Cognitive Schema Models

As previously noted, Beck (1967) proposed the first cognitive theory of depression. Beck argued that dysfunctional cognitions, such as cognitive errors, are important causal elements for depression. However, this theory goes beyond cognitive errors and suggests that "deeper" cognitive structures are also involved in precipitating depression. Specifically, Beck contended that there are three "layers" of cognition involved in the causes of depression. First, automatic thoughts are the recurring, intrusive, and negative thoughts that occur in depressed individuals. Second, underlying these automatic thoughts are irrational cognitions or beliefs, sometimes referred to as "conditionals." These beliefs tend to take the form of "if-then" beliefs that are negative in nature. For example, a depressive conditional belief might be, "If I don't get the job I applied for, then I am stupid." Third, automatic thoughts and irrational beliefs are a function of a deeper depressive self-schema that organizes thoughts, beliefs, and information processing in a negative way. A number of theories other than Beck's have been proposed, and although they differ in some respects, all tend to rely on similar theoretical notions (e.g., Ingram, 1984; Ingram et al., 1998; Teasdale, 1983; Teasdale & Barnard, 1993).

Although most cognitive schema theories of depression suggest the operation of a more or less generalized negative self-schema, some investigators have specified a specific problematic organization of these cognitive structures. For example, in more recent statements on the nature of depressive self-schemas, Beck (1987) refined his theory to include two categories of problematic schema content (see also Robins, 1990; Robins & Block, 1988; Robins & Luten, 1991). The first is interpersonal in nature, and is referred to as sociotropy/dependency; individuals with this concept embedded in their cognitive schemas value positive interchange with others and focus on acceptance, support, and guidance from others. The second type of cognitive content is concerned with achievement and is called autonomy/self-criticism; these individuals rely on independence, mobility, and achievement, and are prone to be self-critical. According to this formulation, the experience of stressors congruent with these themes should activate these dysfunctional cognitive structures and precipitate depression. For example, disruptions in interpersonal relationships should be especially problematic for the person with the sociotropic schema whereas problems in achievement situations (e.g., work) should activate depressive experiences for the person with the autonomous schema type.

Origins of Vulnerability in Cognitive Schema Models. Theories that focus on cognitive schemas in depression generally suggest these schemas develop in response to stressful or traumatic events in childhood and adolescence (Ingram et al., 1998). In adulthood, these schemas sensitize individuals to respond in a cognitively and emotionally dysfunctional fashion to events similar to those experienced in childhood. For example, Beck (1967) suggested that "in childhood and adolescence, the depression-prone individual becomes sensitized to certain types of life situations. The traumatic situations initially responsible for embedding or reinforcing the negative attitudes that comprise the depressive constellation are the prototypes of the specific stresses that may later activate these constellations. When a person is subjected to situations reminiscent of the original traumatic experiences, he may then become depressed" (p. 278). Beck's theory thus locates the nexus of vulnerability, even for adults, in childhood experiences. Other theories (e.g., Goodman & Gotlib, 1999; Ingram et al., 1998) make similar statements.

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