Cognitive Distortion - Emotional Reasoning

Updated: Aug 10

Emotional reasoning is a cognitive distortion where you believe that your emotional state is an accurate measure of a situation. The problem is that there are many reasons why you may feel a certain way that don’t provide an accurate measure of the true situation.


Heart controlling a brain
Your heart may not always be right about a given situation.

As an example, imagine a student who is about to take an exam and feels nervous. Emotional reasoning in this case can cause the student to believe that their nervous feelings indicate a reality that they are not prepared for the test. As a result when taking the test they may just guess answers because of their belief that they are not prepared. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy and a poor exam score.


The truth however is that there are many possible explanations for feeling nervous before an exam that don’t mean a lack of preparation. Examples include:

  • The student is always nervous before exams even on exams when they are well prepared.

  • The student is nervous about something else, e.g. they’re nervous about their plans that evening.

  • This particular exam is more important than other exams.

  • The student may have had to rush to get to the exam.

  • The student may have had more caffeine than usual or not gotten good sleep the night before.

So, how to deal with emotional reasoning?


First, you need to be aware of how you're feeling. So often we operate on autopilot such that we don’t even recognize we’re in the grips of a certain distortion pattern. In our example this could mean the student becoming aware and acknowledging that they feel nervous.

Next, you want to consciously inspect if this distortion is at play by asking yourself if you’re drawing any conclusions based on your emotional state. In our example the conclusion reached by the student is that they aren't prepared for the exam.

Then take a few moments to list out alternative explanations. In our example the student might say to themself something like this:

“I recognize that I feel nervous and that I’m concluding from my feelings that I’m not prepared for the exam. But let me look for and list some alternative explanations. For example, I always get nervous before tests even the ones when I’m well-prepared and do well. That means my nerves are not a predictor of my readiness for the exam. I also might be nervous because tonight I’m changing dorm rooms.”

This process of looking for alternative explanations can help diffuse the relationship between your feelings and your beliefs about what they really mean.