Depressive Thinking

Depressed Person

Most people have experienced depression for at least a short period of time, perhaps as the result of an event or confluence of events. For others, though, depression will not dissipate with time, imprisoning the mind for a lifetime.

The causes of depression are many and varied. Occasionally the reasons are there for all to see: a loved one has died, for example, or a job has been lost or an important relationship has broken up. More often the cause is mysterious to the casual observer because it is not events that necessarily cause depression, it is the way in which we interpret events.

Psychologists have found that, despite the variability in the causes of depression, there are some fascinating ways in which the thinking of depressed people often follows particular patterns. These patterns can be seen in people’s ‘attributions’.

An attribution is when a person attaches a particular cause to a particular effect, for example: “I didn’t get the job because I am worthless.” It might be clear to other people around me that I am not a worthless person but, in my mind, that is the connection, or attribution, I have made. There are three important components to the type of attribution that are implicated in depressive illness. To continue with this example, they are:

  • It is my fault that I didn’t get the job. Here I have made an internal attribution.
  • I think I am worthless: a thought that is likely to affect all areas of my life. Now I am making this attribution global.
  • I see no reason for the fact that I am worthless to ever change. Now the attribution is stable.

Conversely if something good happens to a person using this style of thinking, they will tend to attribute opposite causes. I got the job because I was lucky on the day: it is not because I am highly employable, it was a fluke and is unlikely to be repeated in the future.

This particular type of attribution has been shown to be unusual because people who are not depressed generally do the exact opposite. Most people have what is described as a ‘self-serving bias’. Anything good that happens to you is because of your skills, is likely to repeated in the future and will remain the same for you.

So, the theory sounds reasonable, what about the practice? I will take a closer look at some of the research soon.

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 2 March 2006

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