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Emotional Reasoning

The Emotional Reasoning information handout forms part of the cognitive distortions series, designed to help clients and therapists to work more effectively with common thinking biases.

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Introduction & Theoretical Background

A brief introduction to cognitive distortions

Cognitive distortions, cognitive biases, or ‘unhelpful thinking styles’ are the characteristic ways our thoughts become biased (Beck, 1963). We are always interpreting the world around us, trying to make sense of what is happening. Sometimes our brains take ‘shortcuts’ and we think things that are not completely accurate. Different cognitive short cuts result in different kinds of bias or distortions in our thinking. Sometimes we might jump to the worst possible conclusion (“this rough patch of skin is cancer!”), at other times we might blame ourselves for things that are not our fault (“If I hadn’t made him mad he wouldn’t have hit me”), and at other times we might rely on intuition and jump to conclusions (“I know that they all hate me even though they’re being nice”). These biases are often maintained by characteristic unhelpful assumptions (Beck et al., 1979).

Different cognitive biases are associated with different clinical presentations. For example, catastrophizing is associated with anxiety disorders (e.g. Nöel et al, 2012), dichotomous thinking has been linked to emotional instability (Veen & Arntz, 2000), and thought-action fusion is associated with obsessive compulsive disorder (Shafran et al, 1996).

Catching automatic thoughts and (re)appraising them is a core component of traditional cognitive therapy (Beck et al, 1979; Beck, 1995; Kennerley, Kirk, Westbrook, 2007). Identifying the presence and nature of cognitive biases is often a helpful way of introducing this concept – clients are usually quick to appreciate and identify with the concept of ‘unhelpful thinking styles’, and can easily be trained to notice the presence of biases in their own automatic thoughts. Once biases have been identified, clients can be taught to appraise the accuracy of these automatic thoughts and draw new conclusions. 

Emotional reasoning

“Feelings are not conclusions, but rather are experiences that provide information” 

Elliott et al., 2004, p.25

Emotions are important. They give us valuable information:

  • Happiness tells us that something is rewarding.
  • Fear signals that there is a threat to our safety.
  • Sadness communicates that something significant has been lost.
  • Anger tells us that there has been a violation. 
  • Disgust signals that something is potentially toxic. 

They also direct the focus of our attention (e.g., Lench et al., 2016). For instance:

  • Happiness directions our attention towards sources of pleasure.
  • Fear directs our attention towards potential dangers. 
  • Sadness directs our attention towards losses, or the cause of losses. 
  • Anger directs our attention towards blameworthy targets. 
  • Disgust directs our attention towards potential contaminants. 

Finally, emotions turn “a thinking being into an actor” (Frijda et al., 2000, p.3), motivating us to take action to meet our needs (Nesse & Ellsworth, 2009). For example:

  • Happiness motivates us to repeat what we are doing.
  • Fear prompts us to seek safety.
  • Sadness encourages us to seek support or desist from tasks. 
  • Anger motivates attack or defense.
  • Disgust motivates avoidance and expulsion.

For these reasons, emotions are not only essential to survival, but also signal “what is important, and knowing what is important tells [people] what they need to do and who they are” (Elliott et al., 2004, p.24). 

Unfortunately, our emotional reactions can also be problematic. ‘Emotional reasoning’ (also referred to as ‘ex-consequentia reasoning’ and ‘feeling-driven thinking’) is a cognitive distortion associated with selective abstraction (Drapeau et al., 2008): “forming an interpretation… when there is no factual evidence to support the conclusion, or when the conclusion is contrary to the evidence” (Beck, 1963). Specifically, it is an arbitrary interpretation in which individuals make predictions or draw conclusions based on their feelings, intuitions, and hunches (Tolin, 2016).  

Emotional reasoning can be misleading because our emotional responses are influenced by cognitions which may differ from reality (Burns, 2020). Accordingly, individuals who engage in emotional reasoning are often inclined to interpretations which are “emotionally appealing rather than logically derived” (Williams et al., 2022, p.276).  

Burns (2020) suggests that emotional reasoning can be positive or negative in form:

  • Positive emotional reasoning involves basing your judgments and conclusions on positive emotions (e.g., telling yourself that you will win a bet because you feel lucky), which can lead to unnecessary risk-taking.  
  • Negative emotional reasoning involves basing your judgments and conclusions on negative emotions (e.g., telling yourself that you are worthless because you feel worthless), which can lead to withdrawal and unnecessary avoidance.

Emotional reasoning is especially pernicious in psychological disorders due to the distress accompanying these difficulties. For example, individuals who struggle with anxiety are likely to believe this emotion signals danger (e.g., “I feel anxious, so something bad is going to happen”). On the other hand, individuals with depression are likely to view their low mood as affirmative (e.g., “I feel depressed, so my life must be pointless”).

Other difficulties with which emotional reasoning is associated with include:

  • Bipolar affective disorder (Kramer et al., 2009)
  • Delusional beliefs (Williams et al., 2022)
  • Panic disorder (Arntz et al., 1995)
  • Phobias (Arntz et al., 1995)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (Najavits et al., 2004)
  • Social anxiety (Kuru et al., 2018)

Several factors account for why emotions exert such a powerful influence on the inferences people draw:

  • Feelings are believable. Because emotions are experienced directly and from within, they seem valid and important (Clore & Gasper, 2000). 
  • Feelings make interpretations seem credible. Emotions enhance “the credibility of information and inferences, and the estimated likelihood that information is true, via affective biases in thinking and by modulating the range of implications that is followed up in thought” (Frijda & Mesquita, 2000). 
  • Feelings influence attention. When people feel anxious, threatening stimuli are selectively attended to, thus confirming their danger-related appraisals. 
  • Reality testing can prove difficult. Arntz and colleagues (1995) hypothesize that individuals with anxiety disorders have underdeveloped reality-testing strategies. As a result, they are likely to respond to anxiety with flight rather than checking whether it is a false alarm. 

Examples of emotional reasoning include:

  • Inferring danger from anxiety (e.g., “I feel afraid, so there must be danger present”).
  • Inferring ineffectiveness from hopelessness (e.g., “I feel hopeless, so the situation must be hopeless”).
  • Inferring acceptability from pleasure and satisfaction (e.g., “It feels good, so it must be OK to do”).
  • Basing decision-making on ‘gut’ (i.e., emotional) reactions (e.g., “This feels like the right loan to take out”). 

People who often use emotional reasoning may have ‘blind spots’ when it comes to:

  • Reality-checking emotional responses.
  • Disengaging from emotional reactions.
  • Considering alternative explanations and outcomes.
  • Deliberative decision-making. 
  • Acting intentionally rather than instinctively.

As with many cognitive biases, there may be evolutionary reasons why people use emotional reasoning. Gilbert (1998) suggests that humans have long relied on rapid, ‘fast-track’ affects to make urgent decisions when under threat. Accordingly, “when we explore emotional reasoning with patients, we can recognize that they are encountering the urgencies of our more primitive brains and thus the enormous struggle they sometimes have to bring these dictates under rational control” (Gilbert, 1998, p.454). 

Therapist Guidance

Many people struggle with emotional reasoning, and it sounds as though it might also be relevant to you. Would you be willing to explore it with me?

Clinicians might begin by providing psychoeducation about emotional reasoning and automatic thoughts more generally. Consider sharing some of these important details:

  • Automatic thoughts spring up spontaneously in our minds, usually in the form of words or images.
  • They are often on the ‘sidelines’ of our awareness. With practice, we can become more aware of them. It is a bit like a theatre – we can bring our automatic thoughts ‘centre stage’.  
  • Automatic thoughts are not always accurate: just because you think something, doesn’t make it true.
  • Automatic thoughts are often inaccurate in characteristic ways. One common type of bias in automatic thoughts is ‘emotional reasoning’: we sometimes interpret situations based on how we feel. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to our emotions: it’s most helpful to base your conclusions on your feelings alongside other sources of information.
  • Signs that you are using emotional reasoning include being guided by your emotions rather than thoughts or facts (“I feel anxious, so I must be danger.”), or making decisions based on how you feel (“Everything feels hopeless, so there’s no point in going out.”).   
  • In some circumstances, it is helpful to use emotional reasoning. Emotions highlight what is important and prompt us to act quickly. However, there are times when we need to think about things in a slower, more deliberate way. 

Many treatment techniques can be used to address emotional reasoning:

  • Decentering. Meta-cognitive awareness, or decentering, describes the ability to stand back and view a thought as a cognitive event: as an opinion, and not necessarily a fact (Flavell, 1979). Help clients to practice labeling the process present in the thinking rather than engaging with the content. For instance, they might say to themselves, “I’m thinking with my feelings”, whenever they notice these thoughts.
  • Cognitive restructuring with thought records. Self-monitoring can be used to capture and re-evaluate emotional reasoning as it occurs. Useful prompts include:
    • “If you took the ‘emotional reasoning’ glasses off, how would you see this differently?”
    • “How would you see this situation if you were feeling calmer or more hopeful?”
    • “What evidence supports and does not support the judgement you are making?”
    • “Are you basing your conclusions on feelings or facts? Facts are things you can see and hear, whereas feelings are your internal responses to a situation”.  
    • “How would someone who was feeling calm and confident see this situation? Does that judgment apply to you too?”
    • “Now that you’ve heard what your heart has to say about this decision, let’s listen to your head. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this course of action?”
    • “What would you say to a friend who relied on their emotions to judge things? Do you think it’s always a wise thing to do?”
  • Cost-benefits analysis. Explore the advantages and disadvantages of emotional reasoning. What problems has it caused, and how would things change if the client relied more on the facts? Some clients may believe that emotional reasoning is important and functional (e.g., “My instincts keep me safe”).  
  • Retrospective mismatch. Ask the client to recall an episode of emotional reasoning and contrast this with how events unfolded. Were the client’s feeling-driven thoughts accurate? Highlighting the mismatch between emotional reasoning and reality can challenge its perceived accuracy and usefulness (Wells, 1997).
  • Shifting emotional state. Help the client shift into a calmer emotional state (e.g., using a breathing exercise or guided imagery) or allow the feeling to pass. Once their distress has subsided, revisit the interpretations or conclusions they made while emotionally reasoning. Has there been a change in their thinking?
  • Reality-testing. Reality-testing can help individuals see situations through an objective, rather than emotional, lens. Help the client ground themselves in the present moment and compare their feeling-driven thoughts with observable reality. For instance, if the client feels anxious, can they see or hear any clear signs of danger? 
  • Opposite action. Emotional reasoning prompts individuals to act on their emotional responses. When these emotions are distressing, action often takes the form of avoidance (e.g., moving away from perceived threats). Opposite action (Linehan, 1993) entails changing the source of emotional reasoning (i.e., distressing emotions) by engaging in contrary behaviors. For example, anxiety is alleviated by approaching (rather than avoiding) feared stimuli. By engaging in opposite response patterns, the initial affective response is weakened.     
  • “Just because you feel it…”. Instruct the client to repeat or sing the (somewhat catchy!) phrase, “Just because you feel it, it doesn’t mean it’s true”, whenever they engage in emotional reasoning.   
  • Testing beliefs and assumptions. It can be helpful to explore whether the client holds beliefs or assumptions which drive emotional reasoning, such as, “My feelings are an accurate reflection of reality”, and “I should always trust my instincts”. If assumptions like these are identified, clients can assess how accurate and helpful they are. Their attitudes towards healthier assumptions can be explored, such as, “Feelings are just one source of information and guidance”, and “Gut reactions are not always accurate”. Assumptions can also be tested using behavioral experiments, including surveys.

References And Further Reading

  • Arntz, A., Rauner, M., & Van den Hout, M. (1995). “If I feel anxious, there must be danger”: Ex-consequentia reasoning in inferring danger in anxiety disorders. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 33, 917-925. DOI: 10.1016/0005-7967(95)00032-S.
  • Beck, A. T. (1963). Thinking and depression: I. Idiosyncratic content and cognitive distortions. Archives of General Psychiatry, 9, 324-333. DOI: 10.1001/archpsyc.1963.01720160014002.
  • Beck, A. T., Rush, A. J., Shaw, B. F., & Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive therapy of depression. Guilford Press.
  • Beck, J. S. (1995). Cognitive therapy: Basics and beyond. Guilford Press.
  • Berle, D., & Moulds, M. L. (2013). Emotional reasoning processes and dysphoric mood: cross-sectional and prospective relationships. PloS One, 8, e67359. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0067359.
  • Burns, D. D. (2020). Feeling great: The revolutionary new treatment for depression and anxiety. PESI Publishing.
  • Clore, G. L., & Gasper, K. (2000). Feeling is believing: Some affective influences on belief. In N. H. Frijda, A. S. R. Manstead, & S. Bem (Eds.), Emotions and beliefs: How feelings influence thoughts (pp. 10-44). Cambridge University Press. 
  • Drapeau, M., Perry, J. C., & Dunkley, D. (2008). The cognitive error rating system manual (3rd ed.). McGill University. Unpublished manual.
  • Elliott, R., Watson, J. C., Goldman, R. N., & Greenberg, L. S. (2004). Learning emotion-focused therapy: The process-experiential approach to change. American Psychological Association. 
  • Frijda, N. H., & Mesquita, B. (2000). Beliefs through emotions. In N. H. Frijda, A. S. R. Manstead, & S. Bem (Eds.), Emotions and beliefs: How feelings influence thoughts (pp. 45-77). Cambridge University Press.
  • Frijda, N. H., Manstead, A. S. R., & Bem, S. (2000). The influence of emotions on beliefs. In N. H. Frijda, A. S. R. Manstead, & S. Bem (Eds.), Emotions and beliefs: How feelings influence thoughts (pp. 10-44). Cambridge University Press. 
  • Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive–developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34, 906. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.34.10.906.
  • Gilbert, P. (1998). The evolved basis and adaptive functions of cognitive distortions. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 71, 447-463. DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8341.1998.tb01002.x.
  • Kramer, U., Bodenmann, G., & Drapeau, M. (2009). Cognitive errors assessed by observer ratings in bipolar affective disorder: relationship with symptoms and therapeutic alliance. The Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, 2, 92-105. DOI: 10.1017/S1754470X09990043.
  • Kuru, E., Safak, Y., Özdemir, İ., Tulacı, R. G., Özdel, K., Özkula, N. G., & Örsel, S. (2018). Cognitive distortions in patients with social anxiety disorder: Comparison of a clinical group and healthy controls. The European Journal of Psychiatry, 32, 97-104. DOI: 10.1016/j.ejpsy.2017.08.004.
  • Lench, H. C., Tibbett, T. P., & Bench, S. W. (2016). Exploring the toolkit of emotion: What do sadness and anger do for us? Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 10, 11-25. DOI: 10.1111/spc3.12229.
  • Linehan, M. M. (1993). Skills training manual for treating borderline personality disorder. Guilford Press.
  • Morren, M., Muris, P., & Kindt, M. (2004). Emotional reasoning and parent-based reasoning in normal children. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 35, 3-20. DOI: 10.1023/B:CHUD.0000039317.50547.e3.
  • Najavits, L. M., Gotthardt, S., Weiss, R. D., & Epstein, M. (2004). Cognitive distortions in the dual diagnosis of PTSD and substance use disorder. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 28, 159-172. DOI: 10.1023/B:COTR.0000021537.18501.66.
  • Nesse, R. M., & Ellsworth, P. C. (2009). Evolution, emotions, and emotional disorders. American Psychologist, 64, 129-139. DOI: 10.1037/a0013503. 
  • Noël, V. A., Francis, S. E., Williams-Outerbridge, K., & Fung, S. L. (2012). Catastrophizing as a predictor of depressive and anxious symptoms in children. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 36, 311-320. DOI: 10.1007/s10608-011-9370-2.
  • Shafran, R., Thordarson, D. S., & Rachman, S. (1996). Thought-action fusion in obsessive compulsive disorder. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 10, 379-391. DOI: 10.1016/0887-6185(96)00018-7.
  • Tolin, D. F. (2016). Doing CBT: A comprehensive guide to working with behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. Guilford Press.
  • Veen, G., & Arntz, A. (2000). Multidimensional dichotomous thinking characterizes borderline personality disorder. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 24, 23-45. DOI: 10.1023/A:1005498824175.
  • Wells, A. (1997). Cognitive therapy of anxiety disorders: A practice manual and conceptual guide. John Wiley and Sons. 
  • Williams, C., Denovan, A., Drinkwater, K., & Dagnall, N. (2022). Thinking style and paranormal belief: the role of cognitive biases. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 41, 274-298. DOI: 10.1177/02762366211036435.
  • Westbrook, D., Kennerley, H., & Kirk, J. (2011). An introduction to cognitive behaviour therapy: Skills and applications (2nd ed.). Sage.