There are many symptoms associated with depression that occur on cognitive, emotional, and physical levels. One of the cognitive symptoms is the projection of events that have not yet occurred. And people with depression often tend to catastrophize and overgeneralize events that would be perceived as limited to others. For instance, when people with depression fail at tasks, they may overgeneralize their failures and associate that one incident with every other area of their life. This can lead to generalized feelings of low self-worth, self-hatred, guilt, and hopelessness.
In the same way, depressed people are more likely to generalize their outlook on the future when compared to nondepressed individuals. Because goal setting and goal attainment is an important part of depression recovery, it is essential to understand if goal attainment and methods of goal achievement are overgeneralized in depression and, if so, how does this affect depressive symptoms.
To this end, Joanne M. Dickson of the Institute of Psychology, Health, and Society at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom recently led a study comparing the goal perceptions of 21 individuals with depression to the goal perceptions of 24 participants with no history of depression. All of the participants listed avoidance and approach goals and then detailed why they could or could not reach their goals.
Dickson found that there was a significant difference in goal perception, but not in the number of goals. In particular, the participants with depression had similar numbers of avoidance and approach goals as nondepressed participants, but their explanations related to goal achievement were much more general. Additionally, those with depression had goals that were more generalized than the nondepressed participants’ goals. The participants who had depression demonstrated specificity only when they detailed reasons they could not achieve certain avoidance goals, which is not surprising considering the negative bias that is often present in depression.
Dickson believes that these findings provide insight into the role of goal specificity and how generalization of goals can impede motivation in individuals with depression. She added, “Importantly, the findings have the potential to inform the ongoing development of psychotherapeutic approaches in the treatment of depression.”
Dickson, J.M., Moberly, N.J. (2013). Reduced specificity of personal goals and explanations for goal attainment in major depression. PLoS ONE 8(5): e64512. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064512
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