Cognitive Distortions, Unconscious Bias, Cognitive Bias, Logical Fallacies: What You Need To Know To Protect Yourself


Cognitive distortions, unconscious bias, cognitive bias, implicit bias, logical fallacies: you probably heard most or all of these terms. They can get really confusing if you don’t know the difference between them! Yet all of these terms have an immediate impact on your life, as they relate to how you and others evaluate people. If you want to protect your relationships and make good decisions about other people, you need to know what each of these terms mean.

Cognitive Bias

A cognitive bias is a predictable pattern of mental errors that result in us misperceiving reality and, as a result, deviating away from the most likely way of reaching our goals. In other words, from the perspective of what is best for us as individuals, falling for a cognitive bias always harms us by lowering our probability of getting what we want.

Cognitive biases stem from extensive peer-reviewed research in cognitive neuroscience, behavioral economics, psychology, and similar social science fields. In other words, these are thoroughly science-grounded concepts. Scientists like myself have found over 100 cognitive biases, and more are discovered every month.

Cognitive Distortions

By contrast, “cognitive distortions” is a term within the field of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy aimed at addressing depression and anxiety. Therapists use the term “cognitive distortions” to describe a variety of irrational thinking patterns that lead to negative moods, with the goal of helping individuals notice and challenge such thinking patterns.

Cognitive biases are a different beast. These errors have to do with judgment, not mood. Ironically, cognitive biases more often lead to positive moods, such as the optimism bias and overconfidence effect. Of course, the consequence of falling into cognitive biases, once discovered, usually leaves us in a bad mood due to the disastrous results of these dangerous judgment errors.

In some cases, cognitive biases might contribute to cognitive distortions. A case in point, the pessimism bias may contribute to the cognitive distortion known as catastrophizing, when we exaggerate small problems into huge catastrophes, leading to anxious and depressive moods. However, cognitive biases and cognitive distortions are two separate things.

Logical Fallacies

Cognitive biases also differ from logical fallacies. Logical fallacies are errors in reasoning that people make during disagreements, usually with the intention of using underhanded strategies to win an argument. One common one is called “cherry picking,” when someone selects a small sample of evidence that supports their side of an argument out of a much larger pool of evidence, with some opposing their perspective. By contrast, cognitive biases are errors we all tend to make in our own judgments, rather than a manipulative tactic to win an argument.

Now, cognitive biases make us vulnerable to manipulation by logical fallacies. For example, the cognitive bias known as attentional bias, our tendency to pay attention to the most emotionally salient features of our environment, contributes to our frequent failure to notice the vast amount of evidence available from which an underhanded debater cherry-picks their points. One of the side benefits of studying cognitive biases is that doing so helps us avoid being manipulated by advertisers, politicians, and other skilled manipulators.

Unconscious Bias

Finally, cognitive biases are not the same as unconscious bias. Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) refers to unconscious forms of discrimination and stereotyping based on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, age, and so on. Despite cognitive biases sometimes leading to discriminatory thinking and feeling patterns, these are two separate and distinct concepts.

Cognitive biases are common across humankind and relate to the particular wiring of our brains, while unconscious bias relates to perceptions between different groups and are specific for the society in which we live. For example, I bet you don’t care or even think about whether someone is a noble or a commoner, yet that distinction was fundamentally important a few centuries ago across Europe. To take another example – a geographic instead of one across time – most people in the US don’t have strong feelings about Sunni vs. Shiite Muslims, yet this distinction is incredibly meaningful in many parts of the world.


Cognitive distortions, unconscious bias, cognitive bias, implicit bias, logical fallacies: all of these point to decision errors that we tend to make due to how our brain is wired. Fortunately, recent research has shown how we can overcome our gut reactions to make the best decisions. Doing so takes building up mental skills and developing mental fitness to overcome our dangerous judgment errors and make the best people decisions.

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