Got Anxiety? Cognitive errors: a rush to judgment (part 1 of 4) |

Got Anxiety? Cognitive errors: a rush to judgment (part 1 of 4)

Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D.
Mary B. Barmann, MFT

Editor’s note

This is the first in a 4-part series from the Barmanns about Cognitive Errors. Look to next week for Part 2.

Most people believe our emotions, such as anger, sadness, anxiety, etc., are the direct result of a particular life event we recently experienced.

In some cases, this is true. For example, it makes sense that when attending the funeral of someone we loved, we will experience a great deal of sadness.

However, oftentimes our emotional response following a life event is strictly a function of the MEANING we placed on the event.

That is, the emotions experienced following an interaction we had with someone, is more often due to our INTERPRETATION of the incident, as opposed to what actually did occur.

Consider the following scenario involving Dave, and his wife Diane.


After having been married for only one year, Dave and Diane were experiencing financial difficulties, creating a need for both to work full time jobs, thus causing a great deal of stress.

As was typically the case, Dave arrived home before his wife each evening, due to their respective work schedules. It was common for Diane to arrive home 15-20 minutes after Dave.

However, for the past few nights, she was getting home an hour after her husband. Dave, being the “jealous type,” as well as feeling tired and concerned about finances, has not been in the best of moods lately.

Finally, one night he verbally lashed out at Diane the minute she arrived home late again from work, accusing her of having an affair. They argued for hours, culminating in Dave sleeping on the couch downstairs that evening, while Diane slept upstairs in their bedroom.

She only slept one hour that night, crying much of the evening. Upon awakening the next morning, she realized she was late for work, jumped out of bed, and quickly got dressed; skipping her morning shower, and other routines such as putting on her jewelry, which included her wedding ring.

As she drove to work, Diane realized she accidently forgot to wear her ring, and although feeling awful about this, had no time to return home.

When Dave awakened, he went upstairs to shower in the couple’s shared bathroom. It was at this time that he spotted his wife’s wedding ring on the bathroom sink counter.

Without hesitation, he concluded that Diane INTENTIONALLY left her ring at home, to serve as a “signal” that she no longer wished to remain married.

Following Dave’s interpretation of this life event (seeing the wedding ring on the counter), he contacted an attorney, and began drafting legal paperwork to end the marriage.

As exaggerated as it may seem, this very scenario actually occurred concerning a couple we were treating several years ago.

The point of this example is to understand that all of us can become quite vulnerable to misinterpreting events that happen to us, particularly when in certain mood states, and while experiencing a great deal of stress in our lives.

In addition, our “core beliefs” regarding how we view ourselves, others, and the world in which we live play a key role in determining the meaning we place on life events encountered on a daily basis.

In our example, Dave strongly endorses core beliefs related to “fairness” and “trust.” He views himself as having been treated unfairly for many years, primarily by females; resulting in his tendency to have a difficult time trusting women, including his own wife.

Any life event that serves to trigger these core beliefs culminates in a particular manner of thinking and behaving. When a person consistently misinterprets life events that bear some similarly, we refer to this manner of thinking as engaging in “Cognitive Errors,” also referred to as “Cognitive Distortions.”

Once a cognitive error has been made, there exists the tendency to rush how one judges others, and their actions; typically in an inaccurate manner.


Cognitions refer to thoughts and images we have each day. Many of our cognitions are accurate, and rarely cause any type of emotional discomfort.

Cognitive errors, on the other hand, refer to a consistent manner of thinking, which involve several different means by which a person misinterprets their interactions with others.

When examining Dave’s assumptions discussed earlier in our “wedding ring” example, we witnessed two of the most common cognitive errors seen in many people — “Jumping to Conclusions” and “Forecasting.”

Both of these errors involve making assumptions involving overestimating probabilities associated with catastrophic outcomes, resulting in anticipating some form of personal threat.

Anxiety has a way of tricking us into believing irrational thought patterns, followed by behaving in ways we subsequently regret.

The remainder of this series will discuss 10 additional cognitive errors — those that most commonly result in the experience of anxiety and depression.

Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. Visit anxietytreatment to learn more.

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