In Search Of Depressogenic Thought Processes

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A variety of studies using a variety of cognitive methods have sought to discover the depressogenic thought processes responsible for depression (for reviews, see MacLeod & Mathews, 1994; Segal, 1988; Segal & Ingram, 1994). However, one problematic result emerges from this research. Specifically, it is extremely difficult to distinguish formerly depressed participants from never depressed participants on measures of cognitive bias (e.g., Segal & Ingram, 1994). That is, depressive biases in cognition seem to be more statelike than traitlike. The reader will note that such findings are parallel to those involving anxiety disorders and attentional threat bias, in that successful psychotherapy eliminates the attentional threat bias (MacLeod, 1999).

There has been a rather extensive search for a "latent" (as opposed to state-dependent) processing bias that might underlie depression (Segal, 1988; Segal & Ingram, 1994). What we can say from this research is that there may not be one. Rather, depres-sogenic thought is only revealed when the person is self-focused or in a sad mood at the time of testing (Segal & Ingram, 1994). From the perspective of an implicit science of personality, we believe that these results are important. They suggest that depression is nothing like a trait. Rather, it is a phenomenon that co-occurs with negative mood states and certain dispositional vulnerabilities. Thus, it may come as little surprise that self-reported traits play a relatively minimal role in understanding clinical depression (Segal & Ingram, 1994).

One further direction for progress in this area relates to Segal's (1988) observations about the role of the negative self-schema in depression. Such a schema would not be revealed by self-report or even by implicit processing biases per se (Segal, 1988). Rather, evidence for such a schema must come from priming methodologies in which one negative self-related piece of information primes another negative self-related piece of information.

Our lab has been pursuing relevant procedures for a couple of years now (e.g., Robinson & Clore, 2002b). Participants are asked to judge the extent to which they generally feel various positive and negative emotions. Because stimuli are presented in a random order, any particular trial might involve a negative (N) or positive (P) emotion and in turn be succeeded by a positive or negative emotion. Speed to make a judgment can then be examined as a function of the valence of the "target" emotion as well as the valence of the "prime" emotion (i.e., the valence of the emotion on the preceding trial). This produces four means of interest: PP, NP, PN, and NN. A negative self-schema is revealed by the following contrast: PN minus NN. Because the target emotions in this difference score are both negative, any differential speed must be due to priming. Thus far, we have found evidence for (a) robust valence-specific priming (PP and NN faster than PN and NP), (b) more pronounced priming for positive emotions (NP-PP) than for negative emotions

(PN-NN), and (c) moderation by traits. As an example of the latter effect, those high in life satisfaction had much higher priming scores for positive emotions (-200 ms) than those low in life satisfaction did (~100 ms). This suggests that life satisfaction relates to the strength or interconnectivity of positive knowledge about the self (Robinson & Kirkeby, in press). It seems likely that similar priming procedures could be used to understand the role of the self-schema in depression (Segal, 1988).


Modern work on chronic accessibility traces its lineage back to a paper by Jerome Bruner (1957). Bruner was one of the main protagonists behind the New Look, which emphasized motivational and dispositional influences on perception. In the 1957 paper, Bruner argued that perception is not a passive process, but rather that the person is prepared to see events that match accessible concepts. An accessible concept is one that is activated and ready for use given the right stimulus input conditions.

At least three factors influence the accessibility of a concept (Higgins, 1996). First, a concept is activated to the extent that it matches the current stimulus conditions. Being around furniture activates thoughts about furniture and being around fish activates thoughts about fish. Second, however, a concept can be primed or activated by recent exposure or use. So, for example, exposure to media violence activates or primes aggressive thoughts (Anderson & Bushman, 2002). This temporary activation persists for some time, resulting in an increased likelihood of subsequent aggression (Anderson & Bushman, 2002).

In addition to the situational factors mentioned, a third influence on accessibility relates to chronic accessibility (Higgins, 1996). A chronically accessible concept is one that is habitually activated in the person. For example, one approach to individual differences in aggression might be to propose that certain individuals typically have a higher level of activation for antisocial thoughts. As a result, they are more likely, on average, to select aggressive actions in dealing with social conflicts (Zelli & Dodge, 1999). Chronically accessible concepts are of obvious relevance to personality psychology.

Although Bruner (1957) did not say much about chronically accessible concepts, Kelly (1963) did. Kelly's theory was based on "personal constructs," which are habitual dimensions used to interpret events. A construct is somewhat similar to a concept, except that it explicitly endorses a bipolar structure (Robinson, Solberg, Vargas, & Tamir, 2003). Kelly, like Bruner, believed that accessible concepts have a tremendous influence on interpretation, emotional experience, and behavior. In fact, Kelly (1963) offered accessible constructs as a comprehensive theory of personality; he did not say much if anything about self-reported traits.

How can one determine what a person's accessible constructs are? According to Bruner (1957), accessibility is marked by the speed or ease with which a person can place an object (e.g., a knife) in a relevant category (e.g., a weapon). Therefore, a straightforward operationalization of accessibility would involve a choice reaction time task in which people are told to, as quickly and accurately as possible, decide whether each word belongs to one category (e.g., a weapon) or another (e.g., not a weapon). Habitual use of the construct would make it likely that the person would find the task fairly easy (and be fast); by contrast, inaccessible constructs would produce marked difficulties with the task. Thus, speed to categorize objects can be taken as an indication of the accessibility of the construct of interest (Robinson, 2004).

In several investigations, we have adopted this straightforward approach to construct accessibility. In addition to asking participants to make the relevant categorizations, we also asked them to perform a neutral categorization task (such as judging whether a word represents an animal or not). By use of a regression equation and the computation of residual scores, we were then able to statistically remove "baseline" individual differences in categorization speed. What results is a set of scores that are correlated with the block of interest, but uncorrelated with the nontarget catego rization block (see Robinson, Solberg, et al., 2003, for further details).

The investigations have been remarkably consistent in suggesting that accessible constructs are uncorrelated with self-reported traits. This is true even when the categorization task is designed, in some sense, to match or be relevant to the trait in question. For example, trait femininity does not correlate with speed to categorize words as feminine (Robinson, Vargas, et al., 2003), extraversión does not correlate with speed to categorize words as positive (Robinson, Solberg, et al., 2003), neuroti-cism does not correlate with speed to categorize words as threatening (Robinson, Vargas, et al., 2003), and agreeableness does not correlate with speed to categorize words as blameworthy (Meier & Robinson, 2004).

Our interest, however, related to emotional states rather than emotional traits. In these studies, participants have been asked to complete daily reports of life satisfaction (Robinson, Solberg, et al., 2003), palmtop computer reports concerning pleasant and unpleasant emotions (Robinson, Vargas, Tamir, & Solberg, 2004), and laboratory reports of anger following an anger induction (Meier & Robinson, 2004). At least four patterns of findings have emerged from these studies. First, we have found that accessible negative constructs predispose people to negative emotions and somatic symptoms in everyday life, even after extraversión and neuroticism are controlled (Robinson et al., 2004). Second, we have found that extraversión predicts subjective well-being, particularly for those slow to distinguish neutral and positive words in a categorization task (Robinson, Solberg, et al., 2003). Third, we have found that anger is a joint (interactive) product of accessible blame and low agreeableness (Meier & Robinson, 2004). And fourth, we have found evidence for the idea that people are happier when their categorization abilities are well matched to their traits (Robinson, in press; Robinson, Vargas, et al., 2003). As an example of the latter interaction, those high in trait femininity are happier when they are fast (versus slow) to categorize feminine words, whereas those low in trait femininity are happier when they are slow (versus fast) to categorize feminine words.

In summarizing this recent program of research, three points seem especially evident. One, accessible concepts cannot be viewed in any way as synonymous with self-reported traits. In fact, in no study have we found a consistent relation between self-reported traits on the one hand and categorization performance on the other. Two, there are dispositional influences on our emotional states that are quite distinct from emotional traits. For example, being fast to categorize objects as negative predisposes people to negative affect, precisely because such negative categorization tendencies are also used in interpreting daily events and outcomes (Robinson et al., 2004). The first two points suggest that one might be able to develop a science of personality without reference to traits (Cervone & Shoda, 1999). However, our results, in many cases, suggest otherwise. Specifically, we have found many cases in which categorization tendencies interacted with self-reported traits, so much so that our understanding of the findings critically depended on knowing a person's traits. For example, in one investigation, accessible blame predicted anger and aggression only among those low in agreeableness (Meier & Robinson, 2004). Findings such as these highlight the importance of traits in moderating the influence of implicit processes (Robinson, 2004).

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