Risk factor for depression can be 'contagious'

April 18, 2013, Association for Psychological Science

A new study with college roommates shows that a particular style of thinking that makes people vulnerable to depression can actually "rub off" on others, increasing their symptoms of depression six months later.

The research, from psychological scientists Gerald Haeffel and Jennifer Hames of the University of Notre Dame, is published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for .

Studies show that people who respond negatively to , interpreting the events as the result of factors they can't change and as a reflection of their own deficiency, are more vulnerable to depression. This "cognitive vulnerability" is such a potent risk factor for depression that it can be used to predict which individuals are likely to experience a depressive episode in the future, even if they've never had a before.

Individual differences in this cognitive vulnerability seem to solidify in early adolescence and remain stable throughout adulthood, but Haeffel and Hames predicted that it might still be malleable under certain circumstances.

The researchers hypothesized that cognitive vulnerability might be "contagious" during major , when our social environments are in flux. They tested their hypothesis using data from 103 randomly assigned roommate pairs, all of whom had just started college as freshmen.

Within one month of arriving on campus, the roommates completed an online questionnaire that included measures of cognitive vulnerability and depressive symptoms. They completed the same measures again 3 months and 6 months later; they also completed a measure of stressful life events at the two time points.

The results revealed that freshmen who were randomly assigned to a roommate with high levels of cognitive vulnerability were likely to "catch" their roommate's and develop higher levels of cognitive vulnerability; those assigned to roommates who had low initial levels of cognitive vulnerability experienced decreases in their own levels. The contagion effect was evident at both the 3-month and 6-month assessments.

Most importantly, changes in cognitive vulnerability affected risk for future depressive symptoms: Students who showed an increase in cognitive vulnerability in the first 3 months of college had nearly twice the level of at 6 months than those who didn't show such an increase.

The findings provide striking evidence for the contagion effect, confirming the researchers' initial hypothesis.

Based on these findings, Haeffel and Hames suggest that the contagion effect might be harnessed to help treat :

"Our findings suggest that it may be possible to use an individual's social environment as part of the intervention process, either as a supplement to existing cognitive interventions or possibly as a stand-alone intervention," they write. "Surrounding a person with others who exhibit an adaptive cognitive style should help to facilitate cognitive change in therapy."

According to the researchers, the results of this study indicate that it may be time to reconsider how we think about cognitive vulnerability.

"Our study demonstrates that cognitive vulnerability has the potential to wax and wane over time depending on the social context," say Haeffel and Hames. "This means that cognitive vulnerability should be thought of as plastic rather than immutable."

Explore further: Persistent depression linked with cognitive decline in older patients with coronary artery disease

Related Stories

Persistent depression linked with cognitive decline in older patients with coronary artery disease

March 5, 2012
Persistent depression symptoms may be associated with significantly greater declines in cognitive performance in older patients with coronary artery disease who underwent cardiac catheterization, according to a study published ...

Late-life depression associated with prevalent mild cognitive impairment, increased risk of dementia

December 31, 2012
Depression in a group of Medicare recipients ages 65 years and older appears to be associated with prevalent mild cognitive impairment and an increased risk of dementia, according to a report published Online First by Archives ...

Recommended for you

How past intentions influence generosity toward the future

January 17, 2018
Over time, it really is the thought that counts – provided we know what that thought was, suggests new research from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

Tracking the impact of early abuse and neglect

January 17, 2018
Children who experience abuse and neglect early in life are more likely to have problems in social relationships and underachieve academically as adults.

Study: No evidence to support link between violent video games and behaviour

January 16, 2018
Researchers at the University of York have found no evidence to support the theory that video games make players more violent.

Can psychedelic drugs 'reconnect' depressed patients with their emotions?

January 15, 2018
Imperial research suggests psilocybin can help relieve the symptoms of depression, without the 'dulling' of emotions linked with antidepressants.

Study listens in on speech development in early childhood

January 15, 2018
If you've ever listened in on two toddlers at play, you might have wondered how much of their babbling might get lost in translation. A new study from the University of Toronto provides surprising insights into how much children ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.