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Anyone who listens to, reads or watches news and current affairs at the moment is forgiven for thinking that the world is a bad place, full of bad people. These types of negative situations are highlighted, often omitting any of the positive aspects of the story, or if the reporting is more balanced, we become so accustomed to the negative aspects, that frequently we fail to hear or recognise the positives. We get used to thinking that this type of negative analysis is the correct way to think. This negative perspective can gradually become fixed in our brains, and because of this we find difficulty in detecting the defects in this type of reasoning.
In the real world, nothing is ever all bad. There are, after all, good things happening in the world, just as there are good people, we just tend to hear less about them or take less notice of them, perhaps because these don’t need to change; instead it is the bad things that should be remedied. Through this type of media reporting, we are being exposed to a mental filtering known as selective abstraction.
What is selective abstraction?
Selective abstraction, which is also referred to as mental filtering, is a form of cognitive distortion that leads a person to magnify the negative details of a situation, whilst filtering out the positives. The psychiatrist Aaron Beck frequently referred to mental filtering during his work in cognitive therapy in the 1960s, when he found a link between focusing on negative details and both depression and anxiety, and more recent research has backed up Beck’s findings.
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. 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.
Selective abstraction cognitive distortion is the opposite of another form of cognitive distortion, overgeneralisation, but with the same negative outcome. Instead of taking one small event and generalising it inappropriately, the selective abstraction takes one small event and focuses on it exclusively, filtering out anything else. It can be seen as looking at things through the lens of a microscope of negativity.
A person undergoing the selective abstraction form of cognitive distortion may experience it in two different ways. The first, negative mental filtering, is when a person focuses on the negatives of a situation and filters out all the positive aspects. They will magnify those negative details and dwell on those feelings. Their vision of reality can become darkened and distorted due to their focus on the negatives. This prevents them from seeing things clearly as they are focused on what is not working, rather than what is working. For example, a person gives a presentation and, as they expected, it was successful. However, one of the attendees makes a minor criticism of their presentation. The presenter completely loses the feeling of triumph, and the only thing that gets stored in their memory is this criticism, which they will relive over and over again in the following days.
The other form of selective abstraction is disqualifying the positive. This differs from negative mental filtering in that this distortion acknowledges the positive experiences but refuses to accept them. The person will invalidate and ignore the positives while finding excuses to turn them into negatives. This occurs even though there is clear evidence that the experience is positive. For example, a person has attended a party and afterwards focuses on the one awkward look directed their way and ignores the hours of enjoyable interaction with the other guests.
These cognitive distortions occur when someone is paying undue attention to or fixating on negative details, rather than taking into account, and acknowledging, the complete situation, or seeing the whole picture.
Selective abstraction shares some of the traits of other cognitive distortions such as perfectionism, all-or-nothing thinking, and labelling when applying overly critical self-evaluations and negative assessments of other people or situations.
Factors that influence selective abstraction
Selective abstraction can make a person anxious or depressed as symptoms of the condition lead people to feel as though the negatives outweigh the positives in life. Conversely, individuals living with anxiety or depressive disorders often struggle with more cognitive distortions than those without anxiety or depression. People who are already experiencing depression can develop selective abstraction about everyday events. One of the triggers that cause a person to be trapped in these distorted thoughts can be a downward depressive spiral. A downward spiral is defined as a situation with a series of negative thoughts, emotions and actions that continuously feeds back into itself, causing the situation to become progressively worse.
Another factor that might influence selective abstraction may be the fact that humans often naturally pay more attention to threats or negative information. This is linked to our “fight or flight” response, an innate survival mechanism that humans have developed during our evolution. This can fuel some forms of cognitive distortions such as selective abstraction, especially in times of stress or uncertainty.
Similar to many other cognitive distortions, developing selective abstraction can also be influenced by a number of other mental health conditions, such as but not limited to:
Other circumstances that could influence distorted or negative thought patterns developing may include a person’s life experience or childhood environment. The more severe the life experiences or life events are, the more probable it is that cognitive distortions will come about. Research shows that people develop cognitive distortions as a way of coping with adverse life events. The longer and more severe these adverse events are, the more likely it is that one or more cognitive distortions will develop. People can indulge in dwelling on negative emotions, because it is a form of defence against certain situations and challenges. These thoughts may occur automatically and unconsciously, and can affect the way an individual may interpret some event occurring in their life. People who have experienced abuse such as domestic abuse, mental or physical abuse, child abuse, or sexual abuse can be more susceptible to engaging in selective abstraction.
When a person has low self-esteem, they may be more inclined to focus on negatives whilst disregarding or minimising the positives. They often develop negative thinking patterns and engage in negative self-talk.
Examples of selective abstraction
Selective abstraction consists of focusing attention on the negative and filtering out and excluding all other information or aspects of a situation, especially the more positive ones. These selective abstractions are not only directed at the world and people around the person, but can also be directed internally to the person themselves in the form of negative self-talk.
Some examples of this include:
- You have a big birthday coming up and friends have organised a party at a prestigious venue, inviting friends and family to join in the celebration. Your focus, however, is on the negative fact that you are getting older, that people probably won’t want to come, that you have nothing to wear and that it is a lot of expense for just one night, rather than the positives of looking forward to seeing friends and family, celebrating in a lovely venue with good food and drink, having friends that care enough to organise the event etc.
- Your partner offers to do the housework whilst you are out at work. When you return your attention is drawn to the negative fact that they have omitted to empty the rubbish bin. You do not acknowledge the positive facts that they have vacuumed, made the bed, washed up, tidied up and dusted. A row starts where you accuse your partner of being lazy for not emptying the rubbish – they never do anything useful – despite the fact that the house is now clean and tidy.
- At college, 80% of the final assessment is based upon course work which you have submitted and received good pass marks for; however, you fail the written exam which only accounts for 20% of the final assessment. Although your overall assessment is 75%, a very good pass mark, you focus on the exam that you failed and brand yourself a total failure.
- On a day out you fixate on how dirty the streets are, how heavy the traffic is, how busy the shops are, rather than enjoying the company of others and enjoying a change of scene.
- A colleague fails to say hello to you when you walk past each other in the street. Rather than consider that they simply may not have seen you, you assume that they dislike you, or that you have done something to offend them.
- A manager who applies selective abstraction when monitoring and assessing the work of their team, highlights failures in the team’s and individuals’ performance and ignores progress and achievements.
- A person who is undergoing a fitness or healthy eating regime will unfairly criticise themselves and put emphasis on any deviation from the regime, rather than commend themselves for their successes. For example, they lose 10 lbs overall, but they can not see past the 2 lbs they put on in week 3.
- A person becomes withdrawn, avoiding leaving their home and socialising because their negative thought patterns tell them that the world outside their front door is a dangerous place. They take this information from the negative media reporting, blanking out any positive stories and the positive reassurance from those around them.
Effects of selective abstraction
Selective abstraction, as with other forms of cognitive distortions, when it becomes the habitual way of thinking, can lead to negative emotions and unbalanced thinking, and can exacerbate anxiety, social anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. People experiencing selective abstraction tend to beat themselves up and wallow in negative feelings. Selective abstraction can cause a person to be hyper-critical of themselves, of others, and of events and situations, only seeing the negative aspects, rather than taking into account the whole picture. It can lead to unhealthy self-talk. If people only think negatively, they might form negative thinking patterns and talk negatively about themselves. This can result in low self-esteem and feelings of being a failure, of inadequacy or of worthlessness.
As well as impacting mental health conditions described above, a study by University College London (UCL) involving 292 patients aged 55 and older, found that persistent negative thinking such as that involved in selective abstraction, was linked to a decline of cognitive reasoning and revealed indicators of Alzheimer’s disease. They found that people who exhibited higher repetitive negative thinking patterns experienced more cognitive decline over a four-year period.
When someone highlights the negatives in others’ actions, behaviours or appearance this can have the effect of lowering the person’s motivation and self-esteem and instil feelings of being a failure or of worthlessness.
Selective abstraction can negatively affect relationships. By focusing solely on the negative aspects of interactions, a person may overlook the positive, damaging interpersonal connections and causing conflicts.
People who maintain selective abstraction become angry more often. They often have an entire list of things that they cannot bear or of things that make them angry; their tolerance levels are extremely low. Also, they can then feel indignant and even attacked by other people’s mistakes.
Some people use the self-criticism and the negative self-talk of selective abstraction to avoid disappointment when things might not or do not go as well as they might have liked. Expecting failure can become a self-fulfilling prophecy as a low mood and negative mindset will have an impact on events.
Fixating on negatives impedes the ability for someone to learn from their mistakes. When all that a person can see is what went wrong, they are not seeing the opportunities to correct the situation.
Ways to manage and overcome selective abstraction
To manage selective abstraction, you must consciously start to manage negative thought patterns so you can begin to see your efforts and achievements and those of others in a more positive light. Next time that you find yourself focusing on negative thoughts, take a step back and examine all aspects. It may help to take a piece of paper and divide it into two columns, positive and negative. Note down all the positives and all the negatives; for example, if you had a bad comment about your report, how many good comments did you get? What could you learn from the bad comment to move forward? What did you learn from the good comments to build upon? Chances are that your positive column will almost always outweigh your negative column. If you are finding this difficult, ask a trusted friend to help.
Try to identify any triggers for your selective abstraction thought patterns. What are your feelings? Think about what led to these negative thoughts, what you were doing and who was there. Recognise that these are your feelings and perceptions rather than actual facts, they are not real. Chances are that you will discover that the negative thought processes are triggered in certain circumstances that make you feel insecure.
Recognise your strengths and write down your strengths and achievements. Think about how your qualifications, experience and expertise have led to where you are now. Keep a record of positive feedback from others too, and read this back to yourself whenever you need a boost.
Keep in mind that other people are more than one aspect of their actions, behaviour or appearance. Try to appreciate all aspects of them rather than highlighting the negative. For every negative evaluation you make of someone or something, immediately try to counter it with a positive one.
Try mindfulness, that is 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.
If you are struggling with selective abstraction, 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).
If you are prone to selective abstraction and negative self-talk, and let’s face it, we all do it from time to time, learn to identify, challenge and reframe your negative thought patterns. Selective abstraction can be overcome and this can lead to a more balanced and positive outlook on life.