What is the evidence regarding the existence of negative distortions in the thoughts of depressed individuals

The cognitive model of depression takes as its starting point the notion that it is the depressed person's moment-to-moment negative misinterpretation of an event, rather than the event itself, that leads to emotional distress (Beck et al., 1979; Clark et al., 1999). What is the empirical status of the assertion that depressed people are more likely to have negative thoughts? As reviewers have done previously, we frame the questions about negative cognitions in terms of central tenets. To examine the issue of cognitive distortions, we focus on the following two specific hypotheses:

(1) Negativity—depression is characterized by the presence of self-referent negative thinking,

(2) Specificity—depression has a distinct cognitive profile in terms of both content and process.

With regard to the first hypothesis, the large majority of studies and reviews support this notion of negativity. Since A.T. Beck's original research comparing the level of negative cognitions expressed by depressed patients during interviews to that of non-depressed psychi-atricpatients (Beck, 1967), the large majority of studies have supported this hypothesis. Later studies focused on objective "checklists" of depressotypic thoughts such as the Cognitions Checklist (Beck et al., 1987) or the Automatic Thoughts Questionnaire (Hollon & Kendall, 1980), in which participants use Likert scales to assess the frequency of negative thoughts. These studies suggest that cognitions can be reliably measured and are associated with depression. That is, a higher frequency of negative thoughts characterizes depressed individuals when compared to a variety of control groups, including non-depressed normals and non-depressed patients (e.g., Dobson & Shaw, 1986; Hollon et al., 1986; Ingram et al., 1987; Whisman et al., 1993).

Related to negativity is the notion of specificity, which holds that psychological disorders can be distinguished from one another by distinct cognitive profiles. In other words, when contrasted with other disorders, depression is predicted to be more associated with thoughts concerning loss or deprivation (Clark et al., 1999). This hypothesis has been tested by group comparisons (contrasting those who have a diagnosis of depression with other diagnostic categories on self-report measures of a variety of cognitions) and by examining correlations between continuous measures of psychiatric symptoms and different kinds of cognition. Most studies in this area have suggested specificity of depression and negative cognition when compared to individuals with generalized anxiety, social phobia, or test anxiety (Beck et al., 1992; Clark et al., 1990; Sanz & Avia, 1994; Steer et al., 1994). Specificity has also been examined with information-processing paradigms, such as having participants recall previously endorsed self-referent adjectives. Here, too, depressed individuals appear to recall more negative content adjectives than anxious individuals (Greenberg & Beck, 1989; Ingram et al., 1987). Similarly, correlational studies examining the pattern of relations between symptom measures and measures of cognition suggest that depression is specifically associated with negative thoughts, even when controlling for the presence of anxiety or threat cognitions (e.g., Alford et al., 1995; Jolly & Dykman, 1994). These studies generally converge on the conclusion that, indeed, depressed states are typically associated with negative thoughts that do not characterize normal emotional states or anxiety. In fact, depressed states are typically associated with thoughts of loss, failure, and pessimism (Clark et al., 1999; Greenberg & Beck, 1989; Haaga et al., 1991; Sanz & Avia, 1994; Steer et al., 1994).

Finally, early formulations of the cognitive model argued for exclusivity of negative thinking; that is, depression should be characterized by an absence of positive thoughts. However researchers have found that depressed people do report some positive cognitions and positive self-views, a finding which challenges the notion of the exclusivity of negative thoughts (Derry & Kuiper, 1981; Segal & Muran, 1993). However, later writing on the cognitive model of depression emphasizes not an absolute lack of positive cognition, but rather a preponderance of negative thoughts (Clark et al., 1999). Indeed, the research literature does support the notion that depressed individuals have a relatively higher ratio of negative to positive thoughts, with a general consensus that in depression negative thoughts outnumber positive thoughts approximately 2 to 1 (Schwartz, 1986; 1997). Taken together, evidence for the negativity and specificity hypotheses lends good support to the notion that depressive thinking is characterized by numerous negative biases.

Eliminating Stress and Anxiety From Your Life

Eliminating Stress and Anxiety From Your Life

It seems like you hear it all the time from nearly every one you know I'm SO stressed out!? Pressures abound in this world today. Those pressures cause stress and anxiety, and often we are ill-equipped to deal with those stressors that trigger anxiety and other feelings that can make us sick. Literally, sick.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment