One of the central tenets of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is that unconscious cognitive biases play an important role in the development and continuation of depressive disorders. According to this perspective, those who suffer from clinical depression have a tendency to interpret ambiguous information in a way that reinforces negative thoughts and beliefs.
In support of this perspective, research conducted at the University of Texas at Austin shows that episodes of major depressive disorder can be predicted by the ways people organize sentences from scrambled phrases.
The study was conducted by Stephanie S. Rude, Jennifer A. Durham-Fowler, Emily S. Baum, Stephanie B. Rooney, and Kacey L. Maestas and was published in Cognitive Therapy and Research in 2010.
In their study, 25 recently depressed and 19 not-recently depressed women were administered the Scrambled Sentence Test and then about 12 to 16 months later were given a follow-up questionnaire and interview.
“The Scrambled Sentence Test requires participants to create coherent sentences from scrambled phrases (e.g. “winner born I am loser a”). It is possible for participants to unscramble the sentences in a positive (“I am a born winner”) or negative (“I am a born loser”) manner,” as Rude and her colleagues explain.
The participants in this study were given 25 scrambled sentences and had three and a half minutes to unscramble each sentence. In order to prevent them from consciously suppressing negative phrases, half of the participants were also required to keep a six-digit number in mind while unscrambling the sentences.
Rude and her colleagues found that the Scrambled Sentence Test was a significant predictor of subsequent depressive disorders.
Unlike other tests that measure depressive symptoms, the Scrambled Sentence Test does not rely on self-reported measures. As Rude and her colleagues note, although self-reported tests such as the Beck Depression Inventory are useful, the Scrambled Sentence Test may be able to detect automatic cognitive biases that the participant is not him or herself aware of.
Rude and her colleagues believe that having both self-reported and non-self reported measures of depression “could enhance our theoretical understanding of depressive thinking by shedding light on the specific types of cognitive processes and coping strategies that contribute to depression vulnerability.”
Rude, S.S., Durham-Fowler, J.A., Baum, E.S., Rooney, S.B. & Maestas, K.L. (2010). Self-report and cognitive processing measures of depressive thinking predict subsequent major depressive disorder. Cognitive Theory and Research, Vol 34: 107-115.