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Have you ever looked through a pair of binoculars? If you look through them one way you will see a magnified view of whatever you are looking at. Turn the binoculars around and look through them the other way and you will see a minimised view of what ever you are looking at; however, neither view is reality. This is a very simplified analogy to explain a condition known as Magnification and Minimisation, one of the many forms of cognitive distortions, where a person’s mind convinces them of something that isn’t really true.
Cognitive distortions are consistent unhelpful, unrealistic or irrational thoughts, or errors in our thinking. The way that we are thinking about something doesn’t match up with the reality of what is happening. Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions, telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves by playing broken records.
Researchers and psychologists when studying cognitive distortions have identified that there are many different types of the condition displaying differing, usually negative thought patterns; however, some features of specific forms may overlap between the different types of cognitive distortions. Amongst the most common forms of cognitive distortions experienced by people is Magnification and Minimisation.
What is magnification and minimisation?
Magnification and minimisation is a cognitive distortion in which people exaggerate certain aspects of themselves, other people, or a situation whilst often simultaneously downplaying others. This typically involves magnifying negative elements such as the mistakes they have made, while minimising their positive aspects such as successes or achievements.
Cognitive distortions is a term used in psychology to refer to the thoughts that occur when a person’s mind convinces them of something that is untrue. When these inaccurate beliefs influence a person’s thoughts, emotions and actions, they can feel anxious, stressed, angry or depressed about themselves, or about the world around them.
For many of these people, cognitive distortions occur as automatic thoughts; they are so habitual that the thinker often doesn’t realise that they have the ability to change them, and they grow to believe that’s just the way things are.
The magnification aspects of the condition can be likened to another cognitive distortion type, “catastrophising”, which involves blowing things out of all proportion and exaggerating the negative aspects of a situation. For example, a person who is struggling with magnification might believe that a small mistake they made at work is a catastrophic event that will ruin their career. This type of thinking can lead to unnecessary anxiety and stress.
The minimisation aspects of the condition, on the other hand, involve downplaying the significance or importance of events or situations. A person who is struggling with minimisation might brush off their own accomplishments or the positive aspects of a situation, leading to low self-esteem and a distorted view of their own abilities.
Although it is human nature to minimise the importance of anything that disagrees with or challenges our thinking, and to magnify the importance of anything that supports it, there is a danger of adopting this often inaccurate thought process, and it becoming consistent and habitual. This type of thinking can lead to a distorted view of reality and can have negative impacts on a person’s emotional wellbeing and overall functioning.
It is thought that cognitive distortions such as magnification and minimisation develop over time and whilst they are not a mental illness in themselves, the negative thinking and feelings that are involved in these cognitive distortions can exacerbate and contribute to some mental health conditions, often becoming an associated disorder.
For example, in depression, magnification and minimisation is likely to manifest as a person underestimating their achievements or abilities (negative minimisation), while inflating their flaws or problems (negative magnification). In the UK, around 1 in 6 (17%) adults experience some form of depression.
Conversely, in bipolar disorder a person is likely to exaggerate their abilities and have optimistic expectations (positive magnification), whilst minimising the obstacles that they may encounter (positive minimisation). 1.3 million people in the UK have bipolar, which is one in fifty people.
Magnification and minimisation are also apparent in anxiety disorders, contributing to the sense of vulnerability underlying these conditions, Anxious individuals tend to magnify the threats that they are facing while simultaneously minimising their personal resources and ability to cope.
Even though cognitive distortions such as magnification and minimisation may seem illogical, many experts believe these cognitive distortions might have evolved to help humans think adaptively, especially if the individual faced danger or a threat. These thought processes helped humans focus their attention on the dangerous aspects of a situation, such as the proximity, probability and severity of these threats, to ensure their survival.
What are the effects of magnification and minimisation?
To a certain extent, we all have cognitive distortions from time to time, including magnification and minimisation, but when they become the habitual way of thinking, this can lead to negative emotions, unbalanced thinking, and exacerbate anxiety, social anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.
Magnifying and/or minimising their perception of events, situations or people can negatively impact a person’s judgement, reasoning and decision-making. People who magnify and minimise will often pay too much attention to the worst-case scenarios in almost all areas of their lives, and can become overwhelmed by negative emotions. These can then spiral into mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
A person magnifying mistakes, weaknesses or shortcomings can have the effect of triggering poor self-esteem, feelings of low self-worth and an unbalanced view of themselves, as can minimising their achievements, strengths and attributes. On the other hand, a person who magnifies their achievements, strengths and attributes and minimises their mistakes, weaknesses or shortcomings, may have an over-inflated sense of self-importance, self-admiration and extreme over-confidence that may border on narcissism.
Aspects of magnification and minimisation can be seen in the signs and symptoms of people who experience phobias, where they may magnify the danger that whatever they fear presents, and minimise their own ability to cope with the situation. This irrational thinking can have the effect of exacerbating the phobia and even contributing to panic disorders associated with phobias.
Often, people who have addictions such as alcohol or drug abuse will minimise their addiction to both themselves and to others, denying that they have an issue. This can have the effect of making it far more difficult to face the issue and get the help that they need.
When people fall into using this magnification and minimisation thought process habitually, this can contribute to feelings of inadequacy and a sense of being defective, which may affect their physical and mental wellbeing.
On a few occasions, magnification and minimisation can have positive effects when not taken to extreme. It can be useful to magnify and minimise in certain circumstances; for example, magnifying can help a person’s mind to stay focused on potential threats, prepare them for danger, or help them to avoid doing risky things. Minimisation on the other hand, used appropriately, can portray modesty rather than appearing arrogant and can be used to moderate others’ expectations, for example when a person under promises and over delivers.
Examples of magnification and minimisation
Magnification and minimisation operate on a spectrum – a scale between two extreme points – and these can amplify a positive or a negative perception of reality.
Negative examples of magnification and minimisation thinking might include, but are not limited to:
- “I failed my driving test, which really proves what a bad driver I am”
- “My boss found a spelling mistake in my report, I am rubbish at report writing”
- “The garden looks like a jungle, there’s too much to do, I’ll never sort it out”
- “You are 5 minutes late, you have spoiled the whole evening”
- Focusing on the one customer who complained whilst ignoring the great reviews from many others
- Someone acting as if they have a terminal illness when they are suffering from a slight cold
- Deciding one rainy day on holiday means the whole holiday was a disaster
- Thinking that the birthday party is ruined because you forgot the candles for the cake, even though the guests had a great time and didn’t even notice the lack of candles
- Exaggerating how awful someone was to you or how dreadful a slight mishap was
- Magnifying body image, even a hint of clothes feeling tighter or just “feeling” big in your body, turns to thoughts of your weight being out of control
- “Even though I passed my driving test first time, it still doesn’t prove that I am a good driver”
- Having cooked a great meal, commenting that it must have been a fluke
- Brushing off compliments as nothing, rather than gracefully accepting them
- Ignoring signs of a serious medical condition as nothing to be concerned about
- Playing down the amount of alcohol you drink
- Making light of a serious car accident, saying you were in the wrong place at the wrong time
- Believing that a major accomplishment or success is just luck or coincidence rather than hard work
- Dismissing a child’s constant poor behaviour as them being high-spirited
Positive examples of magnification and minimisation thinking might include, but are not limited to:
- Over-exaggerating your skills or accomplishments
- Bragging about one positive review and ignoring the bad ones
- Believing that other candidates will have better qualifications for the job you are applying for
- Depicting a mediocre event as the best thing since sliced bread
- “I won with my first bet; I am lucky so will bet again”
- “The first date was great, this will be a long-term relationship”
- “Even though I have maximum points on my driving licence, it doesn’t mean that I am a bad driver”
- “Although I didn’t prepare for the presentation, I did OK, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been”
- “I can drink as much as I like, I don’t get any ill effects”
- “I’m sure things are not as bad as you make out”
In both positive and negative aspects of magnification and minimisation, things either appear much larger or much smaller than they actually are. All permutations of this distorted thinking process can have immediate effects in a person’s life, such as on their self-worth, relationships, work and career etc.
Magnification can be seen as a similar act as boasting. People can use magnification when highlighting or inflating their achievements or putting value on their possessions or worth, giving an inaccurate impression of themselves, others or situations. For example, at interview a person may exaggerate their part in team achievements, or when recounting their holiday they embellish details such as the hotel and its facilities, or the beauty of the resort.
Minimisation can be seen as a similar act as denial. People can use minimisation when attempting to convince someone else that the wrongful thing that they did wasn’t really as bad or as harmful as they know it was, and as they know the other person thinks it was. The person might admit part of what they did was wrong, and usually not the most serious part. For example, a person might admit to driving without a seatbelt when they crashed the car, omitting the part that they were speeding at the time. Or, someone experiencing alcohol issues may admit to having one, omitting the fact that it was one bottle, not one glass.
Magnification and minimisation almost always play a big role in procrastination. For example, a person may magnify the enormity and difficulty of the task they have been putting off, “It will take me forever to write that report, and I just don’t have any time now”, and they minimise the benefits of just getting started on it immediately, even if they only have a few minutes to make a start, “I only have the time to write just the introduction of the report, and there is little point in doing that as it will only be 10% of the whole report”.
How to know if you are using magnification and/or minimisation
Has anyone ever accused you of making a mountain out of a molehill or blowing things out of proportion? Do you shrug off a compliment with a “it’s nothing” or “you are only saying that”? Do you find yourself dismissing or playing down your achievements and thinking, “this is no big deal”? Do you recognise yourself in any of the examples given earlier in this article?
If the answer is yes, to any or all of these, then chances are that you are, or have been, using magnification and/or minimisation. It is something that most of us probably do from time to time. However, if you are magnifying and minimising too much or too often, these thoughts can become consistent and habitual – something done without really realising that you are doing it – because it works so automatically and unconsciously. But, you should keep in mind that thoughts are just an interpretation and may not accurately reflect the situation.
How to overcome magnification and minimisation
Cognitive distortions such as magnification and minimisation are a habit, and like any other habit, you need to notice it to be able to break it. Once noticed, fortunately, there are things that you can do about it.
When you identify a thought that is probably a magnification and minimisation, or someone remarks that you are making a mountain out of a molehill, or pays you a compliment that you brush aside, step away from your thoughts and take a fresh look at the situation. In other words, if you stopped using the binoculars, how would you see this differently? Ask yourself:
- What aspects of this situation might you be amplifying or zooming in on?
- What aspects of this situation might you be diminishing or zooming out from?
- Imagine how someone else might view this thought. Would an objective person agree that it is 100% true? If not, why not?
- What thought or attitude would help you take into account both the negative and the positive aspects of this situation?
- Are there good things that you might be minimising right now?
- What positives are you dismissing or discounting?
- Are there bad things that you might be magnifying right now?
- What negatives are you focusing on or accepting?
- What would be a more balanced way of seeing this situation?
- How would you rewrite your thought without a magnification and/or minimisation distortion?
In times of magnification, highlighting other perspectives outside of yourself can help ground you over time. Try asking yourself, “what is the worst that could happen?”
A simple exercise that can help to reduce the impact of magnification and minimisation distorted thoughts on your mind is to draw two columns and then document the relevant pros and cons for any situation that you face. Try to keep the list of pros longer than the list of cons. For example, if the garden looks like a jungle, try to tease out the positives of the experience, such as: although it is a big task, it would be good exercise to start to tackle the weeding, clearing the weeds gives you an opportunity to plant vegetables and save money on the shopping etc. By keeping the list more positive than negative, you can avoid setting up a vicious cycle.
By actively challenging and rewriting these thoughts of magnification and minimisation, you can address and correct this distorted type of thinking pattern.
Also pay attention to situations or feelings that tend to lead to magnification and minimisation thinking. This can help you to recognise when the thought pattern is beginning.
Mindfulness helps you observe your thoughts without judgement and be more present in the moment. Try breathing deeply, remaining present in the moment, and noticing small details of your surroundings, sights, sounds, smells and sensations. Mindfulness means being present and grounded in the current moment rather than fixating on the past or future. Meditation and other relaxation techniques can help.
If you are struggling with magnification and minimisation thinking, particularly if it is affecting your mental wellbeing, you may want to get professional help. Therapies including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help, which aims to teach people that while they cannot control every aspect of the world around them, they can take control of how they interpret and deal with situations. The NHS talking therapies services finder can help you find out which services are available in your local area. You can also find accredited CBT therapists through the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP).
Next time you catch yourself blowing things out of proportion or playing things down, keep in mind that the way that you think about situations depends largely on your mood. You are more likely to experience irrational thoughts when you are feeling anxious or down.
Remember that a person’s feelings are not reality, feelings mirror the way a person thinks, and if their thinking isn’t accurate, their feelings will not entirely reflect the actuality. It is sometimes good to question thoughts and feelings, even if they feel genuine, to check whether they are distorted.