How to modify persisting negative expectations in major depression? An experimental study comparing three strategies to inhibit cognitive immunization against novel positive experiences

J Affect Disord. 2019 May 1:250:231-240. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2019.03.027. Epub 2019 Mar 6.


Background: Research has shown that negative expectations in major depressive disorder (MDD) often persist despite positive disconfirming experiences. To explain this phenomenon, the concept of cognitive immunization has been introduced: that is, individuals with MDD reappraise disconfirming positive evidence in such a way that negative expectations are maintained. In this study, we examined whether it is possible to inhibit cognitive immunization to facilitate expectation update.

Methods: We examined 113 people with MDD being treated in an inpatient psychosomatic hospital. Using a previously validated paradigm, participants worked on a standardized performance test; we examined changes in negative performance-related expectations after positive expectation-disconfirming feedback. One experimental group received additional information increasing the value of the positive feedback ('INFORMATION'). Another group was instructed to recall the feedback after completing the task ('RECALL'). In a third group, participants' attention was shifted to potential expectation-disconfirming feedback ('ATTENTION'). In addition, a control group underwent the standard procedure of the paradigm.

Results: The results showed significant group differences in the change in generalized performance expectations, with the largest changes in participants from the INFORMATION group. All experimental groups had lower values for cognitive immunization than the control group.

Limitations: Given that this proof-of-concept study was the first to examine strategies to inhibit cognitive immunization, the findings need to be replicated in future studies.

Conclusions: The present study confirms that cognitive immunization in MDD can be inhibited, thus facilitating adjusting negative expectations. The most promising results were found for the INFORMATION group, providing information to emphasize the relevance of expectation-disconfirming information.

Keywords: Behavioral experiment; Cognitive immunization; Expectancy violation; Expectation; Expectation persistence; Major depression.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cognition Disorders / psychology
  • Cognition Disorders / therapy*
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy / methods*
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / psychology
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / therapy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Recall
  • Middle Aged
  • Motivation
  • Optimism / psychology*
  • Psychometrics / methods
  • Quality of Life / psychology