Cognitive Science

Individuals with depression show a lack of positive bias when it comes to autobiographical memory

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A study published in Cognition and Emotion suggests that autobiographical memory serves a self-enhancement purpose, whereby events that reinforce positive self-images are remembered with more detail and perceived as more central to one’s personal story. The researchers further found that this self-enhancement function is lacking in individuals with depressive symptoms.

Autobiographical memory (ABM) consists of knowledge and experiences from a person’s history that are integrated into their self-concept. These memories can be retrieved with varying degrees of detail and are then used to guide our behavior.

Study authors Lydia Grace and her colleagues wanted to explore how autobiographical memory relates to our semantic self-images. Semantic self-images are ideas and beliefs about who we are. While many studies have explored the interaction between ABM and semantic self-images, finding that the two concepts influence each other, little research has considered how this process may be different among individuals with depression.

In particular, one theory suggests that ABM serves a self-enhancement function, by favoring memories that show oneself in a positive light. Grace and her team proposed that this positive bias may be impaired among those with depression. “It is feasible that a disrupted self-image, such as a negative view of the self, may be a function of disruptions in the accessibility or phenomenological experience of the episodic ABMs that support positive aspects of identity,” the authors say.

An initial study was conducted to explore how autobiographical memories are retrieved to reinforce positive and negative self-statements. A sample of 64 undergraduate students was split into two groups depending on their depressive symptoms. The non-dysphoric group had symptoms below the cut-off for mild depression, while the dysphoric group met the cut-off for mild depression. Participants were asked to come up with positive “I am” statements about themselves and then given two minutes to write down memories that reflect these self-statements. Subjects were then asked to do the same thing but with negative “I am” statements.

The results largely supported the idea of the self-enhancement function of ABM. In the non-dysphoric group, positive memories were remembered with greater detail than negative ones and were also reported as being more central to their life stories. However, this positive bias was not found in the dysphoric group, who remembered positive and negative memories in equal detail and reported them as equally central to their lives. Moreover, the dysphoric group rated their self-statements as less positive than the non-dysphoric group. “Arguably,” the authors observe, “these biases in positivity and importance of self-images in dysphoric individuals are likely to act to maintain a negative view of the self (Beck, 1967).”

A second study took the inverse approach. The researchers explored whether recalling positive or negative ABMs would differentially trigger self-statements among those with depressive symptoms. This time, participants were asked to recall three personally-relevant experiences that had happened to them that were either positive or negative. Next, they were asked to come up with “I am” statements.

Again, the researchers found that individuals with depressive symptoms appeared to be missing the self-enhancement benefit of ABM. For the dysphoric group, recalling positive memories (compared to negative) did not boost the number of positive self-statements they made as it did for those without dysphoria. As the authors say, “these findings suggest that the natural bias to see oneself in a positive light is disrupted in dysphoria and this disruption maintains and perpetuates a negative view of the self.”

The researchers say that their study provides insight into the function of ABM as a self-enhancement tool, whereby positive memories are favored over negative ones. This benefit appears to be disrupted among those with dysphoria, possibly contributing to the negative view of the self that is characteristic of those with depressive symptomology.

The study, “The effect of dysphoria on the relationship between autobiographical memories and the self”, was authored by Lydia Grace, Stephen A. Dewhurst, and Rachel J. Anderson.

(Photo by Mike Greer from Pexels)

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