People with symptoms of depression and anxiety tend to focus more on the mistakes they have made in the past, research finds.
This makes it harder for them to take advantage of potentially beneficial opportunities in the future.
Worse, other studies have shown that people who are depressed tend to believe that bad things that happened to them were inevitable.
The bias may make it harder for depressed and anxious people to take a risk on a new relationship, job or other career opportunity.
One suggestion for escaping this cycle is to consciously focus more on past successes.
Unfortunately, depressed people also have a difficulty appreciating or recalling positive experiences.
Cognitive-behavioural therapy is one way of changing habits of thought that might affect decision-making.
In contrast to the depressed and anxious, people who are emotionally resilient find it easier to adapt to a rapidly changing environment and to take advantage of opportunities.
Professor Sonia Bishop, study co-author, explained:
“When everything keeps changing rapidly, and you get a bad outcome from a decision you make, you might fixate on what you did wrong, which is often the case with clinically anxious or depressed people.
Conversely, emotionally resilient people tend to focus on what gave them a good outcome, and in many real-world situations that might be key to learning to make good decisions.”
The researchers tested the decision-making of over 300 people for their study, some with depression and others with anxiety.
Professor Bishop said:
“We wanted to see if this weakness was unique to people with anxiety, or if it also presented in people with depression, which often goes hand in hand with anxiety.
We also sought to find out if the problem was a general one or specific to learning about potential reward or potential threat.”
The results showed that people with symptoms of depression and anxiety had the most trouble making sound decisions.
Professor Bishop said:
“We found that people who are emotionally resilient are good at latching on to the best course of action when the world is changing fast.
People with anxiety and depression, on the other hand, are less able to adapt to these changes.
Our results suggest they might benefit from cognitive therapies that redirect their attention to positive, rather than negative, outcomes.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal eLife (Gagne et al., 2020).