Pessimistic Thinking

Martin Seligman is well known now for developing the field of positive psychology and his Authentic Happiness book and website.  But he earned his reputation in academic psychology long before, for conducting the original studies that led to a “learned helplessness” model of depression.  Seligman studied dogs under conditions in which some could escape from electric shocks, others not. Exposed to new situations, those dogs who had escaped in the past continued to escape, but most of the dogs who had not been able to escape did not even try. Even when it was obvious that safety just required jumping over a small barrier, these dogs just lay down and whimpered—they seemed to have developed the concept that they were helpless to control their fate.

These experiments sound cruel, but Seligman was certain of his purpose. He had always been fascinated with the problem of what makes some people bounce back from stresses that make others collapse. As a boy of thirteen, he had seen his father, who seemed so strong and reliable, suffer a stroke that left him paralyzed, despondent, and helpless. As a college student with ambitions to change the world, he saw helplessness in every aspect of society. He was determined to try to explain the problem. His experiments were the beginning of the end for the simple-minded behaviorism of B. F. Skinner and his followers—so influential in American psychology but finally a blind alley—who argued that we learn things simply because behavior that is rewarded is repeated, behavior that is punished becomes less frequent. According to the behaviorists, dogs should have been unable to form cognitions or expectations like helplessness—and man’s cognitions were simply artifacts of reward-punishment sequences. The learned helplessness phenomenon was impossible to explain through behaviorism.

Learned helplessness is very much like depression. It can explain many self-defeating patterns of behavior—the wife who endures an abusive husband, the troubles people have with diets, smoking, drinking, the negative expectations of ghetto youth. These people have learned the concept that there is nothing they can do to escape or change.  Equally important, though, is an aspect of Seligman’s work that has received comparatively little attention—some dogs never learn helplessness. In later experiments with humans, in which various noxious stimuli were administered under situations of control and no control, some people never gave up. With both dogs and people, it was impossible to teach about one third of subjects that they were helpless. What makes the difference? What accounts for this determination not to give up in the face of consistent failure?

Although Seligman is a cognitive-behavioral psychologist, he has a unique view on the cognitive habits of depressives.  Seligman focuses on the concept of explanatory style—the different ways we have of thinking about how the world works. He notes that people who tend to give up easily have certain explanatory styles in common. They tend to see bad events as permanent and good events as temporary, whereas people with an optimistic explanatory style perceive events in just the opposite manner. Thus, when something bad happens to a depressed person, he might think, “I’m all washed up,” when a more optimistic person might think, “I can get over this.” And when something good happens, the depressive will think, “I got lucky,” instead of, “I deserve this.”

Besides permanence, another dimension of explanatory style is pervasiveness. Pervasiveness refers to how much influence one event will have on the rest of our lives, how much it seems to exemplify a predictable pattern rather than a specific case. Pessimistic people see bad events as more pervasive than specific. “There’s no such thing as an honest mechanic” rather than “That mechanic is dishonest.” Optimistic people tend to see bad events as unique rather than pervasive: “I don’t feel well today” versus “I’m always getting sick.” Of course, the reverse is true for good events. Pessimistic people see them as unique, lucky breaks rather than a part of a pattern: “I got lucky on the math test today” rather than “I’m good at math.”

The third aspect of explanatory style is personalization. When bad things happen, we can blame ourselves, or we can blame others. When good things happen, we can assume that we were just in the right place at the right time, or think that we had something to do with it. People who tend to blame themselves when bad things happen have low self-esteem: “I’m stupid,” “I can’t do anything right.” People with healthy self-esteem are less likely to accept blame: “It’s your fault as much as mine,” “I refuse to let you make me the bad guy in this argument.” Optimistic people tend to think they can cause good things to happen; pessimists think it’s just luck.  The culmination of permanence, pervasiveness and personalization in depression is “Things are always rotten everywhere, and it’s all my fault.”  The more objective and optimistic way of thinking is “Things are sometimes rotten, but not all the time, and there are many forces at work when things go bad.”

Seligman is the only writer I know to give an operational definition of hope. He says that hope consists of the ability to find temporary and specific (i.e., nonpervasive) explanations for bad events. When faced with a setback, the hopeful person sees it as unique: “I didn’t get that job, but the interviewer didn’t seem to like me, and I didn’t really prepare as well as I should. I’ll do better next time.” When explanations for bad events are more permanent and pervasive, no one can be hopeful: “I didn’t get that job. None of the interviews go well. I always get nervous and make a fool of myself. I’ll never get the job I want.” Depression can almost be defined as the abandonment of hope. When we’re depressed, we feel that hope has abandoned us, but this is a two-way street. Our thinking has become so prejudiced, our view of the world so constrained, that we blind ourselves to hope just because it doesn’t fit our paradigm.

Identifying and Challenging Beliefs

Cognitive therapists want to arm us with the strengths of empirical science. They want us to conduct research on ourselves—to observe ourselves objectively, to draw conclusions from our observations, and to test the validity of those conclusions against wider experience. They may suggest slightly different methods, but it all comes down to:

●          Identifying stressful situations

●          Examining our thoughts and behavior under stress

●          Determining what beliefs underlie our responses to stress

●          Learning to challenge those beliefs

●          Identifying alternative responses to stress

●          Examining the effects of those responses, incorporating them into our belief system and behavior patterns if successful, modifying them further if not.

It’s vital to emphasize that we can only become aware of our self-destructive beliefs through therapy or some means of objective observation, not through introspection; it’s like trying to see the back of your head.  A simple form to use for recording these observations is reproduced just below.  The depressogenic beliefs we have will get in the way of seeing ourselves clearly, so we have to do the recording.  In cognitive therapy, this is part of the work the depressed patient must do to help his recovery, to begin to develop new strengths and skills to replace the old ones that have just reinforced depression.

If this feels to you much like the Mood Journal, don’t be surprised. Both are designed to help you recognize characteristic patterns of responding to external events—the Mood Journal to recognize patterns of emotional response, the Daily Record of Dysfunctional Thoughts to recognize patterns in thinking. These dysfunctional feeling and thinking patterns are manifestations of our own psychological defenses at work. They help insulate us from facing some unpleasant truths—you can’t always have what you want, I am mad at my child, I am attracted to my friend’s wife, I can’t please everyone. I don’t want to tell you that the honest, regular use of either of these tools will be easy. What are defenses for, if not to protect us from harsh reality? But we must keep in mind that reality, though it may be harsh, is real, while the depression we create for ourselves in trying to avoid it is not only harsher yet but unnecessary.

Daily Record of Dysfunctional Thoughts


Date Situation Emotion(s) Automatic Thought(s) Rational Response Outcome
Describe:1. Actual event leading to unpleasant emotion, or 1. Specify sad, anxious, angry, etc. 1. Write automatic thoughts that preceded emotion(s) 1. Write rational response to automatic thought(s) 1. Rerate belief in automatic thought(s), 1–100
2. Stream of thoughts, daydream, or recollection leading to unpleasant emotion 2. Rate intensity of emotion, 1–100 2. Rate belief in automatic thought(s), 1–100 2. Rate belief in rational response, 1–100 2. Specify and rate subsequent emotions, 1–100

Instructions: When you experience an unpleasant emotion, note the situation that seemed to stimulate the emotion. Then note the automatic thought associated with the emotion. Record the degree to which you believe this thought: 1 = not at all, 100 = completely. In rating degree of emotion 1 = a trace, 100 = the most intense possible.

Cognitive therapy has become so accepted now as a standard treatment for depression that some are considering depression largely a symptom of dysfunctional thought processes. This runs the risk of encouraging the depressive’s thinking that he needs more control, not less. If he continues depressed, he is likely to feel that he has done a poor job of applying cognitive methods, which just reinforces his sense of self-blame and inadequacy. Depressives need to get out of their heads and into their hearts and their bodies. The best therapists recognize that depression is a very complex condition, that changing faulty thought processes is just one of many possible ways of treating it, and that addressing these thought processes is going to have repercussions in other areas of the patient’s life—how he processes feelings, how he communicates with those close to him, how he feels about himself.