Perceived Goal Failure Increases Risk for Depressive Symptoms

Studies on depression have shown that negative affect is a strong risk factor for depressive symptoms. Rumination, the process of thinking about negative events and distressing situations, can increase negative affect and make people more vulnerable to depressive episodes.

Neil P. Jones of the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania wanted to add to the existing research on depression and rumination by looking at how goal failure, an event that can lead to negative emotions, influences affect. In his study, Jones examined the emotional reactions of 93 college students after they completed an exercise that required they write about their past failures related to prevention and promotion goals.

Promotion goals are hopes, dreams, and desires while prevention goals are classified as more obligatory and necessary goals pertaining to safety and security. Jones theorized that chronic failure to achieve the goals would lead to higher levels of rumination and increased depression and even anxiety in the participants. The results provided partial support for Jones’ theory.

First, the participants who wrote about chronic promotion goal failure reported higher levels of dejection. Surprisingly, even though they did not perceive themselves failing chronically at prevention goals, they still felt dejected when they wrote about any prevention goals they did not achieve. In other words, negative associations with promotion goals created an overall sense of dejection which led directly to increased rumination.

Jones found no association between goal failure and rumination, except when dejection was present. This was particularly interesting and suggests that there may be a protective mechanism at play, allowing some individuals who are exposed to goal failure to regulate their emotional reactions to the exposure so that they do not feel dejected and engage in negative rumination.

Jones believes these results extend existing research on the relationship between goal failure, affect and depressive symptoms. “Our findings are also consistent with our previous work demonstrating that dispositional tendencies to ruminate combined with chronic perceived promotion goal failure are associated with increased depressive symptoms,” added Jones.

Jones, Neil P., et al. (2013). Cognitive Processes in Response to Goal Failure: A Study of Ruminative Thought and its Affective Consequences. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 32.5 (2013): 482-503. ProQuest. Web.

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  • stan r

    May 30th, 2013 at 12:32 PM

    I think that any of us, even when we are not necessraily predisposed to depression, get to feeling badly when we see ourselves as a failure, or have the inability to meet our goal.

    When this happens to you enough, that can leave anyone feeling pretty dejected.

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