Maintenance of Depression

Thus far, comments about cognitive vulnerability and the causes of depression have been aimed largely at the onset of the depressed state. Onset, however, is not the only aspect of causality (Ingram et al., 1998); depressed people tend to stay depressed for a period of time, and thus the factors that maintain this state may be as, or even more important than, onset. After all, if people encountered the onset of depression only to have it lift a day or two later, then depression would not constitute the disabling disorder that it is. Next consider the implications for maintenance of the cognitive factors that have been discussed.

External Information Processing: The Tyrannical Self-Schema. The cognitive maintenance process is reminiscent of ideas presented in an article by Greenwald (1980) entitled "The Totalitarian Ego: Fabrication and Revision of Personal History." Greenwald reviewed numerous studies suggesting that, through information-processing biases such as selective attention, people have a tendency to revise their personal history in order to psychologically protect themselves; they "rewrite" their experiences to make themselves feel better. Greenwald labeled this behavior totalitarian because of the psychological similarity to totalitarian societies that maintain control through the manipulation of information; for example, history books are rewritten to serve certain views. But another aspect of totalitarian societies might be more metaphorically germane for depressed people; totalitarian societies maintain control not only through rewriting history, but also through oppression and tyranny. It is in this sense that depressed people might be seen as operating under the constraints of a totalitarian ego (or perhaps a "tyrannical" self-schema). Such a schema does not serve to psychologically protect individuals, but rather "oppresses" them through information processing that provides full access to self-degrading, negative, and pessimistic data. Structuring the self, the future, and the worldview in a negative fashion (e.g., Beck's negative cognitive triad) is one manner in which depression is maintained.

Top-Down/Bottom-Up Information Processing. The maintenance of depression may also be seen in the context of an overreliance on top-down information processing. It has been recognized for some time that information processing can stem from the top-down, indicating the influence of cognitive structures on the data to be processed, or alternatively, from the bottom-up, which suggests that information processing is directed from the data available (e.g., Norman, 1986). Healthy individuals most likely employ a combination or balance of top-down and bottom-up information processing. That is, healthy people employ schemas to help structure and order information processing, but they are also responsive to the data that are available, which in turn influences the operation and content of schemas (see Neisser, 1967). Depressed individuals, on the other hand, are more likely to disregard the information available. Such "cognitive intransigence" (Ingram, 1990) is particularly problematic when the cognitive structures are so dysfunctional in nature. Therefore, one way to view the cognitive maintenance of depression (and vulnerability to depression) is not only via the operation and content of cognitive self-structures, but in terms of deviations from the normal balance between top-down and bottom-up processing; depression maintenance may be the result of an overabundance of top-down processing to the relative exclusion of bottom-up processing.

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