, Volume 16, Issue 4, pp 485-502

Cognitive theories of vulnerability to depression: Reconciling negative evidence

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Abstract

Cognitive theories of depression propose that stable beliefs predispose vulnerable individuals to depression. Empirical evidence appears to contradict the stability hypothesis; the cognitions described by the theories appear to covary with depressive symptoms. As a result of these findings, many investigators have concluded that the etiological portions of the cognitive theories are incorrect. We propose an alternative account of the empirical evidence that is consistent with the theories. We propose that the beliefs that are vulnerability factors for depression are stable, but they are accessible only during negative mood states; we call this the mood-state hypothesis. This article describes the mood-state hypothesis, reviews evidence supporting it, and outlines its implications for the cognitive theories of depression. We also describe implications of the mood-state hypothesis for other theories of depression, including biological theories, for studies of psychotherapy process, for studies of other psychopathologies, for epidemiological studies of depression, for the prevention and treatment of depression, and for theories of cognition.

We thank Aaron T. Beck for helpful comments on an earlier version of this article and John Rosenberg for his assistance with the biological section. Portions of this paper were presented at the meetings of the Society for Psychotherapy Research, June 26–30, 1990, Wintergreen, Virginia.