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Depression: Major Depression & Unipolar Varieties
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Cognitive Theories of Major Depression - Aaron Beck

Rashmi Nemade, Ph.D., Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D., and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Cognitive theories rose to prominence in response to the early behaviorists' failure to take thoughts and feelings seriously. The cognitive movement did not reject behavioral principles, however. Rather, the idea behind the cognitive movement was to integrate mental events into the behavioral framework. Cognitive Behavioral theories (sometimes called "cognitive theories") are considered to be "cognitive" because they address mental events such as thinking and feeling. They are called "cognitive behavioral" because they address those mental events in the context of the learning theory that was the basis for the pure behavioral theory described above. The rise in popularity of cognitive behaviorism continues today; it forms the basis of the most dominant and well-research formed of psychotherapy available today: Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, or CBT.

Cognitive behavioral theorists suggest that depression results from maladaptive, faulty, or irrational cognitions taking the form of distorted thoughts and judgments. Depressive cognitions can be learned socially (observationally) as is the case when children in a dysfunctional family watch their parents fail to successfully cope with stressful experiences or traumatic events. Or, depressive cognitions can result from a lack of experiences that would facilitate the development of adaptive coping skills.

According to cognitive behavioral theory, depressed people think differently than non-depressed people, and it is this difference in thinking that causes them to become depressed. For example, depressed people tend to view themselves, their environment, and the future in a negative, pessimistic light. As a result, depressed people tend to misinterpret facts in negative ways and blame themselves for any misfortune that occurs. This negative thinking and judgment style functions as a negative bias; it makes it easy for depressed people to see situations as being much worse than they really are, and increases the risk that such people will develop depressive symptoms in response to stressful situations.

Aaron Beck's Cognitive Theory of Depression

Different cognitive behavioral theorists have developed their own unique twist on the Cognitive way of thinking. According to Dr. Aaron Beck, negative thoughts, generated by dysfunctional beliefs are typically the primary cause of depressive symptoms. A direct relationship occurs between the amount and severity of someone's negative thoughts and the severity of their depressive symptoms. In other words, the more negative thoughts you experience, the more depressed you will become.

Beck also asserts that there are three main dysfunctional belief themes (or "schemas") that dominate depressed people's thinking: 1) I am defective or inadequate, 2) All of my experiences result in defeats or failures, and 3) The future is hopeless. Together, these three themes are described as the Negative Cognitive Triad. When these beliefs are present in someone's cognition, depression is very likely to occur (if it has not already occurred).

An example of the negative cognitive triad themes will help illustrate how the process of becoming depressed works. Imagine that you have just been laid off from your work. If you are not in the grip of the negative cognitive triad, you might think that this event, while unfortunate, has more to do with the economic position of your employer than your own work performance. It might not occur to you at all to doubt yourself, or to think that this event means that you are washed up and might as well throw yourself down a well. If your thinking process was dominated by the negative cognitive triad, however, you would very likely conclude that your layoff was due to a personal failure; that you will always lose any job you might manage to get; and that your situation is hopeless. On the basis of these judgments, you will begin to feel depressed. In contrast, if you were not influenced by negative triad beliefs, you would not question your self-worth too much, and might respond to the lay off by dusting off your resume and initiating a job search.

Beyond the negative content of dysfunctional thoughts, these beliefs can also warp and shape what someone pays attention to. Beck asserted that depressed people pay selective attention to aspects of their environments that confirm what they already know and do so even when evidence to the contrary is right in front of their noses. This failure to pay attention properly is known as faulty information processing.

Particular failures of information processing are very characteristic of the depressed mind. For example, depressed people will tend to demonstrate selective attention to information, which matches their negative expectations, and selective inattention to information that contradicts those expectations. Faced with a mostly positive performance review, depressed people will manage to find and focus in on the one negative comment that keeps the review from being perfect. They tend to magnify the importance and meaning placed on negative events, and minimize the importance and meaning of positive events. All of these maneuvers, which happen quite unconsciously, function to help maintain a depressed person's core negative schemas in the face of contradictory evidence, and allow them to remain feeling hopeless about the future even when the evidence suggests that things will get better.