Cognitive filters (or mental filters) are a form of cognitive distortion.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines cognitive distortions as, “Faulty or inaccurate thinking, perception, or belief. Cognitive distortion is a normal psychological process that can occur in all people to a greater or lesser extent.”
Cognitive filtering happens when we separate our positive thoughts, memories and associated emotions from our negative ones, then only keep the negative ones.
If you were preparing to make some bread for example and you needed some lump-free flour you would pass your flour through a fine sieve to catch the unwanted lumps, right?
Well, cognitive filtering would be like throwing away the sieved lump-free flour then adding the remaining lumps to your bread mixture.
You’d end up with lumpy bread.
It sounds like a ridiculous and trivial example, but we humans can be experts at creating such mental filtering.
Do your cognitive filters give you good results or bad?
BTW – if you prefer an audio version of this article, I have included one right at the end.
What are cognitive filters?
In general terms a cognitive filter is a distorted thought pattern which screens and discards some thoughts whilst keeping others. When the remaining thoughts are predominantly negative this may be extremely unhelpful to the thinker and those around them.
Here are a few examples:
A high-performing worker misses one deadline and starts to think, “That’s it then, my run is over. People will think I’ve lost my edge. My boss knows I’m losing it. What’s the point?”
A student who always gets A grades, gets a C grade in one topic area. They start to think, “I must not be as good as I thought. Have my teachers been lying to me? I’m going to struggle to get the Uni place I wanted. My life’s over before it’s even begun.”
A worker says “Hi” to their normally friendly boss, but the boss just walks by in silence. They start to think, “What’s that all about? I heard there were some layoffs in the pipeline. It must be true and I’m one of the ones to go. How am I going to pay the mortgage now?”
I’m sure many of you have had similar thought processes from time to time. These thought patterns and the associated emotions can drag us down if we let them run wild.
Cognitive filters are part of the class of thought patterns often called “Stinking Thinking.”
BTW I wrote another blog post on this topic called “Stinking Thinking” Must Go!” if you’d like to check it out.
Cognitive filters and Emotional Intelligence
Emotional Intelligence (EI), as I use the term, comprises four elements or pillars.
Self-awareness, self-regulation, understanding others and managing relationships.
Cognitive filtering can impact all four EI areas. Note that either or both parties involved in an interaction can be the source of the filtering activity.
Applying EI skills and thinking at an early stage in all four areas can also be your way out of the situation before it can become a big problem.
Becoming aware of the filtering distortion then doing something to limit the effects helps you navigate your world with more clarity and accuracy.
Being able to identify cognitive filters in others and work with them or around them can help your interactions and relationships.
Problems caused by cognitive filters
During his work in the field of cognitive therapy in the 1960s, psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck often discussed the concept of “mental filtering.”
He found a correlation between excessive concentration on negative aspects and the presence of depression and anxiety.
When we engage in such negative mental filtering our reasoning can become distorted, the more distorted our reasoning, the less self-confidence we have.
The less self-confidence we have, the more distorted our thinking can become.
Our physical condition can also have an impact. If we are excessively tired or ill, for instance, our ability to control cognitive filtering will be reduced.
A vicious cycle could form which can become very self-destructive.
Mental distortions can become extreme
Many of us will have experienced “glass half-empty” or “glass half-full” moments.
We term this viewpoint either pessimism or optimism. It varies with context and most people will have an overall disposition toward one or the other. It’s a form of mild cognitive filtering which we all exhibit at times. No big deal. That’s life.
However, as with so much else in life, some people can operate at the extremes.
Overly optimistic people
Overly optimistic people can be unrealistically upbeat about things to the extent that they ignore or fail to see any “dangers” ahead. This is also a form of distorted or unhelpful thinking.
You may hear the phrases “Pollyanna” or “Panglossian” used in relation to overly optimistic people. These phrases are based on popular classic book characters associated with these extreme traits. Follow the links if you want more information.
Overly pessimistic people
Overly pessimistic people can see bad and worse everywhere. It’s not just “glass half-empty” with them.
No, it’s “the glass is half-empty and if it falls over, which it probably will, it’ll spill liquid on my new laptop, it’ll then roll off the table and get smashed on the floor, I’ll likely be in bare feet and probably step on one of the shards, I’m sure I’ll get an infection, I could lose a foot, I could even die …”
Taking things to the extreme like this can become a real problem for them and the people around them.
Who wants to live with, or even be around, someone like that? It’s another problematic form of cognitive filtering.
Extreme distortions can be based on past events. Dwelling excessively on the past is known as rumination and if left unchecked can lead to depression.
Extreme distortions can be based on future events. Focusing and worrying excessively about the future can lead to high and sometimes debilitating levels of anxiety.
Both extreme situations can severely impact life in the present.
Author’s note and disclaimer:
None of the material presented here constitutes actual medical advice or opinion. If you feel that you or someone you know is operating at unhealthy extremes, I recommend you/they speak to a medical professional, or other trusted connection, with a view to seeking professional advice and/or professional help.
How to combat negative cognitive filters
I recommend always trying to be objective with these things and taking strong emotion out of the mix. Don’t be hard on yourself. Look to improve the situation rather than focus on what went wrong.
You can apply some or all of the ideas and techniques outlined below:
ID the trigger
The first important step is to learn to identify when the cognitive filter begins to kick in. We all have points where, when something happens, an automatic thought pattern takes over. Once you can identify this point, you can start to disable the non-helpful or negative automatic response and replace it with a more effective and positive one. BTW I wrote another blog post on this topic called “Emotional Triggers” if you’d like to check it out.
What do you know or not know versus what you’re assuming? Are your assumptions valid? Challenge them. Interrogate your reality honestly. What other information or knowledge might you need?
What else could be going on? What alternatives might be available? Once you have alternative ideas, explanations or options, you could use a suitable evaluation technique like Pros/Cons or Cost Benefit Analysis.
Seek objective feedback
Sometimes we can be too close to things. If you’re still struggling to see past your cognitive filters, try asking a trusted and objective connection for some feedback. What’s their take on the situation and/or your response to it?
Reframe the event or thought process
Reframing means to alter or adapt your thinking into an alternate form. In this case a more positive one. For example, reframing the statement, “I nearly failed that exam – nightmare!” to “I’m going to work more effectively to ensure I pass the next exam with less drama” is far more empowering and pro-active.
This is a more general approach which helps in many areas besides this one. I would encourage everyone to try this idea. Keeping a daily success and gratitude journal gets your mind used to capturing and seeing successes and wins. It develops your positivity muscles. You can look back on it whenever you need a positive boost in your life. I write with a nice pen in a good-quality notebook kept solely for this purpose, but you can do it in any way you like. It only works, however, if you do it.
Try installing some useful and positive cognitive filters
I spent so many years of my life in total ignorance of the negative power of my many distorted thinking patterns.
Looking back, I could kick myself for not being aware of them. That would be way too harsh though, we don’t know what we don’t know, right?
When I did find out I began making some powerful changes. I used the techniques listed above and many more besides to identify, nullify and even eliminate my negative filters.
I then went even further and installed some positive and useful cognitive filters. I’m still adding them to my mental and emotional armoury. I’m creating new more positive and useful reaction habits.
Rather than always seeing negativity first, I’m trying to see and focus on positives first.
My initial reactions to events and experiences now tend toward thinking and saying to myself such phrases as, “That’s interesting, what can I learn from that?” or “That was unusual. What else could be going on here that I’m not seeing?” or “I dealt with that problem very effectively – well done me!” or “That was a great training session, despite the small issues. In fact, they broke the ice a bit and I handled them well.”
Hopefully you get the idea.
Is it easy? Well, it’s straightforward but not necessarily easy at first. I had to overcome some deeply ingrained thought patterns. You might face the same issue.
Like many things in life, it will take time and effort to make progress but once you see the beneficial results (and others see them too) it gets easier and easier.
Over to you
Take some time out to reflect on your own thought patterns.
Do you have any “Stinking Thinking” going on?
Do you have any negative cognitive filters?
Are you keen to make changes?
The choice is yours so, if you do want to start changing things for the better, the best time to start is right now.
That’s all for this one
I hope you enjoyed this article. If you found value in it, subscribe to the blog. Also join my newsletter community. Get exclusive content, news and, just occasionally, some irresistible offers. It all comes with my no BS and zero pushy sales guarantee.
You might also like to check out these related articles:
PS Do you want to maximise your emotional self-control? Get my super-useful Rapid Emotional State Management Technique audio file. It’s FREE so you can download it and start to learn to manage your emotional states with confidence. You’ll also join my “Self-Confidence Matters” newsletter community. In the unlikely event that you don’t like it, an unsubscribe option is available.
PPS Here is the audio version of this article if you would prefer to listen.