KeywordsCognitive Therapy Cognitive Structure Depressed Individual Processing Style Ambiguous Stimulus
Self-referent information processing describes how information from the environment is encoded, processed, or retrieved and connected to the self. This takes place through an individual’s self-schema, which is a stable, cognitive structure of thought patterns that influence how a person codes and interprets external stimuli in relation to him-/herself (Beck 1964). Self-referent cognitions are thoughts an individual has regarding him-/herself. They are the outcome of self-referent information processing and the expression of self-schema.
Information processing occurs when an individual receives information from the environment and then encodes, processes, or retrieves information from the memory. Many cognitive models of depression posit that biases in information processing are the principle cause of the development and maintenance of depression (for a review, see Jacobs et al. 2008). An important, related construct that predicts depression is a person’s self-schema (Beck 1987). An individual’s self-schema is a stable, cognitive structure that influences how an individual codes and interprets external stimuli in relation to him-/herself (Beck 1964). Aaron T. Beck (1987) posits that individuals with a depressogenic information processing style interpret negative information as self-referent and read ambiguous stimuli as negative. Further, individuals are also more likely to ignore information from the environment that is contrary to their self-schema (Beck 1987), which implies a bias in encoding or processing information from the individual’s surroundings.
Negative Self-Referent Information Processing
Negative self-referent information processing biases arise when the individual endorses a negative self-schema (Derry and Kuiper 1981; Dykman et al. 1989; Kuiper and Derry 1982). Additionally, the processing of a self-schema (i.e., how easily an individual can encode and recall a particular memory) may contribute to differences between depressed and nondepressed individuals. To be more precise, depressed individuals’ self-schema, compared to nondepressed individuals, operates less efficiently when recalling self-referent information in adults (Dozois and Dobson 2001; Kuiper and Derry 1982) and adolescents (Gençöz et al. 2001).
Summarized, depressed individuals tend to have more negative self-schemas and are therefore more inclined to process negative, rather than neutral and/or positive, self-referent information compared to nondepressed individuals (Dozois and Dobson 2001; Gençöz et al. 2001). More specifically, the operations in information processing differ between depressed and nondepressed individuals, where depressed individuals store, process, and retrieve information in a negatively biased way (Dozois and Dobson 2001; Dykman et al. 1989; Gençöz et al. 2001; Kuiper and Derry 1982). These findings lend support to Aaron T. Beck’s theory (1964, 1987) that negative self-referent information processing contributes to depression.
Use in Treatment and Research
Treatment of depression using so-called cognitive therapy often involves identifying negative self-schemata and self-referent cognitions with the client and proving their invalidity or unrealistic content during a process called cognitive restructuring (Beck 1976, 2011). The first step is often working with the negative self-referent cognitions that ultimately express the negative self-schemata. Then after the client learned the strategies to evaluate, question, and change negative cognitions, the therapist helps the client to work on the more difficult to identify and change negative schemata. The strategies for working with negative self-referent cognitions and negative self-schemata are identical. Interventions a therapist may use in the evaluation of cognitions and schemata include identifying the evidence for the validity of the cognition/schema, searching for alternative explanations to the conclusion based on the cognition/schema, problem-solving with the client around what the client should do about the cognition/schema, helping the client gain distance from the cognition/schema, and identifying the effect of the cognition/schema on the client (Beck 2011). Research demonstrates that treatment of depression applying these strategies belongs to the most effective approaches to treating depression in adults (for reviews, see Butler et al. 2006; Pössel and Hautzinger 2006) and adolescents (for a review, see Weisz et al. 2006).
Self-referent information processing describes how information from the environment is encoded, processed, or retrieved and connected to the self. This takes place through an individual’s self-schema and self-referent cognitions that are the outcome of self-referent information processing and the expression of self-schema. Thus, negative self-schemata and self-referent cognitions contribute to the development and maintenance of symptoms of depression. Therapeutic interventions aimed at restructuring these schemata and cognitions are a main component of cognitive therapy, one of the most effective approaches to treating depression in adults (for reviews, see Butler et al. 2006; Pössel and Hautzinger 2006) and adolescents (for a review, see Weisz et al. 2006).
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