The "fortune telling" thinking error is that of possessing an imaginary crystal ball which only foretells misery for you.

You imagine that something bad is about to happen, and you take this prediction as a fact even though it's unrealistic.

Crystal ballFeeling a bit anxious as work gets a little stressful, you might tell yourself, "I'm going to pass out, or go 'mad'", even though you've never once passed out (or gone 'mad') in your whole life. Nor do you have any serious symptoms to suggest impending insanity.

David Burns gives an example of how, in a therapy session, an acutely depressed medical doctor explained to Burns why he was giving up practising medicine: "I realise I'll be depressed forever. My misery will go on and on, and I'm absolutely convinced that this, or any treatment will be doomed to failure." This negative prediction about his prognosis caused him to feel hopeless. His symptomatic improvement soon after initiating therapy indicated just how 'off-base' his fortune telling had been.

Suppose you phone a friend who fails to return your call after what you consider to be a reasonable amount of time. You then feel depressed when you tell yourself that your friend probably got the message but wasn't interested enough to call you back. Your distortion? Mind Reading. You then feel bitter, and decide not to call back and check this out because you say to yourself, "He'll think I'm being obnoxious if I call him back again. I'll just be making a fool of myself." Because of these negative predictions (fortune telling), you avoid your friend and feel put down.

Three weeks later you learn that your friend never got the message. All that stewing, it turns out, was just a piece of self-imposed nonsense.


Techniques for 'un-distortion'

Robert Leahy has suggested the following techniques for challenging fortune telling errors:

  1. Rate the degree of your belief and identity and rate your emotions.
  2. Identify exactly what your prediction is — exactly what will happen and when and where it will happen
  3. Conduct a cost-benefit analysis
    a. Do you think that worry protects and prepares you?
    b. Do you fear that you can't control your worries?
  4. Examine evidence for and against your fortune telling.
  5. What is the quality of the evidence that supports your fortune telling?
  6. What cognitive distortions are you using to support your belief?
  7. How could you prove that your thought is wrong? Is it testable?
  8. What if your thought were true — why would it bother you?
  9. Practice repeating the following statement 20 minutes each day: "No matter what I do, it's always possible something bad could happen to me."
  10. How many times have you made incorrect predictions?
  11. What is your worst feared outcome — your feared fantasy?
    a. What is the worst, best, and most likely outcome?
    b. Write down a detailed description of your worst feared outcome.
    c. List all the things that would have to go wrong for this outcome to happen.
    d. List all the things that might prevent this outcome from happening.
    e. Practice repeating the image and story of the worst outcome for 20 minutes each day.
  12. Describe in detail three positive outcomes. Write down detailed stories about how these positive outcomes could occur.