How Dysfunctional Prospection Creates Depression

We recast depression as a disorder of faulty prospection. The research literature documents this amply: Depressed people simulate the future in ways that create, exacerbate, and maintain dysfunction: In their if-then simulations, if clauses are frequently finished with negative, and even catastrophic then clauses (e.g., "If I try to talk things out with my partner, then it will always make things worse"; "If I don't sleep well tonight, then tomorrow will be awful"). These if-then conditionals may be expressed in words or images, and they may be more or less conscious.

Negative prospection and even depression itself is not inherently dysfunctional, maladaptive, or problematic; indeed, both could be essential for adaptive functioning, because incessant optimism would have serious costs (Nesse, 2004; Norem & Chang, 2002). So we distinguish negative prospection from faulty prospection. By negative prospection, we mean representations of an undesirable future (these are normal and often useful); by faulty, poor, or dysfunctional prospection, we mean patterns of representations of the future in which negative content predominates and leads to significant impairment.

In our framework, three general faults of prospection drive depression: poor generation of possible futures, poor evaluation of possible futures, and underlying global negative beliefs about the future. Further, we propose that depressed mood and poor functioning, in turn, exacerbate these faults in a vicious cycle.

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