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Depression: Major Depression & Unipolar Varieties
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Cognitive Theories of Major Depression - Ellis and Bandura

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

Albert Ellis' Cognitive Theory of Depression

Dr. Albert Ellis pointed out that depressed people's irrational beliefs tend to take the form of absolute statements. Ellis describes three main irrational beliefs typical of depressive thinking:

  1. "I must be completely competent in everything I do, or I am worthless."
  2. "Others must treat me considerately, or they are absolutely terrible."
  3. "The world should always give me happiness, or I will die."

Because of these sorts of beliefs, depressed people make unqualified demands on others and/or convince themselves that they have overwhelming needs that must (simply must!) be fulfilled. Ellis, well known for his rather acid wit, referred to this tendency towards absolutism in depressive thinking as "Musterbation."

Ellis also noted the presence of information processing biases in depressed people's cognitions. Like Beck he noted that depressed people tend to: ignore positive information, pay exaggerated attention to negative information, and to engage in overgeneralization, which occurs when people assume that because some local and isolated event has turned out badly, that this means that all events will turn out badly. For example, depressed people may refuse to see that they have at least a few friends, or that they have had some successes across their lifetime (ignoring the positive). Or, they might dwell on and blow out of proportion the hurts they have suffered (exaggerating the negative). Other depressed people may convince themselves that nobody loves them or that they always mess up (overgeneralizing).

Ellis' ideas led him to develop Rational Emotive Therapy (RET), which was later renamed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). We discuss REBT as well as Beck's CBT in more detail in the treatment sections of this document.

Bandura's Social Cognitive Theory of Depression

Psychologist Albert Bandura's Social Cognitive learning theory suggested that people are shaped by the interactions between their behaviors, thoughts, and environmental events. Each piece in the puzzle can and does affect the shape of the other pieces. Human behavior ends up being largely a product of learning, which may occur vicariously (e.g., by way of observation), as well as through direct experience.

Bandura pointed out that depressed people's self-concepts are different from non-depressed people's self-concepts. Depressed people tend to hold themselves solely responsible for bad things in their lives and are full of self-recrimination and self-blame. In contrast, successes tend to get viewed as having been caused by external factors outside of the depressed person's control. In addition, depressed people tend to have low levels of self-efficacy (a person's belief that they are capable of influencing their situation). Because depressed people also have a flawed judgmental process, they tend to set their personal goals too high, and then fall short of reaching them. Repeated failure further reduces feelings of self-efficacy and leads to depression.

An important psychological concept, which is closely related to Bandura's self-efficacy idea, is Julian Rotter's concept of locus of control. When people believe that they can affect and alter their situations, they may be said to have an internal locus of control and a relatively high sense of self-efficacy. When individuals feel that they are mostly at the mercy of the environment and cannot alter their situation, they have a external locus of control, and a relatively low sense of self-efficacy. To extend the above explanation, depressed people tend to have a external locus of control and a low sense of self-esteem.