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Thought patterns: recognize and change thought traps

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Numerous thought patterns and thought traps shape our everyday life without us noticing. Most thought patterns are so internalized that they run unconsciously and automatically and thus influence our decisions and our future behavior. They even change our perception. The writer Anaïs Nin once put it this way: “We don't perceive the world as it is, we perceive it as we are.” In the extreme, this can slow us down enormously or even damage us. The good news: Our thinking is changeable - just by noticing, identifying and becoming aware of these thought patterns and thought traps, we take away their power ...

➠ Content: This is what awaits you

➠ Content: This is what awaits you

Recognize thought patterns: make the unconscious conscious

Reality is always also our reality, a construct of our own convictions, beliefs, experiences, prejudices and thought filters. In order to be able to change and break through your thought patterns at all, the first and most important step is to become aware of them or to question yourself. The more convinced you are of something, the sooner you should ask yourself:

  • Why am I so convinced of that?
  • Is that really true?
  • Is that actually an irrefutable truth or am I just imagining it?

The problem of many beliefs and beliefs is thisthat we take them all too easily at face value because they are so simple and pleasing. In short: They fit wonderfully smoothly into our worldview.

Thought patterns are often based only on assumptions

Many are based only on assumptions, vague ideas and assumptions for which there is no evidence whatsoever. Just think of the sometimes self-destructive limits that some people set themselves: “I can't do this or that! I will never learn this! If I say that, everyone will hate me! ”In science, these beliefs are also called dysfunctional thought patterns or negative affirmations. They are prejudices in the literal sense of the word, which many believe in, but which are anything but true let alone proven.

If you want to change and break such thought patterns, however, it is important that you not only expose these as false, but also replace them with new thought patterns. Otherwise, there is a good chance that you will soon fall back into old habits and thought traps. All of this takes time and constant practice, practice, practice. So please don't give up too quickly.

The dangers of self-fulfilling prophecy

The self-fulfilling prophecy is a psychological phenomenon that can influence our own behavior, but also that of our fellow human beings. At its core, a self-fulfilling prophecy says: If we expect a certain behavior or result, we ourselves help to ensure that this behavior or result actually occurs.

The opposite effect is referred to as a "self-destructive prophecy", whereby our action ensures that a result does not occur at the moment. In the specific case of negative affirmations, we condition our brain to the fact that we cannot do something, for example. If we try it out and fail at the first attempt (which can actually always happen), we feel confirmed in our assumption: “Look, I said I couldn't do it!” This reinforces and makes the prophecy itself come true.

Such thought patterns, like brooding, are bad habits. The psychological momentum can also be used positively by telling yourself again and again that you can and achieve something. That sounds suspiciously like Chakka rhetoric, NLP (neurolinguistic programming) and typically positive thinking, but it still works. Especially when you combine it with realistic optimism.

The most common thought patterns and traps

So that you can recognize, identify and resolve or break up the most important negative thought patterns, we have summarized them in the form of an ABC. The list therefore does not claim to be exhaustive - there are significantly more thought traps and thought patterns, including highly individual ones. At least you can use it to break a distorted perception and many a vicious circle in everyday life. The links in the respective sections lead you to detailed dossiers on this subject that we have written elsewhere. So you are welcome to go deeper into certain points.

Anchor principle

The anchor principle, also known as the anchor effect, is often used by clever salespeople: At the beginning, they will show you a product that is well above your budget. He may also comment on this with sentences like: "I know that this is actually too expensive, but I wanted to at least show you ..." In fact, he has just manipulated you: The high price of the first product acts as an anchor on which You - unconsciously - measure all of the following prices. This will make you more willing to spend more than you originally intended.

But you can also use the thought pattern to fool yourself by starting with the luxury products first when shopping. This principle can be counteracted by two measures: Firstly, by making yourself aware of the effect; second, through a fixed budget. If you know what you want, what the price structure looks like and what you want (or can) maximum spend before buying, you minimize the anchor principle. But it can never be completely avoided.

Backfire effect

The backfire effect is most visible in social networks, more precisely when dealing with complainers and trolls. The definition: the more you try to justify your cause and justify yourself, the worse it gets.

Equipped with this knowledge, you can end some pointless discussions prematurely or not even get involved. It's certainly not always easy - sometimes your fingers itchy too much to respond to comments - but you save yourself unnecessary comment battles, save your nerves and have more time for the essentials.

Concorde effect

This mistake of reasoning actually got its name from the famous Concorde supersonic aircraft: it was uneconomical from the start. Nevertheless, it was built because the loss of face when the project was abandoned was not acceptable to the operators. The Concorde effect works in a very similar way in everyday life: the higher our commitment to date, the more likely we are to stick to it - even if there are no more rational reasons and arguments for this, motto: giving up is not an option! This behavior can often also be observed at work, when uneconomical projects are continued with all their might. Or we hold onto an idea whose time is long gone.

Decoy effect

We encounter the decoy effect regularly with subscription offers and works thanks to a (wrong) bait. Often there is a super savings offer (which is most worthwhile for the customer, but least of all for the provider) and a normal offer (the ideal one for the provider). In order for customers to opt for it and not for the cheap alternative, an expensive bait is needed - the Decoy offer. It is mostly described as a premium offer. This is most worthwhile for the provider, but he also knows that only a few customers buy it.

You don't have to. Because with the three alternatives, the middle offer suddenly looks much more attractive - and fewer people opt for the savings offer. Voilà, the decoy effect - and you thought you were free to choose.

Edward's Law

It is the classic dilemma between the time available and the effort: First, you enjoy the apparent freedom, as the deadline is still an infinite distance. But at some point you realize that there is hardly enough time and you panic.

Simply not being able to pull yourself together until it is almost too late - this phenomenon is also known as Edwards' Law and states that the effort you put into something increases in inverse proportion to the amount of time left. Sounds incredibly scientific and complex, but, to put it more simply, it means that the closer we get to the deadline, the more we work hard. You can also use the thought pattern positively for yourself by getting around a bit and setting shorter deadlines. Get more done in less time.

Feel-good-do-good phenomenon

According to sociological studies, good-humored people are more helpful than normal-humored colleagues. In science, this is also known as the feel-good-do-good phenomenon. "The more someone is satisfied with their life, the more empathetic they are," says social scientist Ruut Veenhoven from the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, for example. And the more it rubs off on the environment. A good mood and laughter are not only the result of positive circumstances - they are also the cause.

Law of the series

The “law of the series” goes back to the Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer, who published the book of the same name in 1919. The “principle of seriality” states that things seem to repeat themselves even though there is no connection. In the vernacular, this is often paraphrased as "An accident rarely comes alone". But that's nonsense, of course, a typical thought trap that sees a pattern behind rows that cannot causally belong together. In fact, it's at best a stupid coincidence. Or a question of faith, because that is what this thought pattern ultimately boils down to.

Horn effect

Many people now know the halo effect; its counterpart - the horn effect - is largely unknown. This perception error is no less suggestive and dangerous. With the Horn effect, a single (negative) property, a single wrong word, a simple botched first impression is sometimes enough - we tend to assume that our counterparts have deficits in other areas as well. Each statement is then placed on the gold scales and received differently than it is perhaps intended.

The classic in this case (which can also appear here): A single typo - and some already think that the whole article must be botch. It's just a banal twist of letters - a word from 2000. HR managers, for example, regularly say that two or more typos are enough to disqualify an otherwise good-quality application. In order to break this pattern of thinking, you should keep the big picture in mind and look less for perfectionism in the details. He reveals more of a control freak.

Icarus effect

That's the insidious thing about every successful series: It makes you drunk. At first we are completely fogged by the ongoing streak of luck, then we forget what and who everything was necessary and how tight it was sometimes. Then we only see ourselves, fall in love with the ideal of our own ego and believe that it could go on forever. Because we can. Stupid!

Success is not a stroke of luck - it is made. But he's also a bastard with several potential fathers, each of whom believes they are the only rightful father. Icarus effect is the name of this negative thought pattern in technical terms, which mainly affects managers and the self-employed. Managers, especially at the top, tend to surround themselves with people who are comfortable, ensnare them with flattery, and are 99 percent compliant with what the boss ventures. In the end, they think that they are the only makers of success and that they can take anything out or afford it - until they crash.


One of the most common thought traps is liking. Man is a social being. We hunger for recognition and sympathy right down to the tips of our hair. And if these are not already flying towards us, we just swim to everything and with the majority. In short: we say “yes”, although a “no” actually corresponds more to our intention. Behind this is a destructive thought pattern. Because the fear of rejection leads us into addiction and spiritual slavery. We no longer lead our own lives - others do so with their affection. Chronic yes-men, however, increasingly lose sight of themselves and their resources and needs.

The counterpart phenomenon, which mainly affects women at work, is called "Mona Lisa Syndrome": Instead of asserting themselves and emphasizing their own strengths through self-marketing, these colleagues simply smile at everything. Fatal! Because the nice colleague is valued, but often ignored. In order to be able to break the thought pattern, only one thing helps: learn to say no and practice a little more egalitarianism.

Catharsis effect

Always only defeats, rejections, failing ... Anyone who succumbs to such a negative series quickly falls into self-pity and self-doubt - and these often lead to the above-mentioned negative affirmations ("I can never do it!").

In this case, the so-called catharsis effect offers a way to break through the negative thought pattern - for example if you lose your job: Write about it! No joke. This does not mean public writing, for example in a blog (that would not be so good), but rather in the form of a private diary or letters to yourself. The effect: You not only write the frustration and anger of yourself of the soul, but then look more liberated into the future. And that is then promptly reflected in the wording in the application or in the interview. In a somewhat older study, 53 percent of the observed unemployed managed to find a new job within six months with the help of this frustration letter.

Even more: As other studies show, you should also write down your (professional) goals. If you do this regularly, you will reach them in 64 percent of the cases. Anyone who also notes and logs their progress will achieve a proud 76 percent goal achievement.


Passion is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it can help you work and be creative at the highest level. If you burn for your thing, you can release an enormous amount of energies in a short time, absorb knowledge and work your way deeply.

At the same time, however, passion can obscure the objective view of a topic, cloud our ability to make judgments and make it difficult for us to maintain the distance that is often necessary. So if you are passionate about a topic, you should regularly check yourself critically and question whether he or she is possibly on the wrong track (see also Concorde effect above).

Matthew Effect

Sociologists derive the Matthew effect based on a famous quote from the biblical parable of the entrusted talents in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 25, verse 29): “For whoever has there will be given, and he will have abundance ; But if you don't have what you have, what you have will be taken away. ”The effect itself says that happiness and success are contagious. Once there, they multiply almost automatically and exponentially. Or a bit more casual: Success is a cattle - he likes to join people of his own kind.

As early as 1968, the US sociologist Robert K. Merton formulated this principle of positive feedback as “success breeds success”. At that time, however, Menton related his thesis to the citation frequency of well-known science authors: He was able to prove that prominent authors were cited far more often than unknown ones due to their level of awareness, which in turn increased the prominence of the gurus even further.

No question about it, this way of thinking poses a certain hurdle. Those who are not that successful yet have a much harder time. And if you want to climb the ladder of success, you have to do more, exert yourself more than those who are a few rungs higher. But that does not mean that the gates of success will remain closed to normal people forever. The Matthew effect only shows that we have to make a lot more effort, especially at the beginning - and conversely, we shouldn't be blinded by the celebrities. Because some just rest on it (and talk rubbish).

Negative thinking

Is the glass half full or half empty? - Those who tend to be pessimistic usually expect the worst, or at least a negative outcome. From a psychological point of view, however, this is nothing more than a mindset or attitude to life that renounces positive expectations and hope. There are two common causes of pessimism:

  • Protection from disappointment
    Often pessimists themselves state that the setting has a protective function. Optimists can get frustrated or disappointed when something does not meet their expectations; but the pessimist has nothing to lose, failure is already priced in.
  • Impact of negative experiences
    Many see the origin of pessimism in the negative experiences one has in the course of life.These experiences are generalized and projected onto all areas, whether professional or private.

There is research showing that negative thoughts weaken the immune system and that pessimists are twice as likely to suffer from infectious diseases as optimists. In order to be able to change this negative thought pattern, however, self-reflection, perseverance and mental strength are required. The first step is to believe in your own abilities and have more confidence in yourself. Only those who trust their abilities and approach tasks confidently can face them with optimism and perform at their best.


Optimism - positive thinking - can also be a negative thought pattern and a thought trap. What sounds paradoxical reveals itself regularly in everyday life where we close our eyes to an unpleasant truth and turn it until we like it. Man is not only the crown of creation, but unfortunately also the tip in creating his own reality. As early as 1776, the Scottish economist Adam Smith wrote: “The chance of winning is overestimated by everyone; the chance of losing is underestimated by most people. ”In real life, unfortunately, this ends in a universe of self-deception, whitewash and self-righteousness.

Of course this optimism and self deception is a kind of protective mechanism. It always appears when one's own self-esteem is attacked. When those affected think about their mistakes, failures and weaknesses, a gap arises between the positive self-image and the real image, which is not that great. This is how you prevent having to deal with yourself.

Another form is talking nicely or the proverbial look through rose-colored glasses. Risks are ignored and dangerous weaknesses in the plan are generously ignored. That is no longer optimistic, it is already foolhardy - and usually ends in fiasco. The antidote to this is called: realistic optimism. It describes an attitude of planned confidence. The realistic optimist recognizes the situation as it is - sober and realistic, without glossing over. How he deals with it, however, decides the optimist in him, in that he keeps the positive aspects in mind without ignoring the negative ones.

Pygmalion effect

The Pygmalion effect (also known as the "Rosenthal effect") was described as early as 1968 by the psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson. At that time, you informed teachers that, based on their previous good performance, they would be able to take over a class made up of the most intelligent students in the coming school year. At the end of the school year, these classes were actually better than all the others, the grades of the students, even their IQs, were 20 points higher than the average. However, the psychologists had lied: the classes were just a random selection. But because the students themselves believed they were among the best and the teachers also trusted them more, the performance and learning curve rose.

The Pygmalion Effect is thus the reversal of negative thinking and a brother of the self-fulfilling prophecy. But at the same time it shows how the thought patterns of our social environment rub off on us. If you have children or employees, how do you feel about them? The way you think about yourself already influences your actions, your charisma and thus also your success (see also Hawthorne effect).


Our thinking is significantly influenced by the sources from which our knowledge, inspiration and insights are fed. It's not just about classic media such as television or the Internet, but also about role models, mentors and stories that influence and move you.

It is worth checking and scrutinizing these sources on a regular basis. It is also true that at some point our brain stops distinguishing between the sources - for example a rumor. It then makes no difference whether we hear the same information from many different (and credible) people or just repeatedly from the same source: we believe it is true. And that's pretty fatal, as the experiments by Kimberlee Weaver from the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan have shown. It's the principle of urban legends: you just have to give people the crap often enough and they'll eventually believe it's true.

Resonance phenomenon

In psychology, the resonance phenomenon describes the effect that strong emotions immediately find an unconscious echo. If someone gives us a charming smile, we involuntarily grin back. If someone visibly yawns, we return the gesture - whether we like it or not. Typical resonance phenomenon: we like those who imitate us - and sometimes believe them more than we should.

The resonance phenomenon is a self-reinforcement: If we believe that someone else likes us, then we automatically behave more friendly and warmer - with the effect that the other person actually likes us more. Conversely: If we fear rejection, we behave more reserved and cooler - and actually risk a basket.

The thought pattern can have a positive or negative effect. But it also means that we ourselves can largely influence how sympathetic we appear to others - and not only at a rendezvous, but also at work or at a congress. We just need to generate enough response.


There are so-called syndromes among the thought patterns and thought traps: Not-Invented-Here-Syndrome, Empty-Desk-Syndrome, Boiling Frog Syndrome. One of the most dangerous is the so-called impostor syndrome. Even some celebrities such as actresses Jennifer Aniston, Emma Watson and Jodie Foster admit to being affected.

In some people, self-doubts are so pronounced that they consider themselves to be impostors or frauds - always afraid that someone might notice that they have absolutely no idea what they are doing. This is why this phenomenon is also called "impostor syndrome".

Impostors are usually still looking for a fly in the ointment, while others are already at dessert. It's like an expert being asked for advice by a colleague. Even during his analysis or recommendation he thinks: “There is guaranteed to be a better answer.” Or: “He will probably notice right away that I have no idea!” Accordingly, such people live in constant worry about exposure. However, mind you: only imagined. You can actually do something! Interestingly, impostor syndrome affects more women than men, as well as people who perform above average.


The closer we come to the end, the better we judge experiences. This is how Ed O’Brian and Phoebe Ellsworth from the University of Michigan put it, who have scientifically investigated the phenomenon. A few of their colleagues had previously described that people evaluate events more positively when they realize that they are about to end. Ultimately, however, this final judgment is also a fallacy - a thought pattern that you can, however, make use of again: For example, by having the last possible appointment for oral exams, job interviews or if you are giving a lecture.

The psychologist Wändi Bruine de Bruin from Carnegie Mellon University found years ago that judges and examiners in competitions give increasingly better marks the further the competition advances. The phenomenon is even independent of whether the grades are awarded during the competition or at the end.


Not everyone who is your friend is. Or to put it another way: choose your social environment carefully - because it has a decisive influence on your thinking. Even if that doesn't sound so harmonious: There are people who have an infectious character - so-called toxic people. Their destructive actions and their destabilizing effects are carried over to everyone around them and especially to those who want to help them. Those who do not avoid such people will inevitably be dragged into the abyss by them.

Those who want to achieve happiness and greatness should rather seek the company of people whose positive qualities attract others and rub off on themselves. It's just like this: A-people draw A-people, B-people draw C-people. That means: Excellent people always look for an excellent environment.

Veblen effect

The veblen effect (also known as the "snob effect") is a consumption effect that can be observed above all with so-called prestige or luxury goods. In short, there is a reciprocal demand reaction for these goods: although the price rises, the demand also rises.

In everyday life it occurs in numerous places, for example with status symbols such as cars, jewelry, fashion. Nobody really needs them. But you still afford it. If you save your budget and don't want to have too much month left at the end of the money, you should be aware of this thought pattern.

Warnock’s dilemma

Behind the cryptic name of Warnock’s Dilemma there is a mistake in reasoning that bloggers in particular should be familiar with: You write an article in a blog, on Facebook or in a forum - and no one replies to it or makes a comment. Many conclude from this that people did not care about the topic. A fallacy!

The eponym of the dilemma, Bryan Warnock, himself offered alternative and equally plausible reasons: The contribution is correct and well-written, so that it does not need any further additions or comments. Or nobody understood the post or what the author wanted to say with it. However, no one wants to find out - for whatever reason.


Ultimately, extreme thought patterns are nothing more than black and white thinking. Perhaps an example: Please answer the following question very spontaneously - what is the opposite of black? Most people spontaneously answer “white” at this point. That is not entirely wrong, but it is also not right. It would be correct: the opposite of black is non-black. A mathematician would probably have known this immediately because he is familiar with the function of “not” or “not”. If you had chosen a different color, it would have been easier for you to find the right answer: What is the opposite of blue? Just. That can be red, but green or yellow would also work.

A thought pattern in black-and-white categories works in exactly the same way: we have, say, a white problem and are looking for a black solution. But that's pretty digital - zero or one ... The solution could also be blue, green, yellow or red. Metaphorically speaking.

Behind this, however, there is often a lack of openness to allow one's own opinion to be falsified and corrected. Take the Internet as an example: Many write comments with their opinion, but only to convey their point of view to the world. Anyone who responds to this, or even criticizes the criticism, is attacked immediately. If you look at some of the discussions on Facebook, you quickly notice that it's only about being right, not about open-ended dialogues. Only self-confirmation is sought.

But opinion is just that: opinion - not truth or the ultimate wisdom. But that is exactly where there is another opportunity: We can exchange ideas, question one another, and correct one another. However, criticism is not automatically correct or valuable. Some people judge too quickly or succumb to a wrong judgment.

Yerkes-Dodson curve

Some believe that if you only work harder, harder, faster, you will achieve more. Error! What they really achieve through this excessive self-claims are just more pressure, stress and less time. This is shown particularly impressively by the so-called Yerkes-Dodson curve:

The two psychologists Robert Yerkes and John D. Dodson discovered this phenomenon as early as 1908 - and developed the curve of the same name from it, which looks like an upside-down U. According to their studies, performance is like this: With increasing effort and increasing stress, a person's productivity initially rises - but only up to a peak, the optimum performance. After that, extra work doesn't do anything. On the contrary: productivity only drops faster. In the worst case, this creates burnout, i.e. being completely burned out.
Of course, this Yerkes-Dodson Act was not intended as a plea for duty to order or laziness according to plan. On the other hand, one for smarter work.


Even the most successful people are plagued with doubts every now and then. But what matters is how we deal with it.

According to the definition, doubts are initially nothing more than warning signals: A mixture of subconscious and conscious processes reports: “Something is wrong, it cannot work like that, is unclear or strange!” Healthy skepticism can therefore save us from making mistakes. As a chronic attitude, however, they block us and transform us into the dreaded questioner. Everywhere he looks for the fly in the ointment - not infrequently out of uncertainty and the secret endeavor to prevent action.

Don't let doubts and supposed conditions chase you down: Use the concerns that arise to deal with the problem in peace. Check carefully which aspects are justified, but at the same time look for ways to solve the problem. In short: when in doubt, don't be part of the problem, but part of the solution.

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