Cognition in Emotional Disorders: An Abundance of Habit and a Dearth of Control
Emotional and other psychological disorders are categories of experience identified at least in part by the goal of having treatment plans for people in distress. Because the categories exist for such purposes, research efforts are organized to discover distinctions among the categories and between disordered and nondisordered individuals. Many of these distinctions are cognitive. When clinical scientists began experimental studies, the term “cognitive” had been used to refer primarily to conscious thoughts that characterize disorders (see Beck, 1976), but in more recent decades the term signifies an experimental approach framed according to the theories and paradigms of cognitive psychology. In honor of Larry Jacoby’s contributions to cognitive psychology, this essay first describes experimental evidence regarding the cognitive habits of anxious and depressed individuals—habits that are quite similar across the disorders. Attention, interpretation, and memory tasks reveal negative biases that reflect well practiced tendencies. Next, the essay briefly reviews the results of recent efforts to modify negative biases. I argue that attempts to overcome habits via controlled procedures or by external constraints seem to be less successful than attempts to develop new habits. In depression, at least, habits are accompanied by difficulties in mustering opposition to them. Ultimately, the next important step in understanding cognitive contributions to emotional disorders is to take a more process-analytic approach. Toward the end of the essay I show how process-dissociation procedures (Jacoby, 1991) can be used to investigate the basis for clinically relevant change.