Cognitive Biases as Vulnerability Factors to Emotional Disorders: A Developmental Perspective

By Popescu, Ana Maria; Baban, Adriana | Cognitie, Creier, Comportament, September 2014 | Go to article overview

Cognitive Biases as Vulnerability Factors to Emotional Disorders: A Developmental Perspective


Popescu, Ana Maria, Baban, Adriana, Cognitie, Creier, Comportament


INTRODUCTION

It is well documented that adults manifest a preference towards negative features of stimuli compared to positive ones (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001).Attention, interpretation, learning and decision making are more intenselyinfluenced during daily interactions and activity by negative information than by positive (Ito & Cacioppo, 2005). Researchers have repeatedly observed this asymmetry throughout various life domains and concluded that negative features of stimuli are more saturated in information that can direct future actions (Rozin & Royzman, 2001). Evolutionary psychologists argue that weighting negative information more heavily than the positive has served as an adaptive mechanism throughout evolution (Wright, 2010). In the past, the world was a place full of dangers and therefore displaying this bias protected us from potential fatal experiences during day to day explorations. As it was generally impossible to reverse the fatal consequences of under detected threats, those that considered positive and negative information as equally important probably had difficulties in surviving in such an environment. Therefore, our ancestors, those who survived and continued to procreate are the ones that missed some occasions to interact with the environment (i.e., opportunities that seemed to threaten life - for instance something moving in the shrub with ripe fruit), but maintained the possibility of further exploration by remaining alive. Nowadays, many of the past dangers are no longer present and we are no longer confronted with them due to our modern lifestyle (Nesse, 1994). Thus, maintaining the same fears and threat-sensitivity in the present has become inadequate and can lead to impairments in modern functioning. Giving far more importance to negative features of stimuli than to positive, manifesting a high sensitivity to threat and using biased interpretations of the world can seriously alter optimal functioning of individuals. When confronted with a life event, attention, interpretation and action are directed by our cognitive style towards the solutions that best match its content. Cognitive psychologist Aaron T. Beck posits, since 1979, that dysfunctional cognitive patterns increase vulnerability to emotional disorders and affect emotional stability when confronted with a negative life event. The Cognitive Theory he has developed and perfected since then postulates that we all have deep cognitive patterns called schemas that make information processing and interpretation easier by enabling us to encounter life events in a meaningful way. When these schemas are pathological (also known as dysfunctional) and become activated by stressful life events symptoms of psychopathology emerge. In the past decades researchers have observed that various emotional disorders share certain types of content with regard to the dysfunctional cognitive patterns that characterize them (Beck, 1979). These specific dysfunctional cognitive patterns constitute vulnerability factors for emotional disorders as they are associated with both current and future symptomatology and can predict an increased risk for developing the dysfunctional conditions (Browning, Holmes, Charles, Cowen, & Harmer, 2012). Anxiety and mood disorders in adults are extremely prevalent in both Europe and the United States and are considered by the World Health Organization as disorders with high societal burden (Murray & Lopez, 1996). Although it is well documented that adults manifest a preference towards negative features of stimuli, we do not yet know exactly how this negativity bias develops during childhood and adolescence and how it becomes pathological by fostering specific cognitive patterns relevant to emotional psychopathology. Empirical data regarding the assessment and modification of such cognitive biases suggests that these mental patterns are learned through experience and must be activated by a stressor before they can influence symptom manifestation (Hallion & Ruscio, 2011). …

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