Behavioural theory: Depression

HideShow resource information
  • Created by: Amy
  • Created on: 10-06-13 15:09

Lewinson - Reduction of reinforcement

LEWINSON (1974) proposed that depression is a result of a reduction of reinforcement. Certain events, such as losing your job, induce depression because they reduce positive reinforcement from others (eg being around people who like you).

Depressed people usually become much less socially active. Friends and relatives respond to this change in a person by leaving them alone.

Lewinsohn sees people lacking in social skills as those most likely to experience depression, because social ineptness is unlikely to bring positive reinforcement from others. Depressed people typically report having fewer pleasant experiences than non-depressed people (Peterson, 1993). 

The problem with the assumption that depression follows a reduction in pleasant experiences is that because not everyone who has a reduction in pleasant experiences gets depression and vice versa. Could become depressed THEN withdraw and have less positive experiences

1 of 4

Learned helplessness

Another behavioural theory is that of LEARNED HELPLESSNESS to explain depression.

SELIGMAN (1975) found that when dogs were restrained in an apparatus and given electric shocks, they failed to initiate escape behaviour when the restraints were removed.

Moreover, they exhibited some of the symptoms of depression found in humans (lethargy, sluggishness, and appetite loss). This led Seligman to explain depression in humans in terms of learned helplessness, whereby the individual gives up trying to influence their environment because they have learned that they are helpless as a consequence of having no control over what happens to them.

2 of 4

Evaluation of Seligman


  • Controlled, high internal validty
  • Establish learned helplessness leads to the onset of depressionextraneous variables controlled
  • Human participants subjected to inescapable noise or asked them to solve impossible mental problems, later failed to escape from escapable noise or to solve solvable problems
  • Learned helplessness makes sense in terms of reactive depression, where there is a clearly identifiable cause of depression. 


  • too deterministic, may not happen to everyone of every species
  • However, one of the biggest problems for the theory is that of endogenous depression. This is depression that has no apparent cause (ie nothing bad has happened to the person).
  • A criticism of Seligman’s view is that his research was based on animals and, therefore, the findings can’t be generalised to humans.
3 of 4

Seligman - Issues and Debates

  • ethical issues, not ethical to subject dogs to torture. however, results were outstanding so could justify this
  • Reductionist – complex behaviour and simplifying it
  • Determinist
  • Focus on nurture
  • Psychology as a science – observable behaviour
4 of 4


No comments have yet been made

Similar Psychology resources:

See all Psychology resources »