Based on well-established findings into the tremendous impact of expectations on perception, emotion, and well-being, a relatively nascent area of research in the cognitive sciences has begun to investigate how people adjust their expectations in light of disconfirmatory evidence (Sharot & Garrett, 2016
). For instance, researchers have begun to relate anomalies in belief updating to psychopathological dysfunctions, which has been of particular interest in research on depression. Several lines of research have provided evidence for the hypothesis that depression is related to difficulty in revising negative expectations after receiving unexpectedly positive information, such as: research on interpretation biases (Everaert et al., 2018
; Liknaitzky, Smillie, & Allen, 2017
); cognitive inflexibility (Stange et al., 2017
); (lack of) optimism bias (Garrett et al., 2014
; Korn et al. 2014
); and reward insensitivity (Eshel & Roiser, 2010
Recently, another mechanism explaining the persistence of negative expectations despite positive experiences in depression has been introduced. According to the concept of “cognitive immunisation” against disconfirmatory evidence (Rief et al., 2015
), people with depression tend to reinterpret unexpectedly positive information in such a way that the positive information is devalued.1
Of note, this concept has similarities with consistency theories from cognitive and social psychology, of which Festinger’s (1962
) theory of cognitive dissonance is among the most important. According to this theory, holding conflicting beliefs is perceived as being aversive, resulting in the preference to reduce this cognitive dissonance by cognitive or behavioural strategies. For example, in a depressed person holding the core belief “I am incapable”, new information suggesting that one did well would be assumed to create dissonance as new information is inconsistent with the core belief, resulting in the desire to reduce cognitive dissonance. This is where the idea of cognitive immunisation comes into play: According to Rief et al. (2015
), cognitive immunisation refers to the very process of reappraising new information in such a way that the discrepancy between the prior belief and new information is reduced. It has been suggested that this cognitive reappraisal leads to sustained negative expectations that become immune to belief updating and learning from new experience (Kube et al., 2020
; Rief & Joormann, 2019
). In a series of experimental studies, we confirmed this hypothesis by first demonstrating that people with depression maintained negative expectations for their performance despite positive performance feedback, whereas healthy people adjusted their expectation in accordance with the positive feedback (Kube, Rief, Gollwitzer, Gärtner, et al., 2019a
; Kube, Rief, Gollwitzer, et al., 2018
). Subsequently, we found that promoting the engagement in cognitive immunisation prevented people with depression from utilising positive information to alter their expectations, while inhibiting the use of cognitive immunisation strategies facilitated the adjustment of negative expectations (Kube, Glombiewski, et al., 2019a
; Kube, Rief, et al., 2019a
). Yet, while there are first indications for the importance of cognitive immunisation in the context of expectation modification, it is not clear whether this cognitive process is specific to depression, or whether it can also be triggered in a non-clinical sample. Therefore, this study aimed to examine whether this style of negatively reappraising unexpected positive information leading to sustained negative expectations can be mimicked in a non-clinical sample through an immunisation-promoting experimental manipulation. In other words, we aimed to investigate if the ability of non-depressed individuals to modify their expectations in accordance with positive feedback would be reduced when a negative reappraisal of positive feedback was promoted. Findings from this study would also add to the literature on cognitive biases in non-clinical samples. For example, early studies in non-clinical samples have found that negative biases (i.e., biases in relation to attention, interpretation, and memory) could be induced in healthy volunteers (Mathews & Mackintosh, 2000
), whereas more recent work has provided mixed findings in this regard (for reviews, see Hertel and Mathews (2011
) and Hallion and Ruscio (2011
A secondary interest was the role of negative mood in the context of expectation modification. From the general psychology literature, it is known that the presence of negative affect2
can hinder information processing. Specifically, it has been shown that negative mood impairs learning and transfer effects (Brand et al., 2007
) as well as positive feedback processing (Hammer & Stone-Romero, 1996
). Further evidence arises from Ziegler’s mood-congruent expectancies approach, speaking to impaired information processing if mood-incongruent information is received (Ziegler, 2010
). Thus, we hypothesised that the induction of negative mood hinders the revision of negative performance expectations after positive performance feedback, although we are cognizant of other studies that did not find adverse effects of negative mood on information processing, as summarised by Forgas (2013
). In accordance with the aforementioned negative effects of negative affect on information processing, other research has found bidirectional effects of negative mood and the engagement in maladaptive cognitive response styles (i.e. rumination) in both clinical and non-clinical samples (Kuehner et al., 2009
; Lyubomirsky et al., 1998
; Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 1993
; Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 1994
; Yoon & Joormann, 2012
). That is, the activation of negative mood can trigger the occurrence of negative thinking, and conversely, maladaptive rumination can amplify negative mood. In view of this bidirectional relationship between negative mood and rumination, we investigated how the combination of a negative mood induction and a cognitive immunisation manipulation affects belief updating. More specifically, we hypothesised that if participants are already in a negative mood, a manipulation promoting negative appraisal might further contribute to a negative affective-cognitive state in which the integration of novel positive information into previous beliefs is particularly hampered. Moreover, with reference to research relating depressive mood to the engagement in dysfunctional cognitive processes (Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 1993
), we predicted that participants with elevated depressive symptoms would show little adjustment of negative expectations if they undergo a negative mood induction before receiving unexpectedly positive feedback. If this hypothesis were confirmed, it may have implications for the conduction of interventions relying on learning from new experiences (such as behavioural experiments), since the success of such an intervention could be impaired if patients are in negative mood while learning.
We tested these hypotheses using a 2 × 2 design, which allowed us to examine both main and interaction effects of mood and cognitive immunisation. In particular, there were four groups: induction of negative affect (Affect); promotion of cognitive immunisation (Immunisation); combination of mood induction and cognitive immunisation manipulation (Immunisation + Affect); and a control group receiving neither an affect nor an immunisation manipulation. With regard to the role of depressive symptoms, we expected that depressive symptoms would predict reduced expectation adjustment, and additionally tested the moderation hypothesis that the negative effect of depressive symptoms on the modification of previous expectations would be particularly pronounced in the two groups that underwent the negative mood induction.
The present study sought to investigate the influence of cognitive immunisation and negative mood on the adjustment of negative performance expectations after receiving unexpectedly positive performance feedback in a non-clinical sample. To this end, we aimed to experimentally induce cognitive immunisation, negative mood, or both, and compared these experimental groups to a control group receiving none of the aforementioned manipulations. The main results show that participants from all groups changed their generalised performance expectations in a positive direction with large effect sizes, regardless of the manipulation received. In particular, neither the main effects of the factors cognitive immunisation and negative affect, nor their interaction was significant. The same pattern of results was found for the secondary outcome, that is, change in task-specific performance expectations. To interpret these results, it is important to consider the results of the manipulation check: on the one hand, as intended, negative affect increased and positive affect decreased in the groups Affect and Immunisation + Affect after watching the sad film sequence; on the other hand, there were no group differences in the sum scores of the immunisation scale, suggesting that it was not possible to manipulate cognitive immunisation through the experimental manipulation used in the groups Immunisation and Immunisation + Affect.
Our first aim was to examine whether cognitive immunisation could also be induced in a non-clinical sample, thereby informing our understanding of whether this cognitive mechanism is specific to depression. Previous studies using clinical samples found that the modulation of cognitive immunisation significantly impacted the revision of negative expectations after unexpectedly positive information; specifically, promoting cognitive immunisation through experimental manipulations prevented depressed people from revising negative expectations after positive feedback (Kube, Rief, et al., 2019a
), while the inhibition of cognitive immunisation facilitated the adjustment of negative expectations (Kube, Glombiewski, et al., 2019a
). In the present study, however, the immunisation-promoting manipulation did not lead to an increased engagement in cognitive immunisation strategies, nor did it affect the adjustment of expectations. In other words, the present study extends previous research findings that healthy people modify their expectations in accordance with positive feedback (Kube, Rief, et al., 2019a
; Kube et al., 2018
) by demonstrating that this positive adjustment of expectations holds even if the relevance of the positive feedback is explicitly questioned. Thus, in relation to our primary aim, the present findings do not support the hypothesis that cognitive immunisation can be induced in a non-clinical sample as well. To further examine the specificity of cognitive immunisation to depression, it would be valuable for future research to compare people with depression with other clinical groups in terms of their engagement in cognitive immunisation strategies.
These findings add to the literature on cognitive biases, where previous work has shown that although attentional, interpretation, and memory biases are typical of clinically depressed people, such biases could not consistently be observed or experimentally induced in non-clinical samples (Hallion & Ruscio, 2011
; Hertel & Mathews, 2011
). The null effects of the present cognitive immunisation manipulation can also be linked to research into the optimism bias. Specifically, research has demonstrated that belief updating in healthy people is optimistically biased, meaning that they update their beliefs selectively in response to good news while discarding bad news (Sharot, 2011
; Sharot, Guitart-Masip, et al., 2012
; Sharot, Korn, et al., 2011
); this bias was found to be absent in clinically depressed people (Garrett et al., 2014
). For example, in an experimental study by Korn et al. (2014
), healthy people adjusted their expectations about future life events more towards desirable vs. undesirable information, while this optimistic bias was absent in people with depression. Thus, interpreting the present findings in view of this optimism bias, it seems that people without depressive symptoms unswervingly correct negative expectations after receiving novel positive experiences and are not susceptible to devaluing them through cognitive immunisation strategies. In other words, healthy people tend to interpret novel environmental information in a favourable and self-worth stabilising manner, which is also supported by well-established findings from social and personality psychology on self-concept stability (Swann & Hill, 1982
; Swann & Read, 1981a
However, another possible explanation for the null effects of the cognitive immunisation manipulation might be that it was simply not effective or suitable for this sample. Specifically, the information text provided to the participants stressed e.g. that the TEMINT was not shown to be predictive of professional success (i.e. higher income), and it is conceivable that this information was not relevant to this university student sample as it may have been “too far away” from their perspective. Possibly, this lack of relevance might also explain why the Immunisation by Depression interaction from the supplemental three-way ANOVA was not significant, in contrast to a previous study which used an older sample (Kube, Rief, et al., 2019a
). Finally, a note of methodology: the present experiment was designed to test the hypothesis that cognitive immunisation can be triggered in a non-clinical sample, which was not confirmed by the results; if researchers in future studies were interested in testing the reverse hypothesis that healthy people are “immune” to cognitive immunisation manipulations, this would be the test of a null hypothesis, requiring other statistical procedures.
With respect to the secondary purpose of the present study, that is, the role of negative mood in belief updating, we found that the presentation of a brief film sequence was able to induce negative affect and reduce positive affect3
; this, however, affected the adjustment of negative performance expectations only among people with elevated symptoms of depression, as indicated in the moderation analysis: overall, depressive symptoms were a negative predictor of expectation adjustment (as also shown in previous work), and this effect was particularly pronounced if participants underwent a negative mood induction before receiving positive feedback. Thus, the results indicate that even in a non-clinical sample, depressive symptoms are associated with impaired processing of unexpectedly positive information if negative affect is amplified by negative mood induction. In people without elevated symptoms of depression, the negative mood induction did not affect the adjustment of their expectations according to the positive feedback received. This differential effect of the negative mood induction could be interpreted in such a way that in people without depressive symptoms, negative mood as induced by the film sequence normally fades away after a few minutes (Gross & Levenson, 1995
; Rottenberg et al., 2002
); in people with increased depressive symptoms, on the other hand, this negative mood tends to persist and thus hinders processing new positive information.
Finally, the present study also allowed an investigation of whether the combined induction of negative mood and cognitive immunisation has particularly detrimental effects on belief updating, beyond the independent effects of each manipulation. The non-significant interaction effect indicates that a combination of a mood and cognitive manipulation does not boost their individual effects. Most likely, this is due to the failure of the cognitive immunisation manipulation to actually induce a negative appraisal of the positive feedback received, as discussed above.
One limitation is that we examined cognitive immunisation and negative mood only in the context of performance-related expectations. To extend our findings, it would be important to examine the effects of these factors in additional areas beyond performance, e.g., social interactions. Moreover, we focused only on the adjustment of negative expectations after receiving unexpectedly positive information. It would be interesting in future studies to the examine the influence of cognitive immunisation and negative mood on changes in positive expectations after disconfirming negative information. This can also help further examine whether cognitive immunisation is a mechanism specific to depression (or other mental health problems) or whether it can also be found in healthy people. In addition, as highlighted above, a further limitation of the present cognitive immunisation manipulation was that it was tied specifically to the relevance of positive performance feedback; hence, it would be valuable if future studies using similar interventions would aim to target cognitive immunisation in additional contexts. Further limitations refer to the sample: in our study, no pre-selection of people with varying levels of depressive symptoms was conducted; hence, the discussion of the results of the moderation analyses regarding depressive symptoms needs to be interpreted in the context of a sample with continuously varying levels of depressive symptoms. Consequently, future studies may examine the effects of cognitive immunisation and negative mood manipulations by directly comparing a healthy vs. clinical sample, including more sophisticated diagnostic procedures beyond self-report questionnaires. Due to this limitation, we considered depressive symptoms mainly in the moderation analysis allowing to examine the influence of depressive symptoms dimensionally, and only briefly mentioned that similar results could be obtained when considering the presence of elevated depressive symptoms dichotomously.
The present findings have two important implications: first, people who are in good mental health do not seem to be susceptible to devaluing positive information, but interpret novel environmental information in a favourable and self-worth stabilising way. These findings can be linked to the literature on an optimism bias in healthy people. Second, even in a non-clinical sample, depressive symptoms hinder positive information processing which is particularly pertinent when negative mood is activated.
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