Defensive motivation in MDD

Certainly, no overall characterization of emotional responding in MDD is complete without a consideration of how depressed individuals respond to negative emotional stimuli. From early psychoanalytic formulations of depression to contemporary cognitive conceptualizations of this disorder, theorists have postulated that depressed individuals are characterized by a magnified response to negative stimuli. For example, cognitive theories of depression conceptualize this disorder in terms of biases in information processing, in which attention to, and/or memory for, negative stimuli or environmental events are potentiated (e.g., Beck, 1967, 1976; Beck et al., 1979). Indeed, given the pervasiveness of negative thinking and negative affect in this disorder, the hypothesis that depression enhances reactivity to negative stimuli is a reasonable one.

Surprisingly, however, there is little empirical evidence to support the view that depression enhances reactivity to negative stimuli. Not only have several investigators obtained null results (e.g., Sloan et al., 2001), but also a growing number of experimental studies have actually reported findings in the opposite direction, indicating that depressed persons exhibit diminished reactivity to negative stimuli. For instance, in early studies comparing depressed individuals and nondepressed controls, depressed participants have been found to report experiencing less pain in response to heat (Hall & Stride, 1954; Hemphill et al., 1952), pressure (Merskey, 1965), and electric shock (Davis et al., 1979; von Knorring & Espvall, 1974; but also see Lewinsohn et al., 1973). This pattern of findings has been replicated in more recent studies using pressure and cold stimuli (Lautenbacher et al., 1999), and heat stimuli (Dworkin et al., 1995; Lautenbaucher et al., 1994; but see also Adler & Gattaz, 1993). In fact, in our laboratory, this pattern of blunted, rather than enhanced, responding has even been observed in tearful crying, an emotional response that one would reasonably expect to be enhanced by depression. Crying is ordinarily associated with the report and display of sadness and with physiological arousal (Gross et al., 1994). Given the clear elevations among depressed people in reports and displays of sadness, combined with clinical reports of crying as a characteristic of depression, we hypothesized that individuals diagnosed with MDD would be more likely than would nondepressed controls to cry in response to a sad film. Contrary to this prediction, we found, first, that depressed individuals were no more likely to cry than were nondepressed controls, and, second, that crying-related increases in the report and display of sadness and in heart rate and electrodermal responding were smaller among depressed than among nondepressed individuals (Rottenberg et al., 2002).

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