The Cognitive Model

At its most general, the cognitive model of depression suggests that there is a strong connection between people's construal of events, their behaviour, and their emotional state. The model postulates that incoming information from the environment is processed via meaning-making structures that result in particular interpretations for each individual, and that in depression such cognitive structures are negatively oriented in their processing and tone, generating negative emotions and problematic behaviours (Beck, 1967). The cognitive model sees the processing of information as a primary, though not necessarily causal, factor in depression.

Mood Disorders: A Handbook of Science and Practice. Edited by M. Power. © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. ISBN 0-470-84390-X.

The cognitive model has its roots in two of the dominant currents of contemporary psychological thought, behaviourism and cognitivism. The developer of the cognitive model, A.T. Beck, was influenced considerably by behaviourism and learning theory, which suggested that psychopathology could be learned and did not necessarily result from repressed psychosexual conflicts, the prevailing view into the 1960s (Clark et al., 1999). At the same time, theorists and researchers began to turn their attention away from straightforward as-sociationist connections between a stimulus and a response, to information processing that connected the external environment and behaviour through meaning construction. Beck's critical clinical observation was that patients who are depressed construe many of their circumstances as negative, and that while this ran counter to the objective reality of the situation, it was the negative processing that kept problematic emotions and behaviours in place (Beck, 1967). Consistent with learning theory, he postulated that this negative information processing was the result of early learning, and he began to pursue the idea that this kind of information processing was intimately connected with the signs and symptoms of depression. Since the 1960s, the cognitive model has evolved (Beck, 1967; Beck et al., 1979; Clark et al., 1999) and has been elaborated by others (e.g., Teasdale & Barnard, 1993).

Cognitive theory posits that the processing of information is crucial for the survival of any organism. Because the number of external stimuli in the environment is practically infinite, an organism needs to be able to filter out irrelevant inputs while selecting only the most relevant information for further attention. In psychopathology, these filters, or schemas, are thought to be rigid, absolute, and automatic as a result of early learning. The content of schemas is thought to differ across various disorders including depression, anxiety, and personality disorders. For example, in depression, schemas are thought to centre on unlovability and inadequacy (J. Beck, 1995); during an episode of depression, negative schemas are believed to dominate the meanings that patients assign to events, while between episodes these schemas are less pronounced.

Schemas do not operate in a vacuum; quite the opposite, these systems of beliefs are brought to bear on everyday life events encountered by the person. The major avenue through which these schemas are thought to operate is by the production of automatic thoughts; that is, specific, observable cognitions that occur in response to a situation and whose theme is often consistent with the schema's content. Such automatic thoughts play a central role in negative emotions and behavioural decisions (Clark et al., 1999).

Belief Change 101

Belief Change 101

Do you suffer from a habit or a behavior or a repetitive thought pattern that keeps you from being who you want to be? Do you try to change this or that aspect of your life, but wind up right back where you started? You're not alone! Millions of Americans try to make changes, but the whopping majority fail exceptionally.

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