Depressive Cognitive Triad
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KeywordsCognitive Therapy Negative View Depressed Individual Automatic Thought Total Failure
Depressive cognitive triad is used to describe negative views of depressed individuals about themselves, the world, and the future (Beck 1976).
In Aaron T. Beck’s cognitive model (1976), schemata, cognitive errors, cognitive triad, and automatic thoughts are central to the development and maintenance of depression. Schemata are relatively enduring, organizing structures that guide situational information processing. Dysfunctional schemata are negative in content and consist of immature, absolute, and rigid attitudes about the self and its relation to the world. When activated by stress, dysfunctional schemata lead to cognitive errors, the next step in the causal pathway to depression. Cognitive errors cause an individual’s perception and thinking to be unrealistic, extreme, and distorted in a negative way. As a result of these processes, depressed individuals hold a set of beliefs about themselves, the world, and the future, which is referred to as the cognitive triad.
Components of the Depressive Cognitive Triad
A depressed individual tends to (a) attribute negative events to personal psychological, moral, or physical defect (negative view of the self); (b) see the world as making unreasonably high demands and/or presenting overwhelmingly high obstacles to reaching life goals (negative view of the world); and (c) make long-range projections, anticipating that current difficulties or suffering will continue indefinitely (negative view of the future or hopelessness). Collectively, these three cognitive views are known as the cognitive triad (Beck et al. 1979). Following Aaron T. Beck (1976), the cognitive triad finds its expression in negative automatic thoughts like (a) “I am worthless!” and “I am a total failure!” (negative view of the self), (b) “The world is bad!” and “Nobody loves me!” (negative view of the world), and (c) “It will always be like this!” and “I will never be good in anything!” (negative view of the future or hopelessness). Automatic thoughts are understood as temporary, nonemotional mental events, which are subjectively plausible in a certain situation (Beck 1976). These automatic thoughts can be interpreted as the most proximal cause for the emotional, somatic, and motivational symptoms of depression.
Summarized, following Aaron T. Beck’s model (1976), the cognitive triad activates other symptoms of depression. For example, the negative view of the self is hypothesized to lead a depressed individual to underestimate his/her own skills and to experience low self-esteem. The cognitive triad has been empirically linked to depression in many studies (for a review, see Haaga et al. 1991).
Use in Treatment and Research
Treatment of depression using so-called cognitive therapy often involves identifying negative automatic thoughts that express the cognitive triad with the client and proving their invalidity or unrealistic content during a process called cognitive restructuring (Beck 1976, 2011). Interventions a therapist may use in the evaluation of negative automatic thoughts include identifying the evidence for the validity of the thought, searching for alternative explanations to the conclusion drawn based on the thought, problem solving with the client around what the client should do about the thought, helping the client gain distance from the thought, and identifying the effect of the thought on the client (Beck 2011). Research demonstrates that treatment of depression applying these strategies belongs to the most effective approaches to treating depression in adults (for reviews, see Butler et al. 2006; Pössel and Hautzinger 2006) and adolescents (for a review, see Weisz et al. 2006). In both therapy and research, the cognitive triad can be measured using the Cognitive Triad Inventory (CTI; Beckham et al. 1986) for adults and the Cognitive Triad Inventory for Children (CTI-C; Kaslow et al. 1992) in youth.
The cognitive triad is a term to describe negative views of depressed individuals about themselves, the world, and the future (Beck 1976). These views are expressed in thoughts like (a) “I am worthless!” and “I am a total failure!” (negative view of the self), (b) “The world is bad!” and “Nobody loves me!” (negative view of the world), and (c) “It will always be like this!” and “I will never be good in anything!” (negative view of the future or hopelessness). Therapeutic interventions aimed at restructuring these thoughts are a main component of cognitive therapy, one of the most effective approaches to treating depression in adults (for reviews, see Butler et al. 2006; Pössel and Hautzinger 2006) and adolescents (for a review, see Weisz et al. 2006).
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