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Cognitive Theories of Depression - Seligman

Rashmi Nemade, Ph.D., edited by Kathryn Patricelli, MA

Seligman's Learned Helplessness

In early 1965, psychologist Martin Seligman and his colleagues "accidentally" discovered an unexpected circumstance related to human depression.  They were studying the relationship between fear and learning in dogs. The study involved watching what happened when a dog was allowed to escape an impending, negative but non-damaging electrical shock. They would not get the shock if they escaped from a specific area of their pen after hearing a tone. During the first experiment, the researcher rang a bell immediately before a brief slightly unpleasant sensation to the dog. The idea was that the dog would learn to associate the tone with the shock. In the future, the dog would then feel fear when it heard the bell, and would run away or show some other fear-related behavior after hearing the tone.

depressed young womanDuring the next part of the experiments, the researchers put the conditioned dog (which had just learned that hearing the tone is a warning for an upcoming shock) into a box with two compartments divided by a low fence. The dog could easily see over and jump over the fence, but when the researchers rang the bell and gave the shock, nothing happened.  The dog did not jump over the fence as the team expected.  Similarly, when they shocked the conditioned dog without the bell, nothing happened. In both situations, the dog simply lay down and did nothing. When the researchers put a normal dog into the same box system, it immediately jumped over the fence to the other side.

Apparently, the conditioned dog had learned more than the connection between the tone and the shock. It has also learned that trying to escape from the shocks was useless. In other words, the dog learned to be "helpless." This research formed Seligman's theory of Learned Helplessness. This theory was then extended to human behavior as a model for explaining depression. According to Seligman, people with depression have learned to be helpless. In other words, they feel that whatever they do will be useless, and don't believe that they have any control over their environments.

As useful as it was for explaining why some people became depressed, the initial learned helplessness theory could not explain why many people did not become depressed even after experiencing many unpleasant life events. With further study, Seligman modified his theory to include a person's thinking style as a factor determining whether learned helplessness would happen. He suggested that people with depression tended to use a more pessimistic explanation when thinking about stressful events than did people who were not depressed.  The second group tended to be more optimistic in nature.

As a means of illustrating this, let's pretend that someone fails a math test. In response, they could think: 1) I am stupid, 2) I'm not good in math, 3) I was unlucky because it was Friday the 13th, 4) The math teacher hates me, 5) The math teacher grades hard, 6) I was feeling sick that day, 7) The math teacher gave a hard test this time, or 8) I didn't have time to study.

People who tend to view the causes of negative events as internal, global, and stable (explanations #1, #2) are said to have a pessimistic style. Individuals who tend to view the causes of negative events as external, specific, and unstable (explanation #7) have an optimistic style. Individuals who become depressed are more likely to have pessimistic styles than optimistic styles. According to the revised theory, a pessimistic style increases the likelihood of developing learned helplessness. In addition, ongoing exposure to uncontrollable and inescapable events can lead people to develop a pessimistic style.  They become pessimistic and unmotivated even if they are not that way to start.

An adaptation of this theory argues that depression results not only from helplessness, but also from hopelessness. The hopelessness theory attributes depression to a pattern of negative thinking in which people blame themselves for negative life events, view the causes of those events as permanent, and overgeneralize specific weaknesses to many areas of their life.  For example, "I am not good at creative things, so I am therefore not a good mother and my relationship with my child is definitely doomed".

Other cognitive behavioral theorists suggest that people with "depressive" personality traits appear to be more vulnerable than others to depression. Examples of depressive personality traits include gloominess, introversion, self-criticism, excessive skepticism and criticism of others, deep feelings of inadequacy, and excessive worrying. In addition, people who regularly behave in hostile and impulsive ways appear at greater risk for depression.