The Role of Cognition in Depression

September 7, 2011 at 8:25pm
The Role of Cognition in Depression
Gary Drumm
Developing a Psychology Perspective

Depression is a debilitating psychological condition that affects millions of Americans each year with a persistent, overwhelming sense of despondency and despair. It’s more than just being sad, it’s a deep emotional sense that everything in one’s life is in a state of hopelessness, robbing it’s victim of the ability to experience joy and fulfillment.
What causes this incapacitating emotional response to life? Is it genetics, hormonal or chemical imbalances, all of which are outside of the control of the individual, or is it something else? Could it be that we cause depression to ourselves through our own thoughts, beliefs, and emotional patterns? This paper will explore these cognitive factors and seek to provide a greater understanding of how the mind functions with regards to emotion and cognition and how we can break free of depression by taking greater control of our mental focus.

Beck’s Theory
Aaron T. Beck is an American Psychotherapist and is widely recognized as the father of cognitive behavioral therapy. In 1967 Beck published The Diagnosis and Management of Depression. In this manuscript Beck described what would later become known as “Beck’s Triad”, a model for discovering persistent cognitive patterns that indicate that one is in a state of depression. The model suggests that one can identify when someone is depressed by listening to their language concerning three factors: Themselves, the world around them, and the future.

The theory states that when a person is consistently experiencing extremely negative emotions regarding any of these three areas over an extended period of time, they are in a state of depression. This theory also lead to the development of Beck’s Depression Inventory, and Beck’s Hopelessness Scale, two diagnostic tools that are still being used in the diagnosis of depression within the field of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Self Esteem
One of the key areas in Beck’s triad is that the area of self esteem, or what one thinks of oneself on a consistent basis. One study concluded that self-esteem does indeed play a role in whether or not one is going to experience depression (Orth, 2008). The study examined the differences between what is referred to as the vulnerability model, which states that low self esteem is indeed a risk factor for depression, and the scar model, which states that low self esteem is an effect of depression, meaning that low self-esteem is a psychological scar that is left behind.

The study cites numerous other research studies in support of the vulnerability model, and it specifically states that there is not as much research focusing on the scar model. It discusses numerous behaviors undertaken by someone with low self-esteem including their excessive need for reassurances from friends and family about their worth, their search for negative feedback in other relationships (in order to provide support for their negative self concepts), and their tendency towards social avoidance. People with low self esteem tend to be more sensitive to rejection, and focus on or interpret things more negatively than those with high self-esteem. So based on this and other research it seems that low self esteem does play a role in one’s experience of depression.

Negative Cognition
Negative cognition is when one generally sees the world around them negatively. Life events, personal interactions, and other stimuli are seen as damaging, threatening, or generally bad. It’s an inability to see things as generally positive for one’s life. One study examined the relationship between negative cognition and depression treatment. The study concluded that negative cognition provided an explanation as to why it was more difficult for people to get out of depression, even while in treatment (Beevers, et al, 2007), meaning that the patient’s mental focus, even during treatment, affected their outcome and even provided evidence for precursors of relapse in the future. This indicates that if one consistently chooses to focus on negative things, that it could very well lead to depression, prolong the experience, and possibly lead to future episodes.

Emotion Regulation and Cognitive Inhibition
Finally, emotional regulation is how one processes the stimuli around them. When one has difficulty letting go of negative life events, they begin to ruminate on them and this leads to a continuing cycle of negative thoughts and deepening sadness, and hopelessness, ultimately leading to depression (Joorman, 2010).

Joorman’s study also discusses the concept of cognitive inhibition, the ability to discard irrelevant information. When a person cannot block irrelevant material, especially when they are already in a negative emotional state, they are more likely to ruminate on the negative aspects of an event. The study cites another study explaining the concepts of working memory (WM) and the fact that WM is a limited-capacity system (Hasher, et al, 1999). Because of this limited capacity, if the mind is unable to let go of irrelevant information, it effectively uses up that area of WM that could otherwise be used for conscious awareness that one is experiencing negative emotions and therefore they may be unable to comprehend their condition.

Summary and Conclusion
By examining these areas, Beck’s triad, self esteem, negative cognition, and emotional regulation, and the associated research in these four areas, it becomes clear that how one thinks on a consistent basis about themselves, the world around them, and their future has a tremendous impact on their quality of life.

If one generally feels bad about the events and circumstances of their life the tendency is that the feeling effects how they feel about themselves, and traps them in a cycle of negative thoughts that spiral down into deeper and deeper negative emotional states. As these states progress it becomes increasingly difficult to break the pattern and so eventually one begins to see everything around them as a negative, leading to feelings of hopelessness and despair, and ultimately culminating into full scale depression.

So it’s clear that breaking the habitual patterns of thought that lead to depression would prevent one from getting to that state in the first place. Focusing on positive, rather than negative ideas about one’s self, one’s world, and one’s future, is possibly an effective way to prevent depression from ever occurring to begin with.


Jutta Joormann (2010): Cognitive Inhibition and Emotion regulation. Current Directions in Psychological Science 2010 19: 161 – Retrieved from:

Hasher, L., Zacks, R.T., & May, C.P. (1999). Inhibitory control, circadian arousal, and age. In D. Gopher & A. Koriat (Eds.), Attention and performance XVII: Cognitive regulation of performance: Interaction of theory and application (pp. 653–675). Cambridge,MA: MIT Press.

Beevers, C. G., Wells, T. T., & Miller, I. W. (2007). Predicting response to depression treatment: The
role of negative cognition. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 75(3), 422-431. – Retrieved from :

Orth, U., Robins, R. W., & Roberts, B. W. (2008). Low self-esteem prospectively predicts depression
in adolescence and young adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(3),
695-708. – Retreived from:

Beck, A. T. (1967). Depression: Causes and treatment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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