Causal Analysis and Avoidant Behaviour of Depressive Rumination

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Causal Analysis
  • Avoidant Behaviour


Evolution of behaviours and emotions is at the core of research in evolutionary psychology. Differential reproductive success drives evolution by natural selection (Caporael & Brewer, 1995). Through an evolutionary psychology lens, emotions could have evolved in order to solve adaptive problems in a broad range of situations, thereby providing a reproductive advantage to those who possessed said emotions (Al-Shawaf, Conroy-Beam, Asao, & Buss, 2016). Most major emotions displayed by humans have been shown to have some adaptive significance (Johnston, 1999). For instance, happiness acts to reward adaptive behaviours, thereby increasing them in frequency (Buss, 2000). Anger increases protection from threats (Petersen, 2010), jealousy motivates individuals to guard against mates’ infidelity (Pham & Shackelford, 2014), and fear helps avoid dangerous situations (Nesse, 1994). However, sadness or low mood, which is a major symptom of depression, doesn’t seem to have a clear-cut adaptive significance at a first glance. Depression, with all its side effects that interfere with normal human function, seems obviously maladaptive. However, it appears to have served adaptive functions on the evolutionary time scale (Nesse, 2000). The incidence of depression is highest at the ages where reproductive value peaks (Nesse, 2000), with over 13% of individuals with depression between ages 18-25 (National Institute of Mental Health [NIMH], n.d.). This co-occurrence of reproduction and depression indicates a link between the two.

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Depression is an affective state which includes characteristics like sad mood, anhedonia (inability to derive pleasure from daily activities like eating or having sex), changes in psychomotor, sleeping, and eating patterns (American Psychiatric Association [APA], n.d.). Depression is generally thought to be caused by stressors, which are often social in nature (Brown & Harris, 1978). Depressed people are often concerned about their stressors and engage in rumination, which is the act of deep thought, about these problems, which they perceive to be complex in nature and difficult to solve (Andrews & Thomson, 2009). One theory attempting to explain the adaptive nature of sadness and depression is the analytical rumination hypothesis (Andrews & Thomson, 2009). This theory suggests that depression could have served an adaptive function in our evolutionary past wherein it helped fix mistakes (Andrews & Thomson, 2009). Rumination allows individuals to reflect on the causes of their current problem for an extended amount of time (Andrews & Thomson, 2009). This side effect of depression could have served the function of leading individuals to analyze and correct their mistakes, thereby preventing failures in the future (Andrews & Thomson, 2009).

Individuals with depression are often unaware of the causes of their problems (Weary, Marsh, Gleicher, & Edwards, 1993). Despite this uncertainty, these individuals blame themselves for their circumstances and problems. Research from Roese et al. (2009) on individuals with depression backs up this claim. Upward counterfactual thinking focuses on how the situation could have been better, and has the following structure: “If only I had done x, then this problem could have been avoided”. Here, x is the behaviour that the person did not do in the situation they are reflecting on. It was discovered that individuals with depression engaged in upward counterfactual thinking more often than those that did not experience depressive symptoms (Roese et al., 2009). Thinking of this sort allows individuals to analyze ways they can avoid similar problems in the future, and may therefore be advantageous. In this sense, these upwards counterfactual thoughts may be adaptive.

In this study, we are testing the effects of depressive rumination on three different variables: causal analysis, type II processing, and avoidant behaviour. The ball toss game, Cyberball, is a method of introducing ostracism and exclusion virtually (Williams, Cheung & Choi, 2000). Past research indicates that individuals who received fewer ball tosses than their peers in a game of Cyberball experienced worsened mood and increased feelings of exclusion (Williams et al., 2000). In this study, the ball toss game is used as a way to induce feelings of social rejection. Social rejection is in turn used in this study to induce depressive rumination to test its effects on causal analysis, type II processing, and avoidant behaviour. Individuals who experienced social rejection during this manipulation are the “exclusion” condition, and those who did not experience the social rejection are the “inclusion” condition.

Causal Analysis

Research done on the analytical rumination hypothesis suggests that depression first promotes rumination on the causes of problems, also known as causal analysis. Causal analysis, in turn, promotes rumination on problem-solving (Bartoskova et al., 2018). Considering this information, it is safe to imagine that depression may lead to an increase in problem-solving abilities. The problem-solving, in turn, helps eliminate the cause of depression. It is therefore possible that, in a negative feedback loop, depression can help downregulate depressive symptoms. In this study, we wish to confirm this relationship between depressive rumination and causal analysis, which we predict to be a positive correlation. We expect participants in the excluded condition to wonder why they weren’t tossed the ball during Cyberball and why none of the participants ranked them as their first or second choice. This, in turn, would be reflected in their responses in the expressive writing task. 

Excluded participants are expected to refer back to either their actions or the answers they gave during the group RCIT (e.g. “was it something I said?” or “was it something I did?”). In addition, participants in the excluded condition are expected to include more evidence of causal analysis, with words like “how” or “why”. Furthermore, these excluded participants will also show evidence of counterfactual thinking, with statements like “If I hadn’t answered X to that question, they would have chosen me.”Type II processing. The dual process theory of cognitive psychology describe two different types of information processing, type I and type II (Evans, 2012). Type I processing is fast, automatic, effortless, contextualized and error-prone (Evans & Stanovich, 2013). Type II processing is slow, reflective, effortful, decontextualized and normatively correct (Evans & Stanovich, 2013). Causal analysis involves reflection of one’s actions and a thorough analysis of the factors responsible for the situation at hand. The upward counterfactual thinking that takes place with causal analysis requires individual to generate several hypothetical outcomes based on different actions the individual made in the situation. Given this information, causal analysis likely involves type II over type I processing. 

We predict a positive correlation between depressive rumination and type II processing. To test for type II thinking, psychologists normally get individuals to complete two tasks that both require working memory, and test obstructions in performance in either task when they are completed simultaneously as opposed to individually. In this study, we use a word memorization task where participants were asked either hold neutral words or words related to exclusion in their working memory. After this, they would have to complete puzzles from Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices (RAPM), a series of increasingly difficult puzzles involving pattern recognition (Carrol, 1993; Gray, Chabris, & Braver, 2003). Here, it would be difficult for excluded participants to engage in this task, since they would have to detach from their rumination in order to do so. Therefore, as we predicted, if rumination involves type II thinking (which is a limited, effortful resource), then those who ruminate as they complete the RAPM would exhibit lower performance that those who do not ruminate. So, those in the inclusion condition (both neutral and exclusion words) and those in the exclusion condition who memorize neutral words would perform better on the RAPM than those in the exclusion condition that memorize exclusion words.

Avoidant Behaviour

The final variable examined in this study is avoidant behaviour. Avoidance here is avoiding painful feelings. Physical pain serves the evolutionary purpose of indicating danger and promoting actions that help individuals physically avoid dangerous stimuli (Broom, 2001). If physical pain serves this purpose, perhaps emotional pain should also illicit avoidance behaviour. Although avoidance behaviour involved in painful feelings may contribute to lower emotional pain in short-term scenarios, this seems to be false regarding long-term scenarios. A study in patients with Major Depressive Disorder shows that peak levels of avoidance were associated with poorer long-term outcomes in their recovery (Hayes, Beevers, Feldman, Laurenceau, & Perlman, 2005). Gut (1989) theorized that this is because depression’s adaptive function of facilitating problem solving by promoting the analysis of problems turns unproductive if people develop avoidant strategies. We therefore predict a negative correlation between the amount of avoidance and sad mood in the excluded participants. 

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