Academic journal article Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

Cognitive Vulnerability to Depression: Theory and Evidence

Academic journal article Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

Cognitive Vulnerability to Depression: Theory and Evidence

Article excerpt

According to the cognitive vulnerability hypothesis of two major cognitive theories of depression, Beck's (1967; 1987) theory and the hopelessness theory (Abramson, Metalsky, & Alloy, 1989), negative cognitive styles provide vulnerability to depression, particularly hopelessness depression (HD), when people encounter negative life events. The Temple-Wisconsin Cognitive Vulnerability to Depression (CVD) Project is a two-site, prospective longitudinal study designed to test this hypothesis as well as the other etiological hypotheses of Beck's and the hopelessness theories of depression. We present findings from the CVD Project suggesting that the hypothesized depressogenic cognitive styles do indeed confer vulnerability for clinically significant depressive disorders and suicidality. In addition, we present evidence about the information processing and personality correlates of these styles. Finally, we discuss preliminary findings about the developmental origins of cognitive vulnerability to depression.


Why are some people vulnerable to depression whereas others never seem to become depressed? According to the cognitive theories of depression, the way people typically interpret or explain events in their lives, their cognitive styles, importantly affects their vulnerability to depression. Thus, as a complement to work emphasizing biological or genetic risk for depression, the hopelessness theory (Abramson, Metalsky, & Alloy, 1989) and Beck's theory (Beck, 1967; 1987) highlight cognitive risk for depression.

For example, according to the hopelessness theory (Abramson et al., 1989), people who (1) characteristically attribute negative life events to stable ([likely to persist over time) and global (likely to affect many areas of life) causes, (2) infer that further negative consequences will follow from a current negative life event, (3) and believe that the occurrence of a negative event in their lives means that they are fundamentally flawed or worthless are hypothesized to be more likely to develop episodes of depression-particularly the subtype of "hopelessness depression" (HD)-when they confront negative life events than people who don't exhibit these inferential styles. The logic here is that people who exhibit this hypothesized depressogenic inferential style should be more likely to make negative inferences about the cause, consequences, and self-implications of any particular negative life event they confront, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will develop hopelessness and, in turn, the symptoms of depression, particularly HD.

In Beck's theory (Beck, 1967; 1987), negative self-schemata revolving around themes of inadequacy, failure, loss, and worthlessness are hypothesized to provide cognitive vulnerability to depressive symptoms. Such negative self-schemata often are represented as a set of dysfunctional attitudes or self-worth contingencies such as "If I fail partly, it is as bad as being a complete failure" or "I am nothing if a person I love doesn't love me." When they encounter negative life events that impinge on their cognitive vulnerability, individuals exhibiting such negative self-schemata or dysfunctional attitudes are hypothesized to develop negatively biased construals of the self (low self-esteem), world, and future (hopelessness) and, in turn, depressive symptoms. Thus, both the hopelessness theory and Beck's theory can be conceptualized as vulnerability-stress theories in which negative inferential styles provide cognitive vulnerability to depression through their effect on the interpretation or processing of personally relevant negative life events.


A powerful strategy for testing the cognitive vulnerability hypothesis is the "behavioral high-risk design" (e.g., Depue et al., 1981). Similarly to the genetic high-risk paradigm, the behavioral high-risk design involves studying participants who do not currently have the disorder of interest but who are hypothesized to be at high or low risk for developing it. …

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