Distortion Theory

Just a quick thought tonight, and possibly a risible one. I’ve been reading up on the work of Aaron Beck, an American psychotherapist who was one of the founders of cognitive behavioural therapy. Beck listened to his patients talking and came to the conclusion that the cause of their unhappiness was not what had happened to them in life, but the way they told stories about it to themselves. Beck identified a number of what he called cognitive distortions, but which we might term here screwy ways of thinking. So powerful are these distortions that Beck proposed that when a person perceived a situation to be threatening they, effectively, cast reason to one side and warmly embraced the madness. Here are the negative ways of thinking he identified:

All or nothing thinking – sometimes called black and white thinking, in which events are either good or bad, right or wrong, terrifying or safe, with nothing in between.

Crystal ball gazing – negatively predicting the future, usually because once in the past something went wrong and the causality has set in concrete.

Emotional reasoning – assuming negative emotions as reality. Assuming, for instance, that because we feel guilty, we really are guilty.

Discounting the positive – dismissing positive experiences. If you did it, anybody can do it, right?

Jumping to conclusions – making a negative assumption with no evidence to support it. Witness Dorothy Parker’s delightful response to the telephone bell: ‘What fresh hell is this?’

Labelling – naming a behaviour as a personality trait. For all you losers out there who made an itsy bitsy mistake today.

Magnification or catastrophizing – blowing things out of proportion, exaggerating, expecting the worst, and my personal favourite.

Mental filter – thinking in a way that blocks reasoning. Also known as sieve ear and jaundiced eye, and instantly recognizable when sentences get punctuated with the words ‘always’ and ‘never’.

Mind reading – thinking we know what others are thinking and not checking it out with them. This is a lovely catch all, in which all previous thought crimes can be combined into sheer, molten paranoia.

Over-generalization – concluding from one negative event that everything is going wrong. Well, we’ve all had days (or weeks, or months) like that.

Personalisation – self-blaming and taking responsibility for things outside our control. Your friend comes into work in a bad mood and your first thought is ‘what have I done?’

‘Should’ and ‘must’ statements – tyrannical demands we make of ourselves, accompanied by the thwack of the inner critic’s whip going down.

Having read through this list and found myself intimate with far too many of them, my thoughts turned (rapidly) to literature, and I began to wonder why we didn’t have a cognitive behavioural critical theory. Literature is stuffed full of negative thinkers. Some of the great modern voices – Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Christa Wolf, Gunther Grass, Elias Canetti, D. H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov, Iris Murdoch – reach us through narrators who have the most extraordinary perspectives on their experience, often melancholy, disturbed or negative ones, and yet the brilliance with which they recount their stories has us transfixed and convinced. There’s a feeling I experience regularly when reading of being trapped within a view that nags at my rational mind, but which fits snugly into the dark side of my heart. Often the thrill of reading is to watch irrational people impose their emotional will on other characters, who must pluckily work to wriggle out from underneath it. Or else we get ringside seats to witness two wrong perspectives clash mightily. After all, literature has the ability to wheel in a deus ex machina, or to kill off characters before their madness starts to irritate. Think of Antigone, for instance, who would have looked a lot different if she hadn’t succumbed to a glorious death, but had grown old nursing her grudge and mumbling menaces into her knitting. Well, it’s been a while since we had a new literary theory to play with, and I shall be looking out in my fiction reading for the catastrophizers, the mind readers and the polarized thinkers. If nothing else, it will take my mind off my own problems.


19 thoughts on “Distortion Theory

  1. Nice post, Litlove. Vance Bourjilay had an early novel, the title of which is outside my reach, in which one or more characters list writers on the side of death (Hemingway) and life (H. Miller). That was crude compared to what cog. dis. lit. crit. (CDLC) could be. Go for it. I’d like updates, and a ledger book too, with each book you read.

    Gabriel Josipovici, where would he fit?

  2. Funnily enough, I listened to a podcast with Beck’s daughter this afternoon. She is also a CBT psychologist and retrains people’s eating habits to help them lose weight (guess who needs to rid herself of the winter excess?).

  3. What a great idea. If you trail blaze I’ll be a follower. There must be immense scope for a CDLC (thanks JB),approach to Dickens, between the poles of Miss Haversham and Mr Micawber.

  4. LOL, I’m printing out this list and putting it on my bulletin board above my computer, to keep me laughing at my own craziness! I agree that literature is stuffed with negative thinkers, and I like to imagine how well writing it helped the writers work out their own issues 🙂

  5. Hmmm…if you ever come across a published work by THIS (as opposed to that other) Emily Barton, I am quite sure it will go down in history as the epitome of Litlove’s famous CDLC theory, since you’d be hard-pressed to discover a day in which I’m not busy stalking, embracing, and cradling at least a half dozen of these negative ways of thinking.

  6. I definitely want to read more of this type of discussion. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Projective Identification, which could be seen as a type of distorted thinking. Books offer so much scope for authors to project a form of madness onto the page and then try and grapple with it there. (Pamuk’s Black Book seems to be a case in point – that Galip has some seriously weird and also brilliant ideas). So for me, books and especially novels can be both the problem and the cure. Perhaps a bit like therapy? We project all our own stuff and then get to work with it but what’s the alternative. Ok I’m rambling here but good post.

  7. I am certain that I don’t have any of those thought distortions but I know a lot of people who do 😀

    I think, Litlove, you will be the pioneer of CDLC. Don’t forget all of us when your books are being taught in college classrooms and you are the keynote speaker at international conferences!

  8. This is great, Litlove, I suspect all these flaws are what make us all human, which is why we love our literary characters when they take on as many of these traits as possible.

  9. Hmmm … I love the idea of a whole host of characters who make us love them in spite of how messed up their thinking is! Do we love them because we recognize our own errors in them, on some level?

  10. JB – You see, I couldn’t have done it without you to name it properly, CDLC it is. Ledgers are not my strong point, but for you I’ll do my best. Now Gabriel Josipovici is an interesting case as I find him one of the most sane writers I have the pleasure of reading. But he does show his characters in various states of cognitive distortion, including but not limited to over-generalisation and mental filters. There, you’ve got me thinking about him now!

    Grad – lol! I stopped counting… 😉

    Charlotte – I’m never wholly convinced by CBT, but I imagine things like weight loss and giving up smoking, etc, might respond quite well to it. What a coincidence to hear Beck’s daughter! Big footsteps for her to follow in.

    Bookboxed – oh Dickens, now, wouldn’t that be a life’s work to get through his characters? You’ve picked a perfect candidate there!

    Gentle Reader – never a truer word spoken. Not only did those authors get to make the most of their own cognitive disorders, they got to have fun with them at the same time! Not bad at all. 😉

    Emily – you write it, I’ll analyse it, deal? And never fear – I laughed a lot as I went through the list for the first time. It was like reading a blueprint of my mind. 🙂

    Pete – what interesting things you have to say! And I think projection is a most intriguing phenomenon (unless you’re on the other side of it, of course). Julia Kristeva analysed artists in her book as if they were clients because she firmly believed that the great creators were inevitably neurotic. She’s very good on melancholics like Nerval and Hans Holbein the Younger.

    Stefanie – lol! Would I forget you? Your library will be the venue for my inaugural lecture! 🙂

    Verbivore – oh indeed, it is the very stuff of humanity. Just like food alters as it passes through our systems, so does experience. 🙂

    Dorothy – I’m sure you’re right. We recognise our errors, but they’re made significant or beautiful or funny or the basis for a great cathartic drama. I can imagine it might be part of art’s master plan to explore chaos and then restore order.

  11. There’s nothing risible about these thoughts, Litlove. What an interesting list. I think most people must experience some of these things at least some of the time – but when does it slide into syndrome of distortion? And is it a cognitive pattern of reinforcement, codified or codifiable (and therefore potentially correctable), or is its development much more erratic and unknowable than that? I have known some serious contenders for the Half Empty Trophy in my time, and I always wonder why they have to be so negative. Is it in our wiring?

  12. I hate CBT, but I loved this post. It reminded me of the fact that happy people make crappy fiction … I mean, who wants to read about them? Conflict is the heart and soul of storytelling, and an inwardly-conflicted and nutso character is usually the most compelling kind.

  13. Doctordi – that’s a very good question you ask there. I nearly wrote a bit about the borderline between a perfectly normal, human practice and a form of distorted perception that has severe consequences. I think the problem arises when cognitive distortion becomes a real problem if you see what I mean. If either the sufferer or the people around him/her find it intolerable. Research does suggest that pessimists and optimists are genetically determined, although of course life experiences can have a significant impact. Most therapy tries to get people to accept themselves as they are and then to find better ways of living with it. by contrast CBT considers these patterns are changeable. You can imagine the battles between the disciplines that result.

    David – I’m in the camp that thinks CBT just doesn’t work, and when I found these categories I felt they were too good to waste on a dubious form of therapy. I absolutely agree that conflict is the heart and soul of fiction and I also love that word ‘nutso’. It has been absorbed into my vocabulary and I’m now waiting for a good opportunity to use it.

  14. I think I do most of these. Maybe not the personalization–surely it’s everyone else’s fault and not my own (or is there a label for that, too?!). Just kidding. Though I probably do do most of these. How depressing. Surely most people do, right.

  15. Beck is a good thinker and probably a good therapist, but I think CB theory makes a poor framework for literary analysis because fiction, or at least good fiction, tends to be so versed in these kinds of narrative functions that it slips out of their explanatory range. To apply ready-made categories — essentially mini-genres — to literary narratives would wind up being reductive rather than illustrative. Does that make sense?

  16. Danielle – oh yes, everyone does them. They are just examples of human nature, really! I guess sometimes they get out of hand and then need to be reined in a bit. And of course it’s not you, it’s them. 🙂

    Derek – that is a very sensible response to my somewhat tongue-in-cheek post. What I would say to you, though, is that all theory, one way or another, applies its categories and rules to literature. But a theoretical reading that is well done allows literature full permission to answer back. One of the best examples of this is Roland Barthes, who tried to read Balzac’s short story, Sarrasine, through a set of six codes he believed encapsulated the work of literature. Being a good, wise critic, he realised over the course of his reading that the book could not be contained or explained fully by them, and his book S/Z became one of the finest examples of the crossover from structuralism into poststructuralism. Critical theory and literary practice exist in a mutually informative dialogue at best, in which theory suggests ever more sophisticated structures and literature delights in enriching and evading them. Not, you understand, that my post does any of this. 🙂

  17. I love this post. . . I am thinking about the wonderful Jasper Fforde at the moment, and wondering if the reason his books have been so successful is that we’ve all of us, at one time or another, wanted to crawl inside the pages of a book and give the character(s) a good talking-to. gentle reader was right, definitely a printout-able. 🙂

  18. littlefluffycat – what a very good thought! I think you’ve just nailed Jasper Fforde’s attraction there! And thank you for the lovely compliment! 🙂

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