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Depression: Depression & Related Conditions
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Cognitive Theories of Depression - Ellis and Bandura

Rashmi Nemade, Ph.D., edited by Kathryn Patricelli, MA

Albert Ellis' Cognitive Theory of Depression

Dr. Albert Ellis pointed out that the irrational beliefs of people with depression tend to take the form of absolute statements. Ellis describes three main irrational beliefs typical of depressive thinking:

  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."

sad womanBecause of these sorts of beliefs, people with depression make demands on others or they convince themselves that they have overwhelming needs that absolutely must be met. Ellis referred to this tendency towards absolutism in depressive thinking as "Musterbation."

Ellis also noted the presence of information processing biases in their cognitions. Like Beck, he noted that people with depression tend to ignore positive information and pay extra attention to negative information. They also tend to engage in overgeneralization.  This happens when people assume that because a single isolated event has turned out badly, that this means that all events will turn out badly. For example, people with depression may refuse to see that they have at least a few friends, or that they have had some successes across their lifetime (ignoring the positive). Or, they might blow out of proportion the hurts they have suffered (exaggerating the negative). Other people with depression may convince themselves that nobody loves them or that they always mess up (overgeneralizing).

Ellis' ideas led him to develop Rational Emotive Therapy (RET), which was later renamed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). We discuss REBT, as well as Beck's CBT in more detail in the treatment sections of this center.

Bandura's Social Cognitive Theory of Depression

Psychologist Albert Bandura's social cognitive theory (SCT) suggested that people are shaped by the interactions between their behaviors, thoughts, and environment. Each piece in the puzzle can and does affect the shape of the other pieces. Human behavior ends up being largely a product of learning.  This learning can happen through observation, as well as through direct experience.

Bandura pointed out that the self-concepts of people with depression are different from those of people without depression. Those with depression tend to hold themselves completely responsible for bad things in their lives and are full of self-blame. In contrast, successes tend to get viewed as having been caused by external factors outside of the person's control. In addition, people with depression tend to have low levels of the belief that they are capable of influencing their situation (known as self-efficacy). Because people with depression also have a flawed judgmental process, they tend to set their personal goals too high, and then fall short of reaching them. Repeated failure further reduces feelings of their feelings of not being able to change anything and leads to depression.

An important psychological concept, which is closely related to Bandura's self-efficacy idea, is Julian Rotter's concept of locus of control. When people believe that they can affect and change their situations, they may be said to have an internal locus of control and a relatively high sense of self-efficacy. When individuals feel that they are mostly 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 extend the above explanation, people with depression tend to have an external locus of control and a low sense of self-esteem.