Cognitive processing and schemas

Cognition has been defined as ‘a generic term embracing the quality of knowing, which includes perceiving, recognizing, conceiving, judging, sensing, reasoning and imaging’ (Stedman’s Medical Dictionary 1976). Individuals actively process incoming stimuli using pre-existing mental structures (schemas) constructed through experience. These schemas play an important role in organizing and integrating information, including memory processes. Distorted underlying assumptions and errors in information processing can serve to maintain emotional disturbance (Beck 1976). Many different terms are used when referring to cognitive structures. A ‘meta-construct’ framework (Ingram et al. 1998) suggests three categories for particular groups of constructs: cognitive structures (e.g. memory), and propositions or content (e.g. knowledge) which includes schema-based models; cognitive products (e.g. attributions, thoughts, beliefs), some of which are thought to be accessible to conscious awareness; and cognitive processes (e.g. conditioning, retrieval) which occur at a subconscious level. In short, automatic processes are conceived as largely unconscious and involuntary, requiring a minimum of processing capacity, and being relatively difficult to regulate, whilst controlled processes are conceived as conscious and voluntary, requiring considerable processing capacity, and being easier to adjust (Beck and Clark 1997; McNally 1995; Shiffrin and Schneider 1977). Taken together, the consideration of both implicit and explicit processes in the prediction of any behaviour can contribute to a more thorough and complete understanding of the various components that constitute this particular behaviour.

The application of paradigms from cognitive science to clinical studies has been very productive in contributing to the understanding of the information processing and cognitive content involved in anxiety and depression (e.g. Alloy et al. 1997). One of the aims of cognitive research is to understand individual differences in emotionality, and particularly differences in vulnerability to pathological emotional states. Two general types of studies are therefore of interest: (1) Studies comparing groups differing in trait measures of negative emotionality, and (2) studies contrasting individuals with or without emotional disorders such as anxiety or depression. Information processing approaches to psychopathology propose that cognitive biases contribute to the onset and maintenance of psychopathology. More specifically, individuals’ negative affective state or specific concerns are thought to be associated with favouring the processing of information that is congruent to these affective states and concerns, and this selective processing of information is then assumed to guide subsequent behaviour (Beck and Clark 1997; Mathews and MacLeod 1994; Williams et al. 1997).

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