Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is based on the theory that much of how we feel is determined by what we think. Disorders, such as depression, are believed to be the result of faulty thoughts and beliefs. In this method and theory of psychotherapy, it’s believed that by correcting these inaccurate beliefs, the person’s perception of events and emotional state improve.

It’s called “cognitive behavioral” therapy because the treatment is composed of two main components — changing your cognitions, or thoughts, and changing your behaviors. Changing your thoughts can help lead to behavioral changes, and vice-a-versa. Both components seem to be important in order to effect meaningful, lasting change in a person and help them cope with their mental health concerns.

Research on depression, for instance, has shown that people with depression often have inaccurate beliefs about themselves, their situation, and the world around them. A list of common cognitive errors and real life examples is listed below:


This refers to relating negative events to oneself when there is no basis.

Example — When walking down the hallway at work, John says hello to the company CEO. The CEO does not respond and keeps walking. John interprets this as the CEO’s lack of respect for him. He gets demoralized and feels rejected. However, the CEO’s behavior may have nothing to do with John. He may have been preoccupied about an upcoming meeting, or had a fight with his wife that morning. If John considered that the CEO’s behavior may not be related to him personally, he is likely to avoid this negative mood.

Dichotomous Thinking

This refers to seeing things as black and white, all or none. This is usually detected when a person can generate only two choices in a situation.

Example — Mary is having a problem at work with one of her supervisors who she believes is treating her badly. She convinces herself that she has only two options: tell her boss off or quit. She is unable to consider a host of other possibilities such as talking to her boss in a constructive way, seeking guidance from a higher supervisor, contacting employee relations, etc.

Selective Abstraction

This refers to focusing only on certain aspects of a situation, usually the most negative.

Example — During a staff meeting at work, Susan presents a proposal for solving a problem. Her solution is listened to with great interest and many of her ideas are applauded. However, at one point her supervisor points out that her budget for the project appears to be grossly inadequate. Susan ignores the positive feedback she has received and focuses on this one comment. She interprets it as a lack of support from her boss and a humiliation in front of the group.


This refers to distorting the importance of particular events.

Example — Robert is a college student who wants to go to medical school. He knows that his college grade point average will be used by schools during the admission process. He receives a D in a class on American History. He becomes demoralized thinking now that his lifelong dream to be a physician is no longer possible.

Cognitive behavioral therapists work with the person to challenge thinking errors like those listed above. By pointing out alternative ways of viewing a situation, the person’s view of life, and ultimately their mood will improve. Research has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy can be as effective as medication in the long-term treatment of depression.

Learn more: 15 Common Cognitive Distortions

Learn More About Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Also, read our in-depth article about cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).