A new study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry indicates that information-seeking behavior is related to symptoms of emotional disorders. The research found that greater depression and anxiety symptoms are associated with both a reduced tendency to gather more information in situations of uncertainty and a reduced tendency to rely on current knowledge to efficiently seek out reward.
“I am interested in this topic because I think it may help us better understand and treat emotional disorders,” said study author Ryan Smith (@RyanSmith_LIBR), a principal investigator at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research.
“For example, some people continue to feel very uncertain about what to do, even after many experiences in a situation. These people continue to seek out information to decrease uncertainty and may take too long to settle on a successful pattern of behavior. In contrast, other people ‘jump to conclusions’ about the best thing to do after very few experiences. In other words, they don’t seek out enough information. This can prevent learning the best course of action to achieve their goals.”
“Right now, we don’t know if either of these problems might contribute to depression or anxiety,” Smith said. “If we figured this out, we might be able to help them better balance their level of information-seeking.”
In the study, 115 men and 301 women from the University of Arizona and the surrounding community completed measures of depression and anxiety. The participants also completed a validated assessment called the Horizon Task, which measures directed and random exploratory behavior. A directed exploration strategy is characterized by choices that are biased toward seeking new information. In contrast, a random strategy encourages exploration by chance.
Smith and his team found evidence that stronger depression and anxiety symptoms were associated with a suboptimal exploration strategy. In particular, those with more severe depression and anxiety symptoms exhibited reduced directed exploration in situations where more information would aid future choices. But they also exhibited greater exploration in situations where seeking new information was not beneficial.
The participants also completed three measures of reflective cognition: the Cognitive Reflection Test, the Actively Open-Minded Thinking Scale, and an abbreviated version of the Comprehensive Assessment of Rational Thinking. Reflective cognition describes the tendency to think through problems rather than “going with your gut.” Smith and his team found that stronger depression and anxiety symptoms were associated with reduced cognitive reflectiveness.
“Our study found that people with higher levels of depression and anxiety appear to be less information-seeking when it would be helpful for learning how to achieve their goals,” Smith told PsyPost. “In other words, they may ‘jump to conclusions’ about what actions will lead to better or worse outcomes after only a few experiences. At the same time, they appear to seek more information in situations where it wouldn’t be helpful. One reason for this is that they may not stop and reflect on the best choice before making decisions.”
The findings are in line with previous research that has found depression and anxiety are linked to an intolerance of uncertainty. But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“Although there was evidence for less information-seeking and reflection in those with higher depression and anxiety, the relationship was not very strong. In other words, while people with higher depression or anxiety may show these tendencies on average, many individuals did still engage in information-seeking and reflection,” Smith explained.
“Another caveat is that we did not examine people with major depression or anxiety disorders. We only examined a group of people from the community with different scores on measures of anxious and depressive symptoms. So, we don’t know whether the results we found could be different if we compared healthy individuals to people with diagnosed emotional disorders.”
Nevertheless, the study provides insight into how depression and anxiety potentially impact information-seeking behaviors, which could lead to new avenues for treatment.
“We are excited about these results because they may capture behavior patterns in depression and anxiety that we know cause problems,” Smith said. “For example, many anxious and depressed individuals avoid places where they’ve had only one or a few bad experiences (e.g., being embarrassed at a party). This prevents them from learning that they could still have an enjoyable time if they stopped avoiding such situations (e.g., they could have a more fulfilling social life spending time with friends if they did not always avoid parties).
“If we can help them reflect more on these choices and engage in more information-seeking (e.g., to learn that parties don’t always lead to being embarrassed), we might be able to help them improve their well-being and satisfaction with life.”
The study, “Lower Levels of Directed Exploration and Reflective Thinking Are Associated With Greater Anxiety and Depression“, was authored by Ryan Smith, Samuel Taylor, Robert C. Wilson, Anne E. Chuning, Michelle R. Persich, Siyu Wang and William D. S. Killgore.