New Study Examines Motivation Deficits in Depressed Individuals

Individuals with major depression (MDD) exhibit low levels of motivation across most domains. For instance, regardless of the gains they may receive by engaging in a rewarding task, people who have symptoms of depression tend to be less likely to engage in those activities than people with no history of depression. This lack of motivation, also known as anhedonia, is a central symptom of MDD. However, it is unclear whether anhedonia is caused by an impaired ability to experience enjoyment or other factors. To further explore this dynamic, Michael T. Treadway of the Department of Psychiatry at McLean Hospital at the Harvard Medical School recently led a study evaluating motivation toward rewards in a sample of 20 adult participants with MDD and compared their responses to 15 nondepressed controls.

Treadway used the Effort Expenditure for Rewards Task (EEfRT) to determine the level of motivational effort the participants expended in order to achieve specific financial rewards. He found significant differences between the two groups of participants. Treadway said, “Individuals with current MDD were less willing to expend effort for the opportunity to earn larger monetary rewards as compared with healthy controls.” Additionally, the MDD group had more difficulty processing the reward/cost information which made the decision-making process more arduous. The lack of motivation experienced by the MDD group supports evidence that has shown motivation-targeting treatments can produce desirable results in individuals with depressive symptoms.

Another finding of the study was the blunted sensitivity of the MDD group. In particular, the participants with MDD were less stimulated by the size of the reward or their chances of winning the rewards. These motivational impairments were most pronounced in the participants with the longest course of MDD. The results of this study suggest that symptom severity and illness history directly influence the motivational behaviors of people with depression. Treadway believes that integrating reward response tasks into diagnostic criteria could help identify those at risk for developing MDD.

Treadway, M. T., Bossaller, N. A., Shelton, R. C., Zald, D. H. (2012). Effort-based decision-making in major depressive disorder: A translational model of motivational anhedonia. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028813

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  • chad m

    chad m

    July 16th, 2012 at 4:00 PM

    But how do you go about determining what will be the greatest motivator? Everyone will of course have something that would motivate them, but it is rarely going to be the same across the board/

  • suzzane


    July 17th, 2012 at 2:18 AM

    I’m generally a hard worker who can go out of the way to do things and often receive praise for the same.but when there is some grief or any negative spell then I find myself low and depressed and I’m not able to put in the same amount of work and effort into anything.this study proves something similar but I would like to know how this works in individuals who are generally not depressed but have only small episodes of it.

  • Charla Baines

    Charla Baines

    July 17th, 2012 at 4:17 AM

    Would you say that the motivation in these individuals was not there before there was depression which was evident, or would you say that it is the depression itself which would make it appear that these are patients are not experiencing any kind of motivation in life?

  • Kimberly


    July 18th, 2012 at 12:35 AM

    From my experience, some people just have it easy. Motivation comes easily to them and they are generally the go-getters. they have no trouble finding motivation and have large stockpiles of it. Some others, like me, have motivation but not as much as these people. yet some others have trouble finding enough motivation to move forward and get things done.

    but the good news is that motivation can be an inherent quality and it can be developed as well. So if you find that you are lacking motivation you can definitely develop the same and gain from it. I have been somewhat successful in the same and the effectiveness of the same changes from time to time according to what I’ve observed.

  • Maggie W

    Maggie W

    July 18th, 2012 at 4:26 AM

    There are so many issues that depressed individuals must deal with. They are sad, they are tired, and most of the time totally unmotivated to do anything about it. This is not their fault, but if you are afamily member of someone who is going through this, then this is when you have to be able to step in and take charge of the situation. No one heals by hiding away in the bed covers. You have to make an effort to make them want to get out and live again. Most of the time all it takes to get a depressed person back on the road to health is to get up and start moving and obtain help from a professional, either via therapy or medication, possibly both. But when they can’t make that push for themselves, then we have to step in and give them a helping hand.

  • felix


    July 18th, 2012 at 12:54 PM

    Why financial rewards? Is it just the easiest to quantify? Could there be a correlation between depression and lack of desire for financial rewards?

  • Peg


    July 18th, 2012 at 2:06 PM

    I don’t like when my motivation is really high and I can take on the world and than not long after that motivation crashes to the floor! Stinks really and I it’s cyclic.

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