cognitive bias modificationSince the world’s most famous psychotherapy patient Anna O. invented ‘talking cure’ therapy while being treated by Sigmund Freud’s colleague Josef Breuer, talk therapy has been the workhorse of psychotherapy. Poor Anna O. ended up in a psychiatric hospital. Talking helped her identify the causes of her hysteria, which Freud related to her father’s illnesses, but her negative thoughts continued to haunt her. Today, Anna would have received cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help her change those negative thought patterns. Talk therapy has evolved to the extent that we can reprogram our minds and change negative thinking to positive thinking. Cognitive bias modification (CBM), a form of CBT, allows you to transform your thinking with an app or online in just 15 minutes a day.

Dark Thoughts

Negative thinking, cognitive biases and faulty assumptions can distort your thinking, emotions and behavior. At times, we all suffer from dark thoughts. Obsession with negative thoughts lead to anxiety, depression and other mental disorders. Worry is when we have negative thoughts about future events. Rumination is when we have repeated negative thoughts and imagery related to a past event. Compulsive negative focus on events can lead to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological disorders.

Negative thought patterns have many impacts on daily functioning. If the negative event is related to a failure, the obsession could lead to low self-esteem. If it is related to a traumatic event. Symptoms of post-traumatic disorder may be experienced. Negative thought patterns are known to affect problem solving and decision making.

Most of us have experienced high anxiety life situations that have affected our performance. Myles, a university student, experienced high anxiety and became physically ill before exams before doing CBM sessions online. After partying too much in his first year, he was under extreme pressure to get top grades to get into law school. He thought obsessively about his school work and grades, which he always associated with fear of failure and anxiety.

Unconscious Biases

When Freud had his patients talk about their dreams while lying on his famous couch, he was seeking to target the unconscious thoughts and anxieties that influence our thinking. We often think we are consciously in control of our thoughts and behavior but in reality our unconscious thoughts are in control of us. These little devils are formed based on past experiences such as an accident that instils fear over driving or pre-conceived biases or notions instilled on us by society. The first step is understanding your cognitive biases and how they are flawed. Enrol in Cognitive Biases: Learn to Master Decision-making and start making a list of your cognitive biases.

Cognitive biases are even trickier to detect than negative emotions. Unlike negative thoughts that are top of mind as we ruminate on unpleasant experiences, cognitive biases can play tricks with your mind and lead to irrational thinking. For example, we tend to overestimate the likelihood of an event happening if it is associated with an emotional event or is in recent memory. What cognitive biases do you suffer from? Do it Better – BrainTraining++ can help you identify your cognitive biases and introduce you to different cognitive bias techniques to help you become a more rational thinker. You may be affected by dozens of cognitive biases that you are unaware of.

Change Your Thinking in 15 Minutes a Day

Most of us could benefit from at least a few sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy. Unfortunately, CBT therapy can be expensive and time consuming. CBT is spread over at least a dozen sessions. Sessions start at $50 an hour and can easily rise above $100 an hour depending on the therapist.

Cognitive bias modification, on the other hand, is accessible to everyone and fast-acting, and can be self-administered at home. It is more attractive than other treatment alternatives in terms of efficacy, cost and time. Medication can be a lifelong treatment course for those with depression. Talk therapy is sometimes administered for years, and the patient may develop a dependency on their therapist.

CBM delivers results after several 15-minute sessions for many users. Even better, you do not have to share your innermost feelings with a therapist. CBM helps you directly targets the negative thought patterns and behavior that lead to mental illness such as depression and anxiety. Like CBT, CBM can be used to treat depression, anxiety, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, bad habits, and other psychological issues.

A person who suffers from depression has an over focus on negative thoughts. Someone who suffers from an anxiety order may always expect the worst. These thought patterns are often formed by past experiences. A child subjected to daily abuse may be apprehensive in adulthood and overreact to situations. Biased thought patterns impair decision making and can impair daily decision making.

CBM seeks to erase the negative thought patterns and replace them with new, positive ones. This de-biasing is performed using a computer program. These programs can be easily accessed online. Cognitive bias modification apps can target specific goals, such as reducing anxiety, quitting smoking or sticking to a diet.

A typical 15-minute session may include showing a series of pairs of images with one negative and one positive image in each pair. A depressed person who focuses on the negative image will be prompted through a series of exercises to focus on the positive image. The re-focusing exercises are done over and over again. Over time, the person with depression will begin to focus on the positive image. This change in thinking will carry over into everyday life.

A Showdown: CBT vs CBM

How does the new CBM therapy hold up against the stalwart of talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, of which it is a modification? Researchers at the University of New South Wales recently compared the two therapies in individuals experiencing negative intrusive memories in depression.[i] Many of the participants were experiencing negative imagery related to interpersonal events. According to the researchers, traditional CBT does not target intrusive memories.

The patients received one session of either CBT or CBM. One week after treatment, patients in both the CBT and CBM treated groups reported improvements in memory intrusiveness, mood and negative appraisals. The improvements were more pronounced, however, in the CBT group. Both therapies had many self-administered components, including a daily diary and self-report measures, activities that make participants more aware of their negative thought patterns.

An attractive advantage of CBM is its accessibility. A person does not have to be clinically depressed to benefit from CBM. The low-cost and accessibility of CBM makes it accessible to those suffering everyday fears and phobias. Stressed over an upcoming exam? Do you suffer from performance anxiety during tests? By sitting in front of your computer, you can do two weeks of CBM before final exams start. British scientists reduced stress in students feeling high anxiety before the stressful life event of starting university.[ii] This group of 69 students experienced lower levels of anxiety four weeks after the study – long enough to get through exam period!

No prerequisites are required to use and benefit from cognitive bias modification. Anyone can benefit from this therapy. However, some basic experience with cognitive behavioral therapy may help you to deepen your experience with cognitive bias modification therapy. An Introduction to Cognitive Behavior Therapy can help you understand the biases, errors in thinking and negative thoughts that affect your everyday life. Gain a better understanding of how negative thinking contributes to anxiety, depression and other psychological disorders. Learn strategies and techniques therapists use to personalize your CBT therapy.

Cognitive Behavioral Group Therapy for Depression provides instruction from the perspective of a therapist leading a group. Insight into how to optimize the therapy sessions and treatment outcome for different individuals can help you identify yourself among client characteristics and the cognitive biases, faulty assumptions and mood traps that influence your thinking. You may even consider finding online cognitive behavioral groups and join social networks. The support groups will be a good complement to you individual online CBM exercises.


[i] Mobini, S., Mackintosh, B., Illingworth, J., Gega, L., Langdon, P., & Hoppitt, L. (2014). Effects of standard and explicit cognitive bias modification and computer-administered cognitive-behaviour therapy on cognitive biases and social anxiety. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 45(2), 272-279.

[ii] Hoppitt, L., Illingworth, J. L., MacLeod, C., Hampshire, A., Dunn, B. D., & Mackintosh, B. (2014). Modifying social anxiety related to a real-life stressor using online Cognitive Bias Modification for interpretation. Behaviour research and therapy, 52, 45-52.

Page Last Updated: February 2020

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