What is Cognitive Restructuring? Cognitive Restructuring In A Nutshell

Cognitive restructuring describes the process of bringing awareness and change to negative thought patterns. Cognitive restructuring is integral to the principle of cognitive mediation. This principle states that the emotional reaction an individual has to a situation is not caused by the situation itself. Instead, it is largely governed by what the individual thinks about the situation. Using the power of cognitive mediation, cognitive restructuring helps the individual change their life by empowering them to change the way they think. This form of empowerment is a fundamental aspect of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

Understanding cognitive restructuring

When an individual experiences trauma, certain thought patterns establish themselves and create a distorted view of reality. These negative thought patterns are called cognitive distortions, which over time lead to anxiety and depression.

Cognitive distortions are habitual ways of interacting with the world. They cause the individual to react negatively to certain people or stimuli – irrespective of whether the perceived threat is real or imagined. 

Common cognitive distortions that need to be restructured

There is of course no limit to the extent of scenarios that could elicit a negative response. 

However, most people respond to such a situation by using common cognitive distortions including:

  1. Black and white thinking – or a failure of judgement in thinking that fails to assess both the positive and negative aspects of self or others.
  2. Catastrophizing – where the individual tends to assume the worst will happen. It can also involve an exaggeration of the magnitude of a negative situation.
  3. Rumination – or a focus on repeatedly and obsessively thinking the same thoughts in a negative loop. There is a fixation on the causes and consequences of distress to the detriment of any solution.
  4. Personalization – a harmful distortion where someone believes that things that have nothing to do with them are their fault. 

Cognitive restructuring techniques

Cognitive restructuring techniques provide a means of analyzing and then rebuilding negative thought patterns into something more beneficial.

Here is how this technique should play out.

Self-awareness practice 

Cognitive restructuring cannot occur without some degree of self-awareness. Indeed, negative thought patterns must first be observed before they can be remedied. 

When these thoughts do arise, write them down in a journal. Where and when do they occur? Are there commonalities or trends? Record and observe self-analysis without judgment.

Question assumptions

Many negative thought patterns can be traced back to assumptions or generalizations. 

When an individual catches themselves making an assumption, they should begin a process of self-inquiry:

  • Are my thoughts based on emotion or fact?
  • Is there evidence that challenges my assumption?
  • Is the situation black and white? Or are there shades of grey?

In theory, this self-inquiry should unearth flaws in assumptive thinking.

Gather evidence

What is causing the negative thought pattern to be triggered? The individual should record any early memories they deem a potential culprit.

Create different thoughts

With an understanding of the drivers of negative thought patterns, the individual can use evidence to guide future responses. 

This starts by incorporating evidence-based thinking into their responses when triggered. Here, the focus is on small wins. Many will discover that replacing negative thought patterns is a slow and arduous process requiring patience.

Be self-compassionate

Those who tend to be self-critical will suffer the most when their negative thought patterns make a comeback out of nowhere. 

The individual must remember that no-one is perfect and have self-compassion for the difficult journey they have embarked on. 

Key takeaways:

  • Cognitive restructuring is an evidence-based approach to eliminating negative thought patterns.
  • Cognitive restructuring is effective in treating cognitive distortions, or negative and habitual ways of interacting with the world. 
  • Self-awareness is key to successful cognitive restructuring. Without an ability to identify and observe negative thought patterns, the individual will be unable to incorporate more beneficial ways of thinking.

Connected Business Concepts


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Moonshot Thinking

Moonshot thinking is an approach to innovation, and it can be applied to business or any other discipline where you target at least 10X goals. That shifts the mindset, and it empowers a team of people to look for unconventional solutions, thus starting from first principles, by leveraging on fast-paced experimentation.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What is marketing can be associated with social proof.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger

Read Next: Heuristics, Biases.

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