Irrational beliefs are ideas, attitudes, or values that are illogical and inconsistent with reality. They may be strongly held even in the face of clear and objective evidence that they are false.
Most people hold at least some irrational beliefs, varying from slight exaggerations and superstitions to extensive delusions. The 2014 Chapman University Survey on American Fears reported fairly widespread belief in certain types of paranormal phenomena, such as predicting the future in dreams or influencing the world through one's thoughts. A 2014 Associated Press poll found that more than half of Americans believe that spirits can haunt rooms and houses and just over 40% believed in UFOs. Even more people believed in creation stories in place of scientific evidence for the big bang, the age of the earth, or the evolution of life. Irrational beliefs about health include beliefs that smoking or excess body weight are not harmful or that vaccines are unsafe or ineffective. One study found that heart patients whose beliefs about health were not based on medical evidence were more likely to skip cardiac rehabilitation sessions.
Many irrational beliefs are harmless, and some can be beneficial. Irrational beliefs may be defensive and can help counter or diffuse negative feelings or low self-esteem. This has been referred to as “rational irrationality.” However, irrational beliefs about oneself or others are thought to underlie many psychological problems and mental disorders. Because irrational beliefs are illogical and distort reality, they can lead to unhealthy emotions and self-defeating behaviors. Irrational beliefs can lead to misconceptions, overgeneralizations, oversimplifications, limited perspectives, arrogance, procrastination, prejudice, envy, and repeated mistakes. Irrational beliefs are often at the center of impulsiveness, defeatism, depression, anxieties, hostility, insecurities, addictions, compulsions, and obsessions.
There are many different causes of irrational beliefs. External social pressures, including peer or group pressure to conform, are common sources of irrational beliefs. Sometimes irrational beliefs are based on rare occurrences; for example, a person involved in a bicycle accident might come to believe that bicycles are inherently dangerous. Suggestibility and lack of critical thinking skills play a role in developing and maintaining irrational beliefs, but irrational beliefs are not associated with levels of education or intelligence.
Irrational beliefs often originate and are maintained by internal cognitive structures. They may relieve cognitive dissonance—tension arising from simultaneously holding two conflicting thoughts or behaving in conflict with one's beliefs. Psychodynamic theory examines the interplay between conscious and unconscious motivations that play a role in the origin and maintenance of irrational beliefs.
Cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) is designed to help people change unhealthy patterns of thinking, emotions, and behaviors. Albert Ellis (1913–2007) introduced REBT, an early form of CBT, to specifically address irrational beliefs as the central cause of human dysfunction and misery. REBT is an action-oriented psychotherapy that identifies, questions, and challenges (disputes) self-defeating irrational beliefs and replaces them with beliefs that promote emotional well-being to restore mental health and help achieve life goals.
Ellis identified five common types of irrational beliefs that can be unlearned:
Ellis's specific examples of irrational beliefs about oneself include:
In contrast, Ellis's rational beliefs are logical, consistent with reality, and helpful
There are five basic principles for judging whether a belief is rational or irrational:
Disputing irrational beliefs (DIBS) is a central REBT technique. Some irrational beliefs are so strongly held that DIBS must to be both very strong and persistent. DIBS includes examining the following questions:
The process of recognizing, disputing, and rejecting irrational beliefs has been incorporated into various therapies, as well as addiction-recovery and self-help programs. In general, irrational beliefs are defined as:
Typical symptoms of irrational beliefs include:
Refuting irrational beliefs and replacing them with rational beliefs that are reasonable, objective, and flexible can improve happiness and health. Putting problems in perspective by rejecting irrational beliefs can lead to realistic and productive solutions. The process can unblock emotions; increase honesty, clarity, and purpose; help forgive oneself and others; and increase kindness, understanding, and respect toward others.
See also Ellis, Albert.
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Albert Ellis Institute, 145 E. 32nd St., 9th Fl., New York, NY, 10016, (212) 535-0822, http://albertellis.org .
American Psychological Association, 750 1st St. NE, Washington, DC, 20002-4242, (202) 336-5500, (800) 374-2721, http://www.apa.org .
SMART Recovery, 7304 Mentor Ave., Ste. F, Mentor, OH, 44060, (440) 951-5357, (866) 951-5357, Fax: (440) 9515358, https://www.smartrecovery.org .