Court Trial Thought Challenging Record (Archived)
NOTE: An improved version of this resource is available here: Thought Record - Courtroom Trial. Older versions of a resource may be archived in the event that they are available in multiple languages, or where data indicates that the resource continues to be frequently used by clinicians.
Thought challenging records are commonly used in CBT to help people to evaluate their negative automatic thoughts for accuracy and bias. This Court Trial Thought Challenging Record uses the metaphor of a court trial, which makes the challenge of the negative thought explicit and concrete. The client is encouraged to adopt the role of a defense attorney to defend the truthfulness of the NAT, and the role of a prosecuting attorney attempting to undermine the truthfulness of the NAT. This format may be helpful when clients are able to identify their negative automatic thoughts (NATs), but they struggle to identify evidence against the NAT and to then generate a balanced, more realistic alternative thought. The court metaphor and the adoption of different roles can help clients to ‘de-center’ and view the situation more as an observer.
Beck’s cognitive model (Beck et al, 1979) proposes that events are not directly responsible for the way we feel. Rather, it is the interpretation of those events – our appraisals, thoughts, or cognitions – that trigger our emotional responses. The model implies that we can change how we feel by changing how we think. The CBT cognitive model describes different levels of cognition that underpin how we think about ourselves, other people and the world, shaping our interpretation and response to events. Moving from the deepest to the most superficial, these are:
- Core beliefs. These are understood as generalized statements that shape how an individual un- derstands themselves, other people, and the world (e.g. “I’m competent”, “I’m unlovable”, “No one can be trusted”, “The world is dangerous and unpredictable”, “I’m adaptable”).
- Intermediate beliefs. These are understood as a set of assumptions that guide behavior across different situations. They can often be stated in a conditional if-then format (e.g. “If someone is nice to me, it’s because they don’t know the real me”).
- Automatic thoughts. These arise quickly and without any apparent effort throughout our day to day lives, often in response to specific events (or in response to other thoughts or memories). Automatic thoughts are not facts, but they are so immediate and familiar that we often assume them to be true (e.g. your parent asks to speak to you and you think “It’s bound to be bad news”).
“Automatic thoughts... are situation specific and may be considered the most superficial level of cognition” (Beck & Beck, 1995, p. 34)
Automatic thoughts that result in negative emotions (e.g. sadness, anxiety, anger) are commonly described as Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATs). Some negative thoughts are accurate rep- resentations of the world (e.g. thinking “He could hurt me too” after seeing an acquaintance act violently would be both negative and accurate). However, automatic thoughts are often inaccurate – biased in characteristic ways – and there is considerable evidence that different mental health problems are associated with particular biases in thinking. For example, people who suffer from certain types of anxiety often ‘catastrophize’, and people who are depressed often discount positive information. Beck (1963) and Burns (1980) have described common cognitive biases which are outlined in more detail in our information handout Unhelpful Thinking Styles.
The Court Trial Thought Challenging Record is a cognitive restructuring worksheet. ‘Cognitive restructuring’ describes the category of techniques that cognitive therapists use to help their clients to overcome their cognitive biases and think differently. The aim of these techniques is not to ‘think happy thoughts’ or to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, rather, it is to overcome biases and to think accurately. CBT therapists use a variety of techniques to help their clients to develop cognitive restructuring skills, but a mainstay is the ‘thought record’. Thought records exist in multiple variants, depending on the needs and abilities of the client.
This worksheet is designed to help clients to challenge their negative automatic thoughts. It uses the metaphor of a court trial, which makes the challenge of the negative thought explicit and concrete. The client is encouraged to adopt the role of a defense attorney to defend the truthfulness of the NAT, and the role of a prosecuting attorney attempting to undermine the truthfulness of the NAT. Once clients have examined the thought from both of these perspectives, they are encouraged to take the role of the jury: to weigh the evidence and to come to a verdict on the truthfulness of the original thought. The final step is to generate a balanced opinion which fairly and dispassionately represents all of the evidence presented. This format may be helpful when clients are able to identify their negative automatic thoughts (NATs), but they struggle to identify evidence against the NAT and to then generate a balanced, more realistic alternative thought. The court metaphor and the adoption of different roles can help clients to ‘de-center’ and view the situation more as an observer.
“CBT says that the way we think about a situation affects how we feel. We all have hundreds of ‘automatic thoughts’ every day that just pop into our minds. They often feel so ‘natural’ that we don’t pause to consider whether they are true or not. That’s a problem because our automatic thoughts can often be biased – we can end up feeling bad because our thoughts have been unhelpful or inaccurate. One helpful technique is to ‘put your thoughts on trial’ and treat them like the defendant in a trial at court. Would you be willing to try it with me?”
- Put your thought in the dock. To begin, encourage the client to identify a specific negative thought that has been troubling them.
- What is the negative thought that has been troubling you?
- Which negative thought has been troubling you the most this week?
- Prosecution. Clients should be encouraged to adopt the role of the prosecution attorney. With this mindset, they should identify any evidence which supports the truthfulness of the negative thought. It is the prosecution attorney’s job to convince the jury that the negative thought is true.
- In a court trial, the prosecution attorney’s job is to convince the jury that the accused – this negative automatic thought – is guilty. What do you think the prosecution attorney would say to convince the jury that this thought is guilty (true)?
- What evidence would they use to support this argument?
- Defense. Once the prosecution has presented its evidence, the client should be encouraged to adopt the role of the defense. The client’s job is now to undermine the credibility of the negative thought, and to present evidence which supports alternative points of view.
- Now it’s the defense's turn. Your job is to prove to the jury that this thought is false. What do you think the defense attorney would say to convince the jury?
- What facts or evidence would a defense attorney use to discredit this thought?
- Tell the judge about a time when this thought was not true.
- Try finishing this sentence, ‘Objection your honour, this thought is not true because...’
- Jury & Verdict. Once the evidence for and against the thought has been presented, the client should be encouraged to adopt the role of the jury, who have to dispassionately weigh up the evidence that has been presented to them. Review the points written down in the Defense and the Prosecution boxes. To make the ‘balance’ of evidence explicit, the therapist might consider alternating between a point for the Defense and one for the Prosecution. Encourage the client to reconsider their negative thought in light of the evidence presented by the defense and prosecution.
- The jury’s job is to consider all the evidence for and against the thought. They have to set aside their feelings and make a balanced judgement based on the evidence presented. Let’s review the evidence together:
- Given all of the evidence presented, what do you think of the original thought now?
- What is a balanced and realistic way of looking at the thought now?
- Can you give a verdict on your original thought now, to sum up your new way of thinking?
- Beck, A.T. & Beck J.S. (1995). Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond. New York: Guilford.
- Beck, A.T., Rush, A.J., Shaw, B.F., & Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive therapy of depression. New York: Guilford.