Thought Record – Courtroom Trial
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 understands 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 representations 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 Thought Record – Courtroom Trial tool 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 evaluate the evidence for and against their negative automatic thoughts. It uses the metaphor of a courtroom trial, which can help clients to externalize, ‘de-center’, and take the role of an objective observer. The worksheet guides clients through the process of stating the negative automatic thought as an ‘accusation’. The client is then encouraged to adopt the role of a prosecutor to state the case for the truthfulness of the accusation, and the defense to argue why the accusation is untrue. 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, dispassionately, and realistically 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.
“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 an accusation that is made in a courtroom. Would you be willing to try it with me?”
- Put your thought in the dock (choose a thought). To begin, encourage the client to identify a specific negative thought that has been troubling them. This can be imagined as an ‘accusation’ made against them.
- What was the negative automatic thought that went through your mind?
- Which negative thought has been troubling you the most this week?
- What went through your mind when you started to feel that way?
- Play the ‘prosecution’: present evidence suggesting that the thought is true. Clients should be encouraged to adopt the role of the prosecution. It is the job of the prosecution to convince the jury that the negative thought is true. With this mindset, they should identify any evidence which suggests that the accusation could be true.
- In a courtroom trial, the job of the prosecution is to convince the jury that the accusation – this negative automatic thought – is true. What do you think the prosecution would say to convince the jury that this thought is guilty (true)?
- What evidence supports this accusation?
- What evidence suggests that your negative automatic thought is true?
- Play the ‘defense’: present the evidence suggesting that the thought is false. Once the prosecution has presented its evidence, the client should be encouraged to adopt the role of the defense. It is the job of the defense to convince the jury that the accusation is false. The client’s job is now to undermine the credibility of the negative thought, and to present evidence which supports alternative perspectives.
- 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 accusation was not true.
- Try finishing this sentence, ‘Objection your honour, this thought is not true because…’
- What are the facts that don’t support this thought?
- Who do you know that would disagree with this thought? What would they say in your defense?
- How could the ‘evidence’ presented by the prosecution be understood differently?
- Play the jury: review the evidence and reach a final verdict. Once the evidence for and against the accusation has been presented, clients should be encouraged to adopt the role of the jury, who have to dispassionately weigh up the evidence that has been presented to them.
- The jury’s job is to consider all the evidence for and against the accusation. They have to set aside their feelings and make a balanced judgement based on the evidence presented. Let’s review the evidence together:
- Does the evidence show that your thought is 100% fair and accurate?
- Is your thought completely true, beyond any reasonable doubt?
- If your thought isn’t 100% true, what is the reality?
- Play the judge: summarize your judgment. Clients should be encouraged to consider the original accusation and review the evidence and their judgement. As a final step, their task is to re-evaluate the accusation in the light of what they know now, and to state a new, updated, perspective on the situation in question.
- What would be an accurate summary of all the trial evidence?
- What is a more balanced and realistic way of viewing the accusation against you?
- How do you view your automatic thought after putting it on trial?
- 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.