Cognitive explanations for mood disorders

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Beck's theory

  • The idea that people with depression suffer due to their thoughts being negativ and self defeating
  • Put forward the theory that childhood negative schemas develop (a result of parents/authority figures having unrealistic demands and being overly critical), meaning that the way in which we process information becomes biased and distorted
  • The schemas continue into adulthood, resulting in cognitive biases, these include:
    Overgenralisation- the belief that one negative event means everything is negative
    >Magnification- blowing things up and out of proportion
    >Selective perception- perceiving only bad events, while ignoring the good
    >Arbitary inference- drawing conclusions in the absence of any evidence
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Beck's cognitive triad

  • Beck identified a cognitive triad of negative thinking where depressed people consistently think negatively about the WORLD, THEMSELVES and the FUTURE
  • These thoughts are automatic and sufferers of depression report that they constantly have these thoughts


  • Aim- To investigate the schemas of people suffering from depression
  • Method- Gave out the Dysfunctional Attitude Scale (DAS) to a group of depressed people and a control
  • Results- Those with depression scored higher on the DAS, suggesting they thought more negatively about events and situations
  • Conclusion- Depressed people think more negatively and use negative schemas, supporting his theory
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Evaluation of Beck's theory

  • An effective theory has been developed from it- suggests the cause (negative schemas and irrational thoughts) may have been correctly identified
  • Difficult to establish a cause and effect- unable to identify whether negative schemas cause depression or vice versa
  • Based on scientific evidence- increases the credibility of the theory due to it being supported by valid and reliable data that has been gathered through a strong measurement
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Seligman- The theory of learned helplessness

  • The idea that frequent negative experiences where the indidual believes they can't control the events in their life, results in feelins of helplessness, this leads to depression


  • Aim- To investigate the idea that depression is form of learned helplessness
  • Method- Placed dogs in an appartus where they couldn't escape and gave them electric shocks they could not escape from. Later the dogs were provided with an escape route to avoid the electric shocks
  • Results- The dogs did not try to find the escape route but instead gave up, a control group wo had not received the inescapable shocks quickly worked out how to escape
  • Conclusion- Animals acquire a sense of helplessness which impairs their performance in stressful situations that can be controlled. Seligman believed this would be the same for humans. Like depressed people, Seligman's dogs lost their appetite and lost weight, they also showed reduced levels of noradrenaline.
  • Evaluation- Ethics are a major issue here as well as the problem of extrapolation. Many depressed people blame themselves for their failures which does not fit the theory- suggests there are other causes
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Abramson- Attribution theory

  • Refers to the way in which individuals explain the reasons for events
  • A depressed individual has a tendency to always have a particular pattern for explaining negative and positive events- Attributional Style
  • This style has three dimensions:
    >Locus of control (external/internal)- the extent to which a person believes success/failure is down to them. External=the belief you have no control over events, Internal= the belief that you are responsible for much of what happens to you
    >Stability (stable/unstable)- whether a characteristic of an individual is permenant and will bever change (stable) or transient and can change (unstable)
    >Global/specific- whether the cause of an event refers to the whole person (global) or just some particular feature/characteristic (specific)

The attributional style of a depressed individual

  • Internal locus
  • Stable
  • Global
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Evaluation of Abramson

  • People diagnosed as depressed are more likely show an internal, global, stable style in an Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ)
  • People who are prone to becoming depressed also show this style- allows the individual to be supported before on set and measures can be put in place to prevent depression
  • Study- The ASQ was given to college students and it was found that mildly depressed students presented the style more than the non-depressed students
  • Problems determining where the attributional style comes from- Rose at al found that the style is related to sexual abuse in childhood. It is also associated with parental overprotectiveness, harsh discipline and perdectionist standards
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