Selective Abstraction – 13 Facts You Should Know (2024)

How do you see the glass? Half full or half empty?

We all have negative thoughts at times, however, if you see the glass half empty most of the time, you may focus more on the negative than the positive. This worldview may be applied to other aspects of your life.

This is the basis of Selective Abstraction. Read on for more facts you should know.

Let’s dive right into it.

1. All Or Nothing Thinking

Here you tend to view a situation in only two categories – all or nothing, rather than on a continued timeline of events. 

Selective Abstraction
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This kind of distortion is unrealistic and often unhelpful because most of the time reality exists somewhere between the two extremes.

For example, “I made a mistake, therefore I’m a failure.” “I ate more than I planned so therefore I blew my entire diet”.

2. Catastrophizing

This is when you tend to predict future events having negative aspects and consequences, where all kinds of things go terribly wrong. You don’t stop to consider alternative outcomes. When people catastrophize, ordinary worries can quickly escalate.

For example: “I will fail and this will be unbearable.” “I’ll be so nervous, I won’t be able to concentrate for the exam.”

3. Discounting The Positive

If this is you, you tend to tell yourself that positive experiences or qualities don’t count. Ten compliments will be disregarded for one criticism. You discount the positive.

Interpreting circumstances using a negative mental filter is not only inaccurate, it can worsen anxiety and depression symptoms.

Researchers in clinical psychology have found that having a negative perspective of yourself and your future can cause feelings of hopelessness.

These thoughts may become extreme enough to trigger suicidal thoughts which can be reverse with cognitive therapy.

For example: “I passed my exam but I was just lucky.” “Going to college isn’t a big deal, anyone can do it.”

4. Emotional Reasoning

This cognitive processing trait highlights reasoning about something from how you feel rather than from any evidence about the subject. You believe your emotions reflect reality and let them guide your attitudes and judgements.

While it’s important to listen to, validate, and express emotion, it’s equally important to judge reality based on rational evidence.

Researchers have found that emotional reasoning is a common cognitive distortion. It’s a pattern of thinking that’s used by people with and without anxiety or depression.

For example: “I feel she loves me, so it must be true.” “I’m terrified of airplanes, so flying must be dangerous.”

5. Labelling

Here, you’re putting a fixed label on yourself or others, usually with negative cognitive errors, without considering any evidence that would lead to an alternative conclusion.

Labeling can cause people to berate themselves. It can also cause the thinker to misunderstand or underestimate others.

This misperception can cause real problems between people. No one wants to be labeled.

For example: “I’m a loser.” “He’s a rotten person.” “She’s a complete jerk.”

6. Magnification Or Minimisation

This is when you’re exaggerating the negative and minimising the positive. In other words, blowing things out of proportion or shrinking their importance.

For example: “I got a B. It proves how inferior I am.” “I got an A. It doesn’t mean I’m smart.”

7. Unfair Comparisons

These cognitive errors are when you compare yourself with others who seem to do better than you do and place yourself in a disadvantageous position.

Others may only seem to do better than you because you may not know their whole story and how they actually got that way. Their journey could be something you might benefit by learning from.

For example: “My father always preferred my older brother because he’s much smarter than I am.” “I’m a failure because she’s more successful than I am.”

8. Mind-Reading

Here we have cognitive errors by making negative assumptions about the way in which others think about you when there is no evidence for this. You believe you know the thoughts and intentions of others or that they know yours, without evidence.

It can be hard to distinguish between mind reading and empathy — the ability to perceive and understand what others may be feeling.

To tell the difference between the two, it might be helpful to consider all the evidence, not just evidence that confirms your suspicions or beliefs.

At least one study has found that mind reading is more common among children than among adolescents or adults and is associated with anxiety.

For example: “He’s thinking I failed.” “She thought I didn’t know the project.” “He knows I don’t like to be touched this way.”

9. Overgeneralization

This way of cognitive processing draws sweeping conclusions from a single incident and applies it to related and to unrelated situations. You use words like, “always”, “never” or “everyone”.

You reach a conclusion about one event and then incorrectly apply that conclusion across the board.

For example: “Everytime I have a day off work, it rains.” “You only pay attention to me when you want to have sex.”

10. Personalisation

This is when you find you’re relating external events to yourself when there’s no basis for making such a connection. You find yourself making ‘should’ and ‘must’ statements.

Personalization has been associated with heightened anxiety and depression.

For example: “I felt disrespected because the cashier didn’t say thank you to me.” Without considering the cashier didn’t say thank you to anyone. “My husband left me because I’m a bad wife.” Not considering she was his fourth wife.

11. Imperatives

Cognitive errors here are when you’re having an overprecise idea of how others and others should behave, and overestimating the consequences of how bad it would be not to meet these expectations. You’re using statements like “should”, “ought” and “have to”.

It’s rarely helpful to chastise yourself with what you “should” be able to do in a given situation. Such thoughts can diminish your self-esteem and manifest anxiety levels rising.

For example: “My mother should’ve been better.” “He should’ve married Ann, instead of Mary.” “I shouldn’t have made so many mistakes.”

12. Jumping To Conclusions

If this is you, you draw conclusions, whether good or bad, from little or no confirmatory evidence. 

For example: “As soon as I saw him, I knew he had bad intentions.” “He looked at me and I’m sure he thought I was responsible for the accident.”

13. Blaming

These cognitive errors are commonly when you direct your attention to others as sources of your negative feelings and experiences, failing to consider your own responsibility. 

Or conversely, you take responsibility for the behaviors and attitudes of others.

For example: “My parents are to blame for my unhappiness.” “It’s my fault my son married such a selfish and uncaring person.”

What Is Selective Abstraction Example?

It commonly appears in Aaron T. Beck’s work with cognitive therapy and research. Selective abstraction is focusing on only the negative aspects of an event. 

These are negative cognitive errors when you’re paying undue attention to negative details rather than taking into account the whole picture or the complete situation.

This distorted cognitive processing can come from low self esteem and can lead to confusion between anxiety versus depression.

Good examples of negative cognitive errors are:

  • “I ruined the whole recital because of that one mistake”.
  • “My boss said he liked my presentation, but since he corrected a slide, I know he didn’t mean it.” “Even though the group said my work was good, one person pointed out an error, so I know I’ll be fired.”
  • Jenny delivered some teaching at her workplace and got a round of applause at the end as well as numerous colleagues telling her how well she did and how helpful they had found her presentation.

When she looked at the feedback forms afterwards she noticed one form with critical comments and a poor rating. She couldn’t stop thinking about this one piece of negative feedback and criticized herself saying “I’m such a rubbish teacher”.

As a result she felt awful. Jenny’s thinking process was distorted because she had managed to ignore all of the positive feedback she had received and focus solely on the negative. She did this automatically and without realizing she had done it.

Facts About Selective Abstraction
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What Is An Example Of Overgeneralization In Psychology?

Overgeneralizing in clinical psychology is when you use overly broad language in our evaluations of events or people. 

The language people use when they talk about provocations are words like “always,” “never,” “everybody,” and “nobody.”

This type of thinking and language matters because you then start responding to the pattern of events instead of just the one event that’s just happened.

This tendency to overgeneralize makes you angrier than when you use more realistic and accurate language (Martin & Dahlen, 2007; 2011; Martin & Vieaux, 2013). People who overgeneralize tend to have terrible aggression more often than others.

This anger is expressed in less healthy ways, and you suffer greater consequences as a result of your anger.

Symptoms Include:

  • Viewing negative experiences as a set pattern
  • Assuming one failure will predict ongoing failure in the same activity/task
  • Worsening negative self-talk
  • The feeling that you cannot do anything right

According to clinical psychology, if you experience overgeneralization, you may view any negative experience that happens as a part of an inevitable pattern of mistakes.

This can add to social anxiety, impacting your life greatly and inhibiting your daily routine.

While overgeneralization can be a very distressing symptom, it can be managed and anxiety lessened by reframing your perceptions.

  • An example:

Carl gets a C- on a piece of homework, thinks to himself “I’m going to fail everything”, and feels hopeless.

Carl’s thinking is distorted in this case because the conclusion he’s reaching is too broad given the evidence.

It’s equally likely that his c-minus is a ‘blip’ and that he’ll do well on tests in the future, or that there were good reasons why he got a poor grade this time that could be remedied in the future.

Is Cognitive Distortion A Mental Illness?

Cognitive distortions are common, entirely normal, and not our fault. None of us are 100% logical and rational like Mr Spock. But when cognitive errors are present in our lives to an excessive degree they are associated with poor mental health. 

There is strong evidence that people with depression and anxiety disorders think in characteristically biased and unhelpful ways. Recognizing and then overcoming unhelpful thinking styles is frequently an important part of CBT treatment for anxiety and depression.

This is especially the case for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, negative thoughts are extremely common in certain mental health disorders.

How Do You Explain Cognitive Distortions?

As conscious beings we are always interpreting the world around us, trying to make sense of what’s happening.

Sometimes our brains take ‘short cuts’ and generate results that aren’t completely accurate. Different cognitive shortcuts result in different kinds of bias or distortions in our thinking. 

Sometimes we jump to the worst possible conclusion, at other times we blame ourselves for things that aren’t our fault. This can manifest anxiety.

Common cognitive distortions happen automatically – we don’t mean to think inaccurately – but unless we learn to notice them they can have powerful yet invisible effects upon our moods and our lives. 

Overcoming such a lifelong cognitive distortion is not an easy task. Cognitive therapy can help with changing your mindset to start seeing the positive side of things.

Examples Of Selective Abstraction

To see more clearly the concept of selective abstraction, here are a number of examples easily understood about how this type of cognitive distortion works:

1. The Bus Arrives Late

You’re at the bus stop and see it’s taking longer than usual. You immediately consider the possibility of the driver being totally incompetent.

That the driver’s just not caring about the users of the service, not bothered by keeping passengers waiting, or delaying people. .. instead of thinking that, maybe today’s traffic is fatal.

These thoughts make you angrier and angrier. Then you anticipate the negative consequences of delay, such as the boss will criticize you upon arriving at the office.

You also get mad at yourself, telling yourself how irresponsible you are for not getting up early and avoiding all of this.

2. I Wasn’t Greeted By My Classmate

You’re walking down the street and in the distance you see a classmate and greet him, but he doesn’t greet you.

Instead of considering the possibility he just didn’t see you, you started to think about  all the possible negative reasons

You think in class he speaks to you simply out of necessity, or that he’s socially obliged to do so. You extend it to think you’re not popular, that you generate rejection towards others, etc.

3. The Child Failed In Math

Your son brings his marks of the term and you see he’s failed in math.

Immediately you scold him, telling him it wouldn’t happen if he studied more, that video games are to blame, that he isn’t careful enough, etc.

By this example, we don’t mean this topic should be ignored or nothing should be done to prevent it from happening again. 

However, just as the child has difficulty with numbers, he can have several strengths, such as having a very good grade in art.

By focusing on the evil of math failure, we ignore the child’s artistic talents, castrating his desire to be a major painter in favor of an obsession with passing in math.

Selective Abstraction Psychology

In clinical psychology, selective abstraction is a type of cognitive bias or distorted cognitive processing in which only the negative aspects of an event are taken out of context and believed whilst everything else within context is ignored.

It commonly appears in people with low self esteem and generalized anxiety disorders.

A team of researchers analyzed the association between cognitive errors in youths with anxiety disorders using the Children’s Negative Cognitive Error Questionnaire (CNCEQ).

Cognitive therapy and research with this questionnaire development normative data and self reported symptoms through several tools. 

The Children’s Depression Inventory, Childhood Anxiety Sensitivity Index, Revised Children’s Manifest Anxiety Scale, and the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory for Children-Trait Version gave researchers insight.

By assessing the CNCEQ from the self reporting measures, the researchers found that selective abstraction was related to both child depression and measures of anxiety.

It has also been linked to depression, in some scientific studies. One study noted “some consistent findings have emerged with respect to the presence of specific cognitive errors in anxiety versus depression. 

The existing research on these cognitive errors using the Children’s Negative Cognitive Error Questionnaire are associated with symptoms of anxiety and depression and that certain errors, such as catastrophizing and overgeneralizing, may be more related to anxiety, whereas

selective abstraction may be more related to depression.

Weems et al. (2001) examined the association between negative cognitive errors assessed with the CNCEQ and anxiety symptoms as well as anxiety sensitivity assessed with the Childhood Anxiety Sensitivity Index (Silverman et al., 1991) in a sample of children and adolescents who were clinic referred for anxiety disorders (N=251, ages 6-16 years).

Results indicated that the types of errors, except selective abstraction, were significantly positively related to self reported symptoms of anxiety and anxiety sensitivity even when controlling for levels of depression.

Selective Abstraction CBT

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a widely recognized form of talk therapy in which people learn to identify, interrupt, and change unhealthy thinking patterns.

Cognitive distortions can have a negative influence on our mood and eventually lead to unhealthy behaviors. The connection between your thoughts and actions is part of the reason cognitive distortions are considered a central part of CBT.

The good news is that these types of cognitive bias can be corrected over time.

Here are some steps to take if you’re open to change unhelpful thought patterns:

1. Identify the troublesome thought

When you realize a thought is causing anxiety or dampening your mood, a good first step is to figure out what kind of distorted thinking is taking place.

2. Try reframing the situation

Look for shades of gray, alternative explanations, objective evidence, and positive interpretations to expand your thinking.

You might find it helpful to write down your original thought, followed by three or four alternative interpretations.

3. Perform a cost-benefit analysis

People usually repeat behaviors that deliver some benefit.

You might find it helpful to analyze how your thought patterns have helped you cope in the past. Do they give you a sense of control in situations where you feel powerless? Do they allow you to avoid taking responsibility or taking necessary risks?

You can also ask yourself what engaging in selective abstraction costs you. Weighing the pros and cons of your thought patterns could motivate you to change them.

Selective Abstraction Vs Arbitrary Inferences

Selective Abstraction

Selective abstraction is “the process of focusing on a detail taken out of context, ignoring other more salient features of the situation, and conceptualizing the whole experience on the basis of this element”.

  • An Example:

Jenny had a presentation at her workplace and got a round of applause at the end as well as numerous people saying how well she did and how helpful they found her presentation.

Looking at the feedback forms, she noticed one with critical comments and a poor rating. She couldn’t stop thinking about this feedback and criticised herself saying, “I’m such a rubbish teacher”.

Jenny’s thinking is distorted here because she has automatically focused on the one negative piece of feedback to the exclusion of all the positive feedback – her judgement of her teaching wasn’t a fair reflection of the evidence.

Arbitrary Inference

Arbitrary inference is “the process of forming an interpretation of a situation, event, or experience when there is no factual evidence to support the conclusion or where the conclusion is contrary to the evidence”.

  • An Example:

John walked down the street and thought to himself, “Everyone can tell I’m a loser”.

This thought is distorted for a number of reasons: There’s no way of knowing what ‘everyone’ thinks, and it’s extremely unlikely that anybody is even thinking about him. Most people are likely to be wrapped up in their own concerns, just as he is. This can lead to anxious symptoms.

Selective Abstraction Vs Over Generalization

Selective Abstraction

A cognitive distortion, occurring despite the fact that a situation has both good and bad things, we prefer to see the bad ones, and they’re even magnified.

This style of thinking occurs automatically, without the person thinking carefully about whether he or she is really giving more importance to it than to a certain negative situation.

It often occurs in people who’ve been raised in environments where the weaknesses of each person or situation are highlighted, instead of also focusing on virtues and strengths, all leading to low self esteem.

Moreover, people who think this way justify it by believing that, by looking at the negative points, they will run less risk of feeling disappointed or even feel better about detecting faults in others, especially because they have low self esteem.


Overgeneralization is the process of “drawing a general conclusion about their ability, performance, or worth on the basis of a single incident”.

Many people with social anxiety think in terms of overgeneralization, a cognitive distortion that can worsen anxiety, depression, and fear.

It can be a real challenge ahead to shift to positive thinking and positive qualities by analyzing reality in your daily life. However, cognitive therapy and research shows normative data and comparisons that it can be done.

While overgeneralization can be a very distressing symptom, it can be managed and anxiety lessened by reframing your perceptions.

If you’d like some guidance in identifying cognitive bias, overcoming it and changing distorted thinking, you might find CBT useful.

In some form or other, we’ve probably all used selective abstractive with cognitive errors at some point in our lives. Once you’re aware of the negative cognitive errors it can truly change your life.

I invite you to leave a comment and then share this with 3 others you know who could really benefit ✅ from knowing this information.

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About The Author

Bijan Kholghi is a certified life coach with the Milton Erickson Institute Heidelberg (Germany). He helps clients and couples reach breakthroughs in their lives by changing subconscious patterns. His solution-oriented approach is based on Systemic- and Hypnotherapy.