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Cognitive Theories of Depression - Aaron Beck

Rashmi Nemade, Ph.D., edited by Kathryn Patricelli, MA

Cognitive theories developed in response to the early behaviorists' failure to take thoughts and feelings seriously.  However, the cognitive group did not reject behavioral principles. Instead, the idea behind these theories 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. It forms the basis of the most dominant and well-researched formed of psychotherapy available today: Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT.

woman thinkingCognitive behavioral theorists suggest that depression results from distorted thoughts and judgments. These can be learned socially as is the case when children in a dysfunctional family watch their parents fail to successfully cope with stressful experiences or traumatic events. Or, they can result from a lack of experiences that would lead to the development of adaptive coping skills.

According to cognitive behavioral theory, people with depression think differently than people who are not depressed. It is this difference in thinking that causes them to become depressed. For example, people with depression tend to view themselves, their environment, and the future in a negative way. As a result, they tend to misinterpret facts in negative ways.  They also tend to blame themselves for any negative things that happen. This negative thinking and judgment style makes it easy for people with depression to see situations as being much worse than they really are.  This 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 believes that there are three main dysfunctional belief themes (or "schemas") that dominate a person with depression's thinking:

  • I am defective or inadequate.
  • All of my experiences result in defeats or failures.
  • The future is hopeless.

Together, these three themes are described as the negative cognitive triad. When these beliefs are present in someone's thoughts, depression is very likely to occur (if it has not already occurred).

An example of the 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. But 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.  You would also believe 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 starting a job search.

Beyond the negative content of dysfunctional thoughts, these beliefs can also warp and shape the attention a person focuses on certain events or thoughts. Beck stated that people with depression pay selective attention to aspects of their environments that confirm what they already know. They do so even when evidence to the contrary is right in front of them. 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, people with depression will tend to pay attention to information which matches their negative expectations and ignore information that goes against those expectations. Faced with a mostly positive performance review, people with depression 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 issues, which happen quite unconsciously, function to help maintain core negative themes in the face of evidence that goes against them. This allows them to remain feeling hopeless about the future even when the evidence suggests that things will get better.