Disqualifying the Positive

This is an extreme form of all-or-nothing thinking in which we filter out all the positive evidence about our performance, and only attend to the negative. It is all-or-nothing thinking, without the "all"! This cognitive distortion will produce automatic thoughts that reinforce negative feelings and explain away positive ones. If you've ever tried to argue someone out of a bad mood, you've probably seen this cognitive distortion from the outside. If you've ever been in a bad mood yourself, you may have seen it from the inside. Usually people who are caught up in this cognitive distortion are genuinely depressed about something, but it may be something that has no obvious connection with the topic at hand. I was going over an essay with a student who had gotten responses from three other students to a working draft of his essay. Our conversation went something like this:

STUDENT: I think I should just throw this out and start over. It's trash. Look at what Cheri said about it.

ME: Well, yes, she did beat up on it pretty well. But Bob, who also read it, seemed to like it.

STUDENT: Yeah, but he was just trying to be nice.

ME: How do you know that?

STUDENT: Oh, you know, people try to say nice things, even if it's really just junk, because they don't want to hurt your feelings.

ME: Well, that obviously isn't true of Cheri. But, OK, if you want to start over, do you have another topic in mind?

STUDENT: No. Well, I did, sort of, but it's no good either. They'd trash it just like this one. I could never get enough evidence to convince her.

Someone who is disqualifying the positive can't discuss a subject rationally because he is using a double standard. Negative evidence, no matter how weak or irrelevant, counts. Positive evidence, no matter how strong or persuasive, can be explained away. As it turned out, the student in the above conversation had just broken up with his girlfriend and was feeling very low. But this sort of automatic thought doesn't make any more sense when you're sad than it does when you're happy. The "logic" behind it goes something like this: Things are bad, so why not make them worse?

To Jumping to Conclusions

To Cognitive Distortions List


1996 John Tagg


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