AC-CEN-TU-ATE the Negative?

David Pacchioli
December 01, 2004

The hopelessness theory of depression, familiar to psychologists, says it's the way you interpret the negative events in your life that determines how those events affect you. If you have a "negative attribution style," if, that is, you tend to say 'I flunked that test because I'm stupid,' assigning a cause that is both "stable" (your stupidity won't change) and "global"(stupidity affects everything you do), then flunking is likely to make you more depressed than it makes your more "positive" classmate who also took a flyer.

"It's a pretty intuitive theory," says Paul Kwon, a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology. "It seems to make sense. But the evidence for it is pretty weak."

Kwon wondered whether this weakness might be a result of the way attribution styles have been measured. In studies he observed, subjects found the standard questionnaire awkward and leading. So Kwon designed a new questionnaire. He presented subjects with 26 hypothetical negative events, from breaking up with a partner to being diagnosed with a serious illness, and four causal explanations for each event. Then he asked subjects to pick the most plausible cause. "I had coded the choices in terms of their negativity," he explains.

To test the new questionnaire, Kwon assessed 80 college students twice over a three-month interval. His new approach, he reports, effectively predicted changes in subjects' levels of depression, where the standard measure did not.

Even a better survey tool, however, did not bear out the hopelessness theory.

"The theory says you need both high life stress and a negative attributional style to get high depression," Kwon explains. "Our results suggest otherwise." Moreover, men and women handled negative events differently.

With women, Kwon reports, an increase in either factor, life stress or negativity, triggered an increase in depression. "Both factors were not needed."

In men, the results Kwon got were more dramatic. Men who had an increase in life stress became more depressed if they had a positive attributional style—the opposite of what the hopelessness theory predicts. "This came up consistently in all the dimensions we tested."

The reasons for this reaction are unclear, but Kwon suggests a parallel to social psychology. "I have done some reading about responses to victimization," he says, "which suggests that it is the people who never expected that anything bad could happen to them who are most traumatized when they are robbed or assaulted. It's the unexpectedness that seems to make the difference.

"There may be something similar going on here. Men with negative attribution style may be more prepared for life stresses."

For men and women alike, he adds, the idea that only negative people get depressed doesn't seem to hold up. "This evidence suggests that the potential to become depressed exists for a much wider range of people."

Paul Kwon is a Ph.D. student in psychology in the College of the Liberal Arts, 417 Moore Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-9514. His adviser, Mark A. Whisman, Ph.D., now at Yale University, is adjunct assistant professor of psychology.

Last Updated December 01, 2004