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10-08-2018 | Original Article | Uitgave 4/2019 Open Access

Psychological Research 4/2019

Spontaneous cognition in dysphoria: reduced positive bias in imagining the future

Psychological Research > Uitgave 4/2019
Julie L. Ji, Emily A. Holmes, Colin MacLeod, Fionnuala C. Murphy
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The online version of this article (https://​doi.​org/​10.​1007/​s00426-018-1071-y) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.


Anomalies in future-oriented cognition are implicated in the maintenance of emotional disturbance within cognitive models of depression. Thinking about the future can involve mental imagery or verbal-linguistic mental representations. Research suggests that future thinking involving imagery representations may disproportionately impact on-going emotional experience in daily life relative to future thinking not involving imagery (verbal-linguistic representation only). However, while higher depression symptoms (dysphoria) are associated with impaired ability to deliberately generate positive relatively to negative imagery representations of the future (when instructed to do so), it is unclear whether dysphoria is associated with impairments in the tendency to do so spontaneously (when not instructed to deliberately generate task unrelated cognition of any kind). The present study investigated dysphoria-linked individual differences in the tendency to experience spontaneous future-oriented cognition as a function of emotional valence and representational format. Individuals varying in dysphoria level reported the occurrence of task unrelated thoughts (TUTs) in real time while completing a sustained attention go/no-go task, during exposure to auditory cues. Results indicate higher levels of dysphoria were associated with lower levels of positive bias in the number of imagery-based future TUTs reported, reflecting higher negative imagery-based future TUT generation (medium to large effect size), and lower positive imagery-based TUT generation (small to medium effect size). Further, this dysphoria-linked bias appeared to be specific in temporal orientation (future, not past) and representational format (imagery, not non-imagery). Reduced tendency to engage in positive relative to negative imagery-based future thinking appears to be implicated in dysphoria.

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