The evolved basis and adaptive functions of cognitive distortions

Br J Med Psychol. 1998 Dec:71 ( Pt 4):447-63. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8341.1998.tb01002.x.


This paper explores common cognitive distortions from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. It is suggested that cognitive distortions are natural consequences of using fast track defensive algorithms that are sensitive to threat. In various contexts, especially those of threat, humans evolved to think adaptively rather than logically. Hence cognitive distortions are not strictly errors in brain functioning and it can be useful to inform patients that 'negative thinking' may be dysfunctional but is a reflection of basic brain design and not personal irrationality. The evolved nature of cognitive distortions has been implicit in cognitive therapy from its early days (Beck, 1963; Ellis, 1962) but has not been fully articulated in what is now known about evolved mental processes. Many forms of cognitive distortion can be seen to use the (previously) adaptive heuristic of better safe than sorry.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cognition Disorders*
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Humans
  • Stress, Psychological