Specificity of Cognitive Vulnerability Factors

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There is an important distinction for cognitive models between specific and nonspecific causal factors in emotional disorders. Specific causal factors are relatively unique or focal factors in that they influence and predict the development of a particular disorder, but they do not apply equally to all psychopathology in general. For example, some cognitive vulnerability factors may apply to just a single form of anxiety disorder (e.g., just to OCD). In contrast, others may extend to the whole spectrum of anxiety disorders, but not apply to depression or other psychopathology (e.g., chap. 7, this vol.; N. L. Williams, Shahar, Riskind, & Joiner, 2004). Alternatively, nonspecific (or common) causal factors potentially cut across a range of different disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, even schizophrenia) and, in this way, have relatively low discriminatory power (Ingram, 1990; see also D. A. Clark, 1997). Two examples appear to include the experience of uncontrollability (Chorpita & Barlow, 1998) or disturbances in self-focused attention (Ingram, 1990). Such factors can play an important, but nonspecific, role in many disorders, but they do not adequately explain what is distinct, special, or unique about particular disorders.

The theme of causal specificity may apply to the whole configuration of distal and proximal causes. For example, cognitive vulnerability factors, compensatory behaviors, or even precipitating stresses (e.g., Finlay-Jones & Brown, 1981) may be either specific or nonspecific. The search for specific and nonspecific causal factors in cognitive vulnerability models of emotional disorders continues to be a major impetus for research.

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