Difficult Conceptualmethodological Issues In Cognitive Vulnerability Research

Researchers who study cognitive vulnerability to emotional disorders confront several difficult conceptual issues that have bearing on their choices of research design (for more detail, see Alloy, et al., 1999). A complex issue is that most vulnerability models assume the independence of measurements of cognitive vulnerability, stress, and disorder. But, these assumptions are not always warranted. That is, there can be direct effects of emotional disorders on behavior, effects of cognitive vulnerability to disorders on stress, and so on (e.g., see Monroe & Simons, 1991). As an illustration, hopelessness and self-critical thinking can interfere with interpersonal or problem-solving skills or lead depressed individuals to quit jobs or get fired (Hammen, 1991, 2003), and reassurance seeking can lead to rejection by others (Joiner et al., 1992). As Alloy et al. (1999) indicated, these difficult issues pose significant methodological challenges for the researcher.

Finally, several statistical issues can also play critical roles in both the design and analysis of cognitive vulnerability studies. For example, the statistical power of a study (i.e., whether the sample size is large enough to provide a sensitive test of the intended predictions) must be examined to see if it is adequate. In studies of extreme groups (e.g., high risk vs. low risk), there is the potential for statistical regression toward the mean, the nature of which can seriously bias the results.

This chapter has examined general conceptual and methodological issues of psychological vulnerability from the perspective of cognitive theories of emotional disorder. The extension of cognitive vulnerability models to emotional disorders unquestionably represents a uniquely significant advance in their study. This chapter has presented a general conceptual framework of a "prototypical" cognitive vulnerability model that distinguishes distal from proximal causes, developmental events from precipitating events, and specific from nonspecific causes. This framework also recognizes that other protective factors may reduce the likelihood that vulnerable individuals will develop emotional disorders, whereas other exacerbating factors can intensify or prolong disorder. So although there are many complex issues involved in cognitive vulnerability research, it is certain to be an intellectually rewarding and challenging endeavor.

The remaining chapters strongly attest to both the vigor of recent research on cognitive vulnerability processes, and to the role of these processes in determining the likelihood that people will develop emotional disorders. Ultimately, the work presented within this volume has practical as well as theoretical implications. For example, it points to the practical promise of cognitive models in helping to enhance the assessment and diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of emotional disorders (e.g., D. A. Clark, Steer, & Beck, 1994; Dozois & Dobson, 2004). In terms of the overarching cognitive paradigm, the chapters herein extend our current understanding of the psychological mechanisms involved in emotional disorders, as well as amplify our recognition that a great deal of research still remains to be done.

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