Cognitive Distortion

photo of a sign that says use your brain

Lies, lies, and more lies. At its heart, Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible is a showcase of how one lie multiplies throughout a community until it is believed as truth.

Today’s social media platforms magnify this tendency for lies to multiply into believed truth.

The sad part is, many don’t take the time to actually investigate the claims they see on social media before pressing the “Share” button. If something you read makes you really angry or really happy, chances are you are being manipulated into thinking the way the author wants you to think.

One thing I’m learning through my own therapy that I want to share with my students is how to recognize when I am allowing my thoughts to be distorted either by myself or others. A hallmark of being human is having the ability to think critically and make our own decisions — yet too many of us just follow the crowd, allowing our thoughts and our emotions to be influenced by memes, posts, TicToks, cable news, and social media.

A few months ago, I stopped using Twitter because I found that it made my stomach hurt. The constant barrage of bad news about things I have no control over was taking a toll on my mental and physical health.

Protect yourself. Recognize when someone is trying to influence you by manipulating the way you think. These are some of the most common cognitive distortions. Watch the way you respond to the things you see on social media and on cable news.

  1. All or nothing thinking. This kind of thinking assumes that there are no shades of gray. All Democrats are liars. All Republicans are thieves. Personally, you may think that you are awful — or that you are perfect. This kind of thinking leaves no room for human complexities.
  2. Overgeneralization. Just because a bad thing happens one time does not mean it will be that way forever. Getting a D on one test does not mean a student will always get Ds on tests, yet students who fall prey to overgeneralization often think that is so.
  3. Mental filter. When you fall into this way of thinking, you grab hold of one negative aspect of a thing and ignore all the positive ones. Let’s say you are a voter trying to decide on a candidate. You fall into a mental filter when you ignore the 50 positive things the candidate did for your community and focus only on the one time the candidate stumbled while walking up stairs.
  4. Catastrophizing (Magnifying). People who exaggerate or magnify the importance of small details, or who imagine all sorts of dire consequences with no proof, are catastrophizing. A student who had one encounter with writer’s block and then decides he’ll always have writer’s block and will never be able to finish school because he can’t overcome the writer’s block and will eventually get fired from his job because the writer’s block will extend to the emails he has to write….is catastrophizing.

The community in The Crucible used many different cognitive distortions in their decision-making. One of the main ones was catastrophizing. Hysteria has its roots in catastrophizing. Abigail and her pack of lying girls capitalize on the tendency to catastrophize. Consider the poppet/voodoo doll that Mary brings to Abigail. She claims that she made it for Elizabeth — and she did — but not to be nice. She made it just so, with a pin stuck in its belly, so Abigail could then claim belly pain and blame Elizabeth of witchcraft. This one little thing — a creepy child’s toy — was catastrophized and became the reason Elizabeth was arrested for witchcraft.

All of the characters in The Crucible could have used a session with a therapist and a lesson in critical thinking! Come to think of it, so could the members of the HUAC!

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