Class Blog · Psychology · Social Cognition · Uncategorized

Social Cognition and Depression 1/4: Cognitive Theories


At this point in the semester, we are expected to develop a larger topic over four blogs (synopsis included) within the context of social cognition. To stay with my theme of keeping things relevant, I wanted to focus my blogs on depression and how it can affect an individual’s ability to navigate the social environment. I have been diagnosed with depression in the past (although I’m not sure what type of depression I have the doctor was certainly quick to medicate me) but I feel like researching and understanding the subject will not only increase my knowledge about the subject but maybe give me a better idea on how to deal with/ go about it in the future.

What Is Social Cognition?

As described by the first article I found, social cognition is the ability to identify, perceive, and interpret socially relevant information. It’s an important skill that plays a significant role in successful interpersonal functioning. Social cognitive performance is recognized to be impaired in several psychiatric conditions, but the specific relationship with major depressive disorder is less understood.

The aim of the review was to characterize the current understanding of the domains of social cognition and the effect of severity of depression on social cognitive performance. The article used electronic databases to identify clinical studies investigating social cognition in a major depressive disorder population which includes 31 studies.

Results: Patients with major depressive disorder appear to interpret social cognitive stimuli differently to healthy controls: depressed individuals may interpret emotion through a mood-congruent bias and have difficulty with cognitive theory of mind tasks requiring interpretation of complex mental states. Social cognitive performance appears to be inversely associated with severity of depression, whilst the bias toward negative emotions persists even in remission. Some deficits may normalize following effective pharmacotherapy (Weightman et. Al, 2014).

Conclusions: The difficulties with social interaction observed in major depressive disorder may, at least in part, be due to an altered ability to correctly interpret emotional stimuli and mental states. These features seem to persist even in remission, although some may respond to intervention. Further research is required in this area to better understand the functional impact of these findings and the way in which targeted therapy could aid depressed individuals with social interactions (Weightman et. Al, 2014).

Now that I have explained a better understanding of how depression can effect an individual within the realm of social cognition I want to focus the rest of the portion of the blog on the cognitive theories behind depression.

So What Are Cognitive Theories?

Cognitive theories were developed in response to the early behaviorists’ inability to recognize thoughts and feelings (probably due to the social expectations of the time). However, the cognitive theorists did not reject behavioral principles. Instead, the idea behind these theories was to integrate mental events into the behavioral framework. Cognitive Behavioral theories (sometimes called “cognitive theories”) are considered to be “cognitive” because they address mental events such as thinking and feeling. They are called “cognitive behavioral” because they address those mental events in the context of the learning theory that was the basis for the pure behavioral theory. It forms the basis of the most dominant and well-researched formed of psychotherapy available today: Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT (something I will get deeper into on a later blog).

Cognitive behavioral theorists suggest that depression results from distorted thoughts and judgments. These can be learned socially, as is the case when children in a dysfunctional family watch their parents fail to successfully cope with stressful experiences or traumatic events. Or, they can result from a lack of experiences that would lead to the development of adaptive coping skills. (Nemade, n.d.)

According to cognitive behavioral theory, people that experience depression think differently than people who don’t.  As described in the article, individuals with depression tend to view themselves, their environment, and the future in a negative way. As a result, they tend to misinterpret facts in negative ways. They also tend to blame themselves for any negative things that may have happened through the course of the day. This negative thinking and judgment style makes it easy for people with depression to see situations as being much worse than they really are, and when ones mood bias is shifted towards negative emotions, it is easy to get caught up in the cycle.

The People Behind The Theories:

Albert Bandura

Creator of social cognitive theory, Bandura pointed out that the self-concepts of people with depression are different from those of people that don’t. People are shaped by the interactions between their thoughts, behaviours, and environment and those with depression tend to hold themselves solely responsible for the bad things in their lives and fill themselves with self-blame. Unfortunately, successes tend to be viewed as having being controlled by external factors outside of one’s control. Bandura believed that people with depression tend to have low levels of belief that they are capable of influencing their situation (known as self-efficacy). And, because people with depression also have a flawed judgmental process, they tend to set unreasonably high personal goals, usually falling short of reaching them. Repeated failure continues the process of their feelings of inability and leads to further depression.

Another important psychological concept, which can be closely tied to Bandura’s idea of self-efficacy, is Julian Rotter’s concept of locus of control. When an individual believes that they can affect and change their situations, it is said to have an internal locus of control and a relatively high sense of self-efficacy. When people feel like they are at the mercy of the environment and cannot change their situation, they have an external locus of control, and a relatively low sense of self-efficacy. To summarize the above explanation, people with depression tend to have an external locus of control and a low sense of self-esteem.

Aaron Beck

Beck’s cognitive triad, also known as the negative triad, is an irrational and pessimistic view of the three key elements of a person’s belief system (shown below) which is proposed to be present in an individual with depression. This was introduced in 1976 and forms part of his cognitive theory of depression. The concept is also used as a part of CBT.

The triad involves spontaneous, automatic, and seemingly uncontrollable negative thoughts about:

  1. The self- “I wish I was different”
  2. The world or environment- “people ignore me all the time”
  3. The future- “things can only get worse!”

Albert Ellis

Believed that depressed people’s irrational beliefs tend to take the form of 3 absolute statements:

  1. “I must be completely competent in everything I do, or I am worthless.”
  2. “Others must treat me considerately, or they are absolutely terrible.”
  3. “The world should always give me happiness, or I will die.”

Due to these sorts of beliefs, Ellis thought that depressed people may sometimes make unqualified demands on others and/or convince themselves that they have overwhelming needs that must be fulfilled. I feel like it should be noted that Ellis was known to have somewhat of a bias and thought absolutism in depressive thinking was ‘Musterbation’ (the idea that certain things must occur or must be done at that moment) but this ultimately lead him to come up with the idea of Rational Emotive Therapy (RET).

Martin Seligman

Discovered learned helplessness by accident in 1965 through his experiments. Learned helplessness is a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed.

As useful as it was for explaining why some people became depressed, the initial learned helplessness theory could not explain why many people did not become depressed even after experiencing a said traumatic event. Eventually, Seligman modified his theory to include a person’s thinking style as a factor determining whether learned helplessness would happen. He suggested that people with depression tended to use a more pessimistic explanation when thinking about stressful events than did people who were not depressed.  The second group tended to be more optimistic in nature.

According to the revised theory, a pessimistic style increases the likelihood of developing learned helplessness. In addition, ongoing exposure to uncontrollable and inescapable events can lead people to develop a pessimistic style. They become pessimistic and unmotivated even if they are not that way to start.

An adaptation of this theory argues that depression results not only from helplessness, but also from hopelessness. Hopelessness theory suggests that depression is a pattern of thinking in which people blame themselves for negative life events, view the causes of those events as permanent, and overgeneralize specific weaknesses to many areas of their life.  (Nemade, n.d.)


Other cognitive behavioral theorists suggest that people with “depressive” personality traits appear to be more vulnerable than others. Examples of depressive personality traits include gloominess, criticism of others, self-criticism, excessive worrying and introversion, deep feelings of inadequacy, and excessive skepticism. In addition, people who regularly behave impulsively or in a hostile manner appear to be at greater risk for depression. And that leads me into what I will be talking about next week, which is going to be some of the contributing risk factors that may influence an individual with depression.






4 thoughts on “Social Cognition and Depression 1/4: Cognitive Theories

  1. Depression is a very interesting subject as it can affect many people. I decided to look more into Aaron Beck. The three parts of the triad are apparently also called the Negative Cognitive Triad. When these three parts are present in someone’s cognition, depression is very likely to occur. These beliefs can also shape what people pay attention to. Beck stated that depressed people pay particular attention to parts of their environments that confirm what they already know. They do this even when evidence to the contrary is in front of them. This is known as faulty information processing.

    Good starting post, looking forward to the next one
    RASHMI NEMADE, P. N. (2007, Sep 19). Cognitive Theories Of Major Depression – Aaron Beck. Retrieved from


  2. What about if depression is not clinical but existential?
    Existential anxiety may lead to depression. However, it is a process that many individuals experience when they try to find meaning in their lives. Existentialism first appeared as a philosophical point of view, later became the foundations of existentialism and Gestalt psychologies.

    Dissatisfaction about what we have done, or what we are or what we do not want to be, or to do, or to become. Existentialism is a crisis of faith, of will, of hope, it is an emotional-rational crisis that underlies the idea that we should have a purpose on life, a meaningful life. This kind of crisis may be interpreted as depression, but they are related to our belief system and the structure of the self. What do we want in our future, in our present? The incognito of what we should do is related to moral and spiritual beliefs.

    The existential therapy is focused in “how a person understands his or her “self” and his or her relationship with the others, and the world as a whole, “self and world construct”. Their foundations are a) the increase of self-awareness, this includes alternatives, motivations, and prospective memory to determine meaningful goals in life. 2) Freedom and responsibility in the sense that we are responsible for our lives. (The child realises that is an independent person, separated from the mother – cognition and beginning of the self-construction). 3) Although we have a unique identity, also we are part of a bigger system, we are social individuals and have relationships with the others.4) The human condition, that life begins and ends, implies the death. The idea of a limited lifetime allows individuals to set meaningful goals to accomplish.

    James R. K., Guilliand B. E., () Theories and strategies in counselling and psychotherapy. University of Memphis.


  3. Depression is an interesting thing to look at since it manifests in so many different ways. Depression is also seen in many other disorders as a symptom. Recently I have heard from many different people that “depression is the common cold of the mental health world” meaning that out of 10 people who visit a mental health clinic, 8 may leave diagnosed with depression. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, it has caused problems with the thoughts and perspectives around depression because of it. Depression takes so many different forms and comes about because of different things and they are not all the same. Postpartum depression is going to manifest differently in different people as well as it may look different than major depression or seasonal affective disorder which is typically only seen in winter months when there is less sunlight and colder weather. Major depression is a state of depression that lasts two or more weeks, a more chronic form of depression is called dysthymia which lasts for more than 2 years. Depression can be linked to family history so it is important to know what kinds of mental illnesses, if any, run in your family. It is also important to note that depression can manifest different in children than teenagers or adults. The symptoms can be misleading in children/adolescents and can show as physical symptoms such as stomach aches or decline in school performance. There isn’t just one fix to depression, many people assume that medication is a be-all-end-all but it doesn’t always fix the problem immediatly. A final note that is generally assumed when it comes to depression is that people with depression are just sad. This is a false assumption because there is more to depression than just sadness, more often than not, it is more of a numbness than a feeling of sadness.


  4. This is a great topic to focus on as it is so relevant to so many people. I really enjoyed reading this and look forward to reading more in the upcoming weeks.

    As someone who suffers from periods of major depression (I even wrote a personal blog on it on my own time) I find the cognitive and social aspects of the disorder extremely interesting. When I go through a depressed period I find myself having a significantly more difficult time interacting with the people around me.

    Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be super beneficial when it comes to treating depression. As you said in your blog depression revolves around cognitive distortions. It has been found that therapy aimed at changing these distortions can be extremely effective. Changing thoughts leads to changes in behavior and lessening of symptoms associated with depression.

    Liked by 1 person

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