Cognitive Approach to Explaining Depression (Psychopathology)


Explanation 1: Beck’s Cognitive Triad

Beck came up with an explanation for depression using three main parts: a) Faulty Information Processing; b) negative self-schemas; c) the negative triad.


a) Faulty Information Processing=  Beck observed that people feeling depressed tend to focus more on the negatives of a situation, while overlooking the positives. They often twist and misinterpret information, a process called cognitive bias.

Beck listed various cognitive biases, including over-generalisations and catastrophising. For instance, a depressed person might make over-generalisations by drawing a broad conclusion from a single incident, like saying, ‘I failed one test, so I’ll fail ALL my exams!’ Alternatively, they may catastrophise, exaggerating a small setback and thinking it’s a complete disaster, such as, ‘I failed one test, so I'll never go to University or get a good job!’


b) Negative self-schemas= A schema is a 'package' of knowledge that holds information about ourselves and the world. Beck suggested that depressed individuals develop negative self-schemas, often stemming from negative experiences like criticism from parents, peers, or teachers during childhood.

Someone with a negative self-schema tends to interpret information about themselves negatively, which can lead to cognitive biases, as mentioned earlier.


c) The negative triad= Beck proposed that cognitive biases and negative self-schemas contribute to the negative triad, an overall negative and irrational perspective of oneself, the future, and the world. For people with depression, these thoughts happen automatically and are characteristic of their condition.

The self – ‘nobody loves me.’ The world – ‘the world is an unfair place.’ The future – ‘I will always be a failure.’

Evaluation of Beck's Explanation (A03)

+Real World Practical Applications= CBT, based on Beck's theory, focuses on challenging and changing the components of the negative triad. Identifying and challenging the elements of the negative triad is crucial in CBT, and this is a positive aspect because it demonstrates that the theory can be applied effectively in a treatment setting.

— Limited Explanatory Power= Beck's theory does not cover all aspects of depression. Patients with depression often go through various emotions, ranging from anger to sadness, which Becks theory does not consider. Additionally, some individuals may experience hallucinations or hold unusual beliefs due to other conditions like Cotard Syndrome. As a result, Becks theory falls short in explaining all cases of depression, as it concentrates on only one aspect of the condition.

 Explanation 2: Ellis' ABC model

Ellis offered a distinct perspective from Beck's cognitive triad in explaining depression, emphasising the role of rational and irrational thinking in mental health. According to Ellis, good mental health results from rational thinking, fostering happiness and freedom from pain. Conversely, depression stems from irrational thinking, hindering happiness and well-being.

Ellis introduced the A-B-C three-stage model to elucidate how irrational thoughts contribute to depression:

A: Activating Event

An event occurs, such as a friend ignoring your greeting in the school corridor.

B: Beliefs

Your beliefs, the interpretation of the event, can be either rational or irrational. A rational interpretation might consider your friend's busyness or stress, while an irrational one may involve thinking your friend dislikes you.

C: Consequences

Ellis proposed that rational beliefs lead to positive emotional outcomes, like planning to talk to your friend later. On the other hand, irrational beliefs result in negative emotional outcomes, such as ignoring your friend and deleting their contact due to the assumption that they don't want to talk.

Evaluation of Ellis' ABC Model (A03)

+Real World Practical Applications= A notable strength of the cognitive explanation for depression lies in its practical application to therapy. Cognitive concepts have played a key role in the creation of successful depression treatments, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), which originated from Ellis's ABC model. These therapeutic approaches aim to recognise and confront negative, irrational thoughts. They have proven effective in treating individuals with depression, offering additional endorsement to the cognitive explanation of depression.

— Limited Explanatory Power= Much of the research in this domain relies on correlation, making it challenging to establish a causal relationship. Consequently, it remains uncertain whether negative, irrational thoughts cause depression or if a person's depression prompts a negative mindset. There is a possibility that other factors, such as genetics and neurotransmitters, serve as the root cause of depression, with negative, irrational thoughts emerging as one of the consequences of the condition.



Now have a go at the revision quiz below to see how much you can recall.


a) Rational thinking
b) Cognitive bias
c) Positive reinforcement

a) Catastrophising
b) Over-generalisations
c) Positive reinforcement

a) Negative triad
b) Cognitive bias
c) Self-schema

a) Family, career, hobbies
b) Self, future, world
c) Past, present, future

a) Genetic therapy
b) Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
c) Psychodynamic therapy

a) Hallucinations
b) Negative self-schemas
c) Range of emotions experienced

a) Positive emotional outcomes
b) Negative emotional outcomes
c) Neutral emotional outcomes

a) Activating Event
b) Adaptive Response
c) Absolute Beliefs

a) Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
b) Psychodynamic therapy
c) Humanistic therapy

a) It fails to consider genetic factors.
b) It relies too heavily on positive reinforcement.
c) It's uncertain whether negative thoughts cause depression or vice versa.
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