Introduction/Background Cognitive distortions have long been posited to facilitate antisocial behaviours, but the specificity of such distortions has rarely been studied.

Aims To replicate findings of specificity between particular cognitions and externalizing or internalizing behaviours; to test for specificity of relationship between particular cognitions and different types of externalizing behaviours.

Methods The participants were 239 male youths aged 10 to 19 years (mean (M) = 14.22, standard deviation (SD) = 1.64) from schools on the island of Curaçao. Their cognitive distortions and problem behaviours were investigated through self-report.

Results In controlled analyses, self-serving cognitive distortions were associated with externalizing behaviours whereas self-debasing cognitive distortions were associated with internalizing behaviours. Within the externalizing domain, self-serving distortions with overt behavioural referents were linked to aggressive behaviour while self-serving distortions with covert behavioural referents were linked to delinquent behaviour. Within the aggression domain, distortions with opposition-defiance referents related to verbal aggression whereas distortions with physical aggression referents related to physically aggressive behaviour.

Conclusions and implications for practice The degree of cognitive-behavioural specificity documented by this study was remarkable. The observed pattern suggests that cognitive interventions designed for externalizing versus internalizing behaviours should differ in therapeutic approach. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.