affective attitude. You just don’t like something, maybe it even repulses you. One of the most disheartening learnings in my disinformation work is around “belief echoes”. That even when someone discovers and believes that their negative attitude towards someone or something was based on lies, much of the bad attitude, the smell, can remain.


While the attitude is emotional, it’s typically created by arguments, stories, and facts that seduce us into alternative realities that are unfairly and unreasonably negative about each other, and/or ourselves.


The most devastating cognitive distortions to any kind of human relationship or community are the ones that undermine trust. Politically, sometimes the worst claims are pushed - such as that a politician is a pedophile - because if even a fraction of it were true, or it had a tiny probability of truth, that is enough to profoundly affect trust and affective attitude. Disinformation also aims, critically, to destroy trust in information and sources that could disconfirm its claims. The seduction into an alternative reality depends on an interlocking belief structure of cognitive distortions that form a kind of fortress against alternative views.


It’s easy for us to feel we see this going on when we look at the people we disagree with. But much harder to see it at work in ourselves and our own echo-chambers.


And such alternative realities can do genuine damage to all of us. They generate bad policy ideas that harm people, have us squander our precious goodwill and trust on false outrages, spur us to cruelly punish each other unjustly, waste our energies and potential in misguided battles. They ruin and end beautiful relationships and communities. They accrete to affect our entire worldview, our feelings about the world and humanity and life itself. Whole ideologies and social movements, on the left and right, can be built around such tragically misguided distortions. And of course, they offer a slippery slope, to conflict, and brutality.


If humanity is to go extinct in the next few generations, as many futurists say is possible, it will likely do so with all the capability to survive and thrive, but unable to do so because we are drowning in an ocean of tragically divisive, infuriating, and disempowering cognitive distortions.


But there is hope! As decades of CBT and the success of other therapies demonstrate. Here’s a list of some of the classic CBT approaches with a few things added from other therapies and approaches that have proved successful and I have found worked well for me and millions of other people.


I’ve changed the terminology a little to sound less clinical and more accessible to any of us. Imagine if our public education taught these, our culture practiced them, and our peer groups supported them:

  1. Untriggering (emotional regulation) - cognitive distortions are strongest when we are feeling negative emotions or ‘triggers’. These can be strong, or subtle, like annoyance and irritation. But we are entirely capable of recognizing when we are triggered, naming what is actually going on for us (“it’s not that they’re evil, it’s that I’m afraid”), changing our emotional state using tactics that we know work (e.g. taking a breath or a walk), and reengaging with something from a better place. I believe this simple practice alone can change our lives, and change the world, and does every day. CBT calls this an example of “emotion regulation skills”.

  2. Seeing Nuance/Holistic Evaluation - the ability to see complexity, nuance, and grey in people and situations, acknowledging valid points made by people with opposing perspectives, engages our rational and fair-minded faculties in our thinking, and is one of the strongest antidotes to splitting, demonization and polarized thinking. ‘Holistic evaluation’ is my own term for it and it’s personally one of my favourite antidotes - making sure I’m perceiving and judging from a place that considers all the complexity of something, including, crucially, all the positive factors I may be ignoring.

  3. Deep Connection to Self - taking a moment to breathe, be mindful of ourselves, and listen deeply to what we truly feel and think, perhaps journalling about it, can be a powerful antidote to emotions and thought patterns that can hijack our attention and our authentic selves.

  4. Deep Connection to Others/Nature - Listening deeply to and empathizing with others can bring a kind of self transcendence that can be grounding and centering. Walks in nature or time with animals can do the same thing.

  5. Mindfulness - the simple act of breathing and being in a moment, aware of that moment and our thoughts, can both change our relationship to those thoughts, as we own them rather than them owning us, and dissolve much of the negativity which tends to exist in our imaginings of the past and the future.

  6. Radical Acceptance and Welcoming - the ability to focus one’s attention on just accepting what is, and perhaps even welcoming reality as it is, can be instrumental to seeing it clearly and both how it may hold value we weren’t appreciating, and how it can constructively be changed or improved.

  7. Challenging Negative Thought Patterns - identifying the negative thought patterns that are heavily affecting us individually and collectively and challenging their assumptions and validity can be very powerful. The ability to hear and cherish feedback from others about your perceptions and not quickly attack it as abusive or gaslighting, can be crucial to this.

  8. Evidence-based Reasoning - adopting a scientific mindset to look impartially for evidence - both proof and disproof - of our perceptions can liberate us from falsehoods and reality loops generated by confirmation bias, and make us fall in love with truth-seeking.

  9. Gratitude Meditation - simple gratitude, and regular practices to bring it into our daily lives, can be a powerful antidote to the negativity bias that pervades many of our cognitive distortions.

  10. Healing - the main alternative to CBT is Psychodynamic therapy or trauma-informed approaches. The central insight of this kind of therapy is that many of our negative affective attitudes and fear and distrust can come from wounds and traumas and the shame we often carry (sometimes unconsciously) from them. Healing those wounds can make a big difference to our baselines of emotional health and mental attitude.

  11. Maturation - the good news is that while most of us are reasonably neurotic (and neuroticism is highly correlated with liability to cognitive distortions) we generally tend to get less neurotic over our lives - becoming less fearful, tougher, and kinder. Psychologists call this process maturation, or growing up :). Human cultures are typically rooted in much wisdom about this process and how it works, particularly for young people. I’m just speculating, but perhaps the far higher rates of mental illness in modernized richer societies have something to do with the loss of this wisdom and culture.

  12. Rootedness in Purpose - understanding your ‘ultimate why’ or what motivates you in your life and living out of that purpose can change your mental focus from your fears and shame to your hope, creativity and enthusiasm. Many studies have suggested a consistent inverse relationship between religiosity/spirituality and mental illness.

  13. Somatic therapy - it isn’t CBT and clinical evidence for its effectiveness is mixed, but recognizing that our emotions live in our bodies as well as our brains, and using the body as a pathway to the brain, to face, accept, welcome, and transform the physical manifestations of our psychological fear and anger and shame, often using movement and breath, can be game changing for some people. I’ve found it very powerful.

  14. Adversity/Exposure therapy - one of the best remedies for feeling overly or irrationally fearful is to face our fears, sometimes gradually and carefully. Facing and surviving an adversity that terrifies us can massively reduce its power over us and our thoughts. Even just imagining the worst, and seeing how we can survive and handle it, can be helpful.

  15. Love and friendship - we are social animals and our relationships play a massive role in our ability to see and move towards the light, and keep darkness at bay. Learning to love better and building our skills at what CBT therapists call ‘interpersonal effectiveness’ can help us build a rich and resilient life of love and connection.

For me, the distortions come across as a kind of set of horsemen of the apocalypse, and the antidotes as a kind of picture of what a deeply flourishing humanity and future might look like. If I were to boil it all down to one concept, I’d call it wisdom. We are certainly too fearful and negativity biased, but we also need light and dark, fear and love, negative and positive. It’s wisdom that can guide us to what measure of each is good for each of us and all of us in any given context.


Imagine if we taught wisdom, and these antidotes, in schools and workplaces. If we continuously reminded each other of them on social media and monitored whether big tech’s algorithms prioritized one over the other. Imagine a culture built on the antidotes, not the distortions. A wise society, or at least, a wiser society. Imagine if those most responsible and powerful in shaping our views of each other - media, social media, politicians, activists, influencers - felt a particularly serious responsibility, despite their incentives, not to perpetuate cognitive distortions. Imagine if, when they were unreasonably negative, it brought them not wild approval and success, but disapproval.


Part of our challenge in getting there is individual, and part is systemic. We can strive to educate ourselves better about cognitive distortions and how to navigate them, but we also have to face the fact that our systems of politics, media, activism, and even scholarship are often biased in favour of them.


One recent Facebook study showed that posts are radically more likely to be viral (and made so by the algorithm) the more words they contain that are outraged. But the problem is larger than Facebook - another fascinating study of over 14 million books over 125 years shows that words that are more likely to be associated with cognitive distortions, including emotional reasoning and labelling, have significantly increased since 1990.. Again, there are cultural and political movements that are based upon and driving these cognitive distortions.


As an activist, I regularly saw the temptation to do so. Be just a little more dire and alarmist, or demonizing, or clearly and simplistically black and white about an issue, and emotions become stronger, and clicks, actions, donations, shares, all increase. There’s always been cases where that was true, but social media has put it on steroids.


Of course, there’s always an argument for doing so - what could be bad about a little more action on climate change or poverty, many say. Don’t we need to scare or shame people even more on those fronts? But you often can’t quantify the effect of steadily assaulting the fabric of trust and goodwill that weaves a flourishing society, of the sense of wellbeing and safety that allows many people to live without feeling in constant ‘fight or flight’ mode.


Activists, politicians, big tech and the media have done their work increasingly well in recent years, there’s been accelerated movement and disruption on many fronts, both good and bad depending on your perspective. I’ve never in my lifetime seen our society so liable to rapid change. But we also now live in a society increasingly riven by demonization, division, distrust, drama and fragmented realities.


Perhaps we can learn from all this. Journalism was utterly biased and craven and captured before it evolved its ethics. Many countries developed better, wiser, stronger media institutions and more educated citizens with stronger critical thinking skills. If voters and political parties and NGOs and bloggers and newspapers and foundations and influencers and activists stare into the abyss of where these cognitive distortions are taking us, and choose another path, I believe we can develop a new, richer, stronger ethics to guide our culture and institutions in the way we behave towards our fellow humans.


Most of us are so incredibly careful right now about not offending each other on the basis of race or gender or other aspects of our identity. What if we devoted one tenth of that energy to trying to be honest, fair, holistic, evidence-based, and impartial, and not to smear or demonize individuals or groups based on their ideas or political perspective?


What if we tapped into all those CBT techniques and more, to allow a constant vigilance against the dark subversions of cognitive distortions. It might become another powerful reason and motivation to live as so many of us wish to. To live a life of deep connection to ourselves and others and nature, rooted in purpose and meaning, taking the time to reflect on our beliefs, with an ability to spot the lies that divide us and turn us against each other. Healing our wounds, embracing challenges, and seeking truth and understanding and wisdom together, in a kind of fellowship with others, whether we agree or disagree on any particular matter. And bringing all of that, with special care, to our public roles as voters, activists, journalists or leaders in our communities.


That’s the world I want my kids to grow up in, a world that I think can survive and thrive. And my honest and impartial, hopefully not too cognitively distorted assessment is that while it won’t be easy, and never perfect, we can get a lot of the way there if we all come together to try a little harder to be mindful of cognitive distortions, and practice the antidotes to them.


For more information:


This is a great list of 50 extremely common cognitive distortions:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-practice/201301/50-common-cognitive-distortions


And an impressive and comprehensive visual of our cognitive biases:

https://www.visualcapitalist.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/all-188-cognitive-biases.html


In 1985, only 18.3% of those participating in the American Freshman National Norms Survey said they “frequently” felt “overwhelmed by all they have to do. By 2016, that number had climbed to 41%:

https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/million-thoughts-coddling-american-mind


Kids of affluent families in the US have 1.5 to 2.5 times higher rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse as normal, according to Suniya Luthar of Arizona State. Working class kids are more likely to experience almost all types of trauma, so the mental health crisis in American youth is hard to trace to fundamentals, and may be more a function of psychology:

https://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/affluence


A 2020 study by Robert Goodwin on anxiety rates in US adults: “Anxiety increased from 5.12% in 2008 to 6.68% in 2018 (p < 0.0001) among adult Americans. Stratification by age revealed the most notable increase from 7.97% to 14.66% among respondents 18–25 years old.”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7441973/


A good overview and resources on positive CBT - https://positivepsychology.com/cbt-cognitive-behavioral-therapy-techniques-worksheets/


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