Emotional disorders have adversely affected human lives since the earliest recorded history. As long ago as 400 BC, Hippocrates identified "melancholia" and "mania." Today, emotional disorders rank at the top of any list of the most devastating mental illnesses in Western society (e.g., Rovner, 1993). As many as 46 million individuals in the United States alone suffer from depression and anxiety disorders (Kessler et al., 1994). The enormous impact on society (e.g., health costs and disability, job loss, health problems) has prompted a great deal of effort to search for their causes. This quest has been inspired by a variety of conceptual paradigms—psychoanalytic (Freud, 1964), biological (Meehl, 1962), attachment (Ainsworth, 1982; Bowlby, 1969), environmental life stress (Monroe & Simons, 1991), and learning approaches (Lewinsohn, 1974; Mowrer, 1939).
The cognitive revolution of the 1950s and 1960s became a formidable force in psychology. One of its results was the introduction of a cognitive paradigm for understanding the causes of emotional disorders. Cognitive theorists maintained that cognition, or more specifically, maladaptive cognition, plays a central role in the etiology of emotional disorders (e.g., Beck, 1967; Kelly, 1955; Seligman, 1975). The emergence of cognitive perspectives, and their forerunners (e.g., Ellis, 1970; Kelly, 1955; Rotter, 1954), represented a dramatic shift from other conceptual paradigms in the conceptualization and treatment of emotional disorders. As a good illustration, consider the radical changes that swept the depression literature in the late 1960s. Shattering the traditional assumption that depression was simply affective and biological, Beck's cognitive model was based on the idea that systematic cognitive distortions in thinking about the self, world, and future help to catalyze and maintain depression and other emotional disorders. Seligman's (e.g., 1975) work on the phenomenon of learned helplessness eventually led to ways to fuse Beck's cognitive clinical observations with an experimental tradition in studying depression (e.g., Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978). During the past three decades, experimental cognitive traditions that deal with attention, memory, and information processing have been extended to depression, anxiety, and other disorders (e.g., Mathews & MacLeod, 1994; J. M. G. Williams, Watts, MacLeod, & Mathews, 1988).
This chapter reviews some of the basic issues relating to theory and to the design and methods of cognitive vulnerability research on emotional disorders. It first discusses basic tenets of cognitive models of emotional disorder, including the concept of cognitive mediation and vulnerability-stress interaction, and common features of a prototypical cognitive vulnerability model. It also examines important issues that remain for further investigation (e.g., comorbidity, developmental pathways, the interaction of cognitive and biological vulnerabilities). It then describes issues concerned with the interface of theory and research design, including the crucial role of theory in determining the proper design of research studies. Actual design options and methods used in cognitive vulnerability research, and their strengths and limitations, are also discussed. Finally, there is a brief summary and concluding comments.
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