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Cognitive Theories of Major Depression - Seligman

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

Seligman's Learned Helplessness

In early 1965, psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues" accidentally" discovered an unexpected phenomenon related to human depression while studying the relationship between fear and learning in dogs. Seligman's study involved watching what happened when a dog was allowed to escape an impending (and aversive but non-damaging) shock so long as they escaped from a designated area of their enclosure upon hearing a tone. During the first experiment, the researcher rang a bell immediately prior to administering a brief slightly unpleasant sensation to the dog. The idea was that the dog would learn to associate the tone with the shock. In the future, the dog would then feel fear when it heard the bell, and would run away or show some other fear-related behavior upon hearing the tone.

During the next part of the experiments, the researchers put the conditioned dog (which had just learned that hearing the tone is a warning for an upcoming shock) into a box with two compartments divided by a low fence. Even though the dog could easily see over and jump over the fence, when the researchers rang the bell and administered the shock, nothing happened (the dog was expected to jump over the fence.) Similarly, when they shocked the conditioned dog without the bell, nothing happened. In both situations, the dog simply lay down. Interestingly, when the researchers put a normal dog into the same box contraption, it immediately jumped over the fence to the other side.

Apparently, the conditioned dog had learned more than the connection between the tone and the shock. It has also learned that trying to escape from the shocks was futile. In other words, the dog learned to be "helpless." This research formed Seligman's subsequent theory of Learned Helplessness, which was then extended to human behavior as a model for explaining depression. According to Seligman, depressed people have learned to be helpless. In other words, depressed people feel that whatever they do will be futile, and that they have no control over their environments.

Useful as it was for explaining why some people became depressed, the initial learned helplessness theory could not account for or explain why many people did not become depressed even after experiencing many unpleasant life events. With further study, Seligman modified the learned helplessness theory to incorporate a person's thinking style as a factor determining whether learned helplessness would occur. He suggested that depressed people tended to use a more pessimistic explanatory style when thinking about stressful events than did non-depressed people, who tended to be more optimistic in nature.

As a means of illustrating explanatory style, let's pretend that you fail an exam. In response, you could think: 1) I am stupid. 2) I'm not good in math. 3) I was unlucky, it was Friday the 13th. 4) The math teacher is prejudiced. 5) The math teacher grades hard. 6) I was feeling ill that day. 7) The math teacher gave a hard test this time. 8) I didn't have time to study.

Individuals who tend to view the causes of negative events as internal, global, and stable (e.g., people who use explanations #1, #2) are said to have a pessimistic attributional style. Individuals who tend to view the causes of negative events as external, specific, and unstable (e.g., explanation #7) have an optimistic attributional style. Individuals who become depressed are more likely to have pessimistic attributional styles than optimistic attributional styles. According to the revised learned helplessness theory, a pessimistic attributional style increases the likelihood of developing learned helplessness. In addition, prolonged exposure to uncontrollable and inescapable events can lead people to develop a pessimistic attributional style, and to become apathetic, pessimistic, and unmotivated, even if they are not that way to start

An adaptation of this theory argues that depression results not only from helplessness, but also from hopelessness. The hopelessness theory attributes depression to a pattern of negative thinking in which people blame themselves for negative life events, view the causes of those events as permanent, and overgeneralize specific weaknesses to many areas of their life (e.g., "I am not good at creative things, so I am therefore not a good mother, therefore my relationship with my child is undoubtedly doomed").

Other cognitive behavioral theorists suggest that people with "depressive" personality traits appear to be more vulnerable than others to depression. Examples of depressive personality traits include neuroticism, gloominess, introversion, self-criticism, excessive skepticism and criticism of others, deep feelings of inadequacy, and excessive brooding and worrying. In addition, people who regularly behave in dependent, hostile, and impulsive ways appear at greater risk for depression.