A new study suggests that people who are vulnerable to depression have a greater desire to engage in maladaptive actions in response to negative social interactions. The findings, published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, shed new light on the relationship between major depressive disorder and self-blaming emotional biases.
“Self-blaming feelings such as guilt, self-disgust and self-directed anger are key symptoms of depression and Freud is widely credited for pointing to the importance of excessive self-blame in depression,” said study author Roland Zahn, a clinical reader in mood disorders at King’s College London and an honorary consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital.
“There is, however, a controversy around how to measure and define healthy forms of guilt, which help us to apologise and try to repair the damage we might have done from unhealthy forms of self-blame, where we take responsibility for things that are out of our control and feel paralyzed by our guilt or sense of failure, so that we hide away from the situation.”
“Social psychologists have done research into these so-called ‘action tendencies’, i.e. implicit feelings of acting in a certain way, such as hiding or creating a distance from oneself, which are entailed in complex feelings,” Zahn explained. “This is why my PhD student Suqian Duan set out to investigate this question. In this study, we investigated blame-related action tendencies for the first time systematically in people with depressive disorders.”
The researchers carefully screened 707 individuals, leaving them with a sample of 76 medication-free participants with remitted depression and 44 healthy control participants without a history of depression. The participants were first asked to rate how they would feel in hypothetical negative interactions between themselves and their best friend. They then read the hypothetical interactions again and were instructed to select an action they would most strongly feel like doing.
Compared to those with no history of depression, participants with remitted depression exhibited an increased tendency to feel like hiding, regardless of whether they or their friend had been the one to engage in wrongdoing. Participants with remitted depression exhibited an increased tendency to feel like creating a distance from themselves and a reduced tendency to feel like apologizing when they had been the one to engage in wrongdoing.
Participants with remitted depression were also more likely than participants without a history of depression to feel like apologizing when their friend had been the one to engage in wrongdoing and had a greater perception of control in these situations.
“Many people with a history of major depression, despite having recovered from symptoms, showed an action tendency profile that was different from people who had never experienced major depression and are thus at a lower risk of depression overall,” Zahn told PsyPost.
“They were more likely to feel like hiding, creating a distance from themselves and attacking themselves when faced with a hypothetical scenario of acting badly towards their friend whilst being less likely to apologize. Interestingly, we showed that the label of the emotion did not map one-to-one on specific action tendencies as was often assumed but rarely tested. Feeling like attacking oneself was specifically associated with self-disgust/contempt, a feeling which we had previously found to be the most common form of self-blaming feeling in depression.”
It is currently unclear whether these findings apply to those currently experiencing heightened depressive symptoms, but the researchers hope to have an answer to that question soon.
“This study was carried out whilst people were fully recovered from depression,” Zahn noted. “My PhD student Duan has recently completed a study in current depression to determine how these findings are affected by symptom levels and we hope to have published this by next year.”
“This research will be valuable to designing novel interventions for depression and to measure their effects in a more specific way as previous instruments have been able to do,” he added.
The study, “Maladaptive blame-related action tendencies are associated with vulnerability to major depressive disorder“, Suqian Duan, Andrew Lawrence, Lucia Valmaggia, Jorge Moll, and Roland Zahn.