Cognitive Styles And Etiology Of Depression

December 17, 2010 in Mood Disorders

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, United States, has thrown interesting insights on the impact of positive versus negative cognitive styles on the risk for depression.

sxc.hu, pdufour

First, some theoretical background. The research is based on two theories of depression. The first is the “hopelessness theory of depression” posited by Abramson, Metalsky and Alloy (1989). According to this theory, a negative cognitive style in cognitively vulnerable individuals interacts with stressful live events to give rise to depression. A “negative cognitive style” is defined as the tendency of the subject to, when faced with a stressful life event, deduce the following inferences: 1. that there are global and stable causes underlying the event; 2. that the event is likely to lead to other negative consequences; and 3. that the incidence of the event in one’s life somehow implies that one is unworthy or deficient in some manner. Individuals whose cognitive style involves these three negative deductions from a stressful life event are said to be at high risk of depression.

The second theory of depression is aligned with the hopelessness theory, and is called the “recovery model from depression”. This theory was posited by Needles and Abramson (1990). According to this theory, a positive, or enhancing cognitive style in individuals interacts with positive life events to create hope, which in turn will reduce depression. An “enhancing cognitive style” is defined as the tendency of the subject to, when encountering a positive life event, deduce the following inferences: 1. that there are global and stable causes underlying the event; 2. that the event is likely to lead to other positive consequences; and 3. that the incidence of the event in one’s life somehow implies that one is worthy or special in some manner. Individuals whose cognitive style involves these three positive deductions from a positive life event are said to experience hope, which leads to amelioration of depression.

sxc.hu, guidoux

There are therefore at least four factors involved in these two theories: negative cognitive style, enhancing cognitive style, stressful life events, and positive life events. This brings us to the actual research. The researchers – Ivan Vargas and Dr. Gerald Haeffel – investigated the following -

  • whether individuals with a negative cognitive style and experiencing stressful life events would manifest increase in depressive symptoms;
  • whether individuals with a negative cognitive style and encountering stressful life events will be protected from increase in depressive symptoms if they also happened to simultaneously possess enhancing cognitive style as well as also experienced positive events; and
  • whether individuals with neither a negative cognitive style nor an enhancing cognitive style would manifest low depressive symptoms when encountering negative or positive life events.

131 participants were involved in the 4-week study that deployed a prospective longitudinal design. Three psychological measures were administered – Acute Life Events Questionnaire (ALEQ), Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), and Cognitive Style Questionnaire (CSQ).

sxc.hu, joey33

The study corroborated the earlier findings about the impact of stressful life events on depressive symptoms in cognitively vulnerable individuals. It also substantiated earlier findings that individuals with low negative cognitive style and low stressful life events, but with high enhancing cognitive style and high positive events – are the most resilient to depressive symptoms. More importantly, the study discovered that individuals with a negative cognitive style are protected from any increase in depressive symptoms, if they also happened to possess an enhancing cognitive style and / or been experiencing positive life events. In such cases, the level of depression was equivalent to that of individuals who did not possess a negative cognitive style. Further, the absence of positive episodes in one’s life has been found to make an impact, especially for individuals with high negative cognitive style (and / or low enhancing cognitive style). Such people expressed the highest level of depressive symptoms amongst the cohort. Ergo, when there is little to celebrate or be joyous about in life, such individuals tend to be depressogenic.

sxc.hu, ophelia

The researchers make two insightful observations on the implication of their findings. The first is the position taken by interventions such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapies (MBCT), which emphasize the benefits of accepting a neutral cognitive style. (See, for example, the paper by Coelho, Canter and Ernst (2007).) Patients in this therapy are trained to give up control, and be present in the effort of acceptance. The findings of the present research suggest that not a “neutral” but an enhancing, “take credit” cognitive style may be more beneficial. Reflecting on positive events and positive self-cognitions can make a difference.

The second observation is that other research work has found that in case of bipolar spectrum cases, an enhancing cognitive style and positive life events interact to predict increases in manic symptoms.  (See, for example, the paper by Reilly-Harrington et. al (1999).) The implication therefore is that the resiliency effect brought out in the study may be applicable to unipolar and not bipolar depression cases.

The present research is published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, vol. 42, issue 1, March 2011.

Portrait by Van Gogh, a BPD

Portrait by Van Gogh, believed to have suffered from BPD

Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.