Why is the world vivid in mania, but bleak in depression?

Down in a hole
Image by ParanoidMonk via Flickr
No, I am not speaking metaphorically. Quite literally,there has been accumulating evidence that sense are sharpened and have great acuity in mania while they are dulled in depression and the effects can be seen within the same individual over time as he/she suffers from manic/depressive episodes.

The latest study to add to this literature is by Bubl et al that found that depressive people’s brain registered lesser contrast than that registered by normal control brains when presented with same black and white images. They used pattern electroretinogram (PERG) to find whether the contrast gains registered by depressive retinas (those suffering from MDD) were different from those of controls and they found a strong and significant association with the severity of the depression.

I have covered earlier studies that found that sense of taste was compromised in depression (and enhanced in mania) and similarly that the sense of smell showed similar effects. Some snippets from the earlier posts:

What this means is that if you increase the amount of serotonin in the brain, then the capacity to detect sweet and bitter tastes is increased; if you increase noradrenaline levels those of detecting salty and bitter tastes is augmented; while a general increase in anxiety leads to better bitter taste detection. This also means that an anxiety state produces more bitter taste perception whereas a depressive state (characterized by low serotonin) is marked by bland sense of taste with marked inability to detect sweet and bitter tastes. A stressed state , marked by abundance of noradrenaline, would however lead to more salty and bitter taste perception.


In one of my earlier post on depression, I had commented on the fact that those suffering from depression have less sensitivity to sweet and bitter tastes and as such may compensate by eating more sugar thus leading to the well documented diabetes – depression linkage.

In a new study it has just been discovered that not only depressives have bland sense of taste, their sense of smell is also diminished and they may make compensations by using greater amounts of perfume. Overall it seems that those suffering from depression will have bland subjective experience of flavor(which is a combination of both smell and taste) and thus may even not really find what they eat to be tasty.

Further on, I speculate prophetically that blander vision will also be found:

To me, this is an important finding. To my knowledge no research has been done in other sense modalities (like vision), but there is every reason to think that we may discover a bland sense of vision in depression. Why do I surmise so? this is because there is extensive literature available regarding the manic state and how things seem ‘vivid’ during that state including visual vividness. If depression is the converse of Mania, it follows that a corresponding blandness of vision should also be observed in those who are clinically depressed.

We also know that in extreme or psychotic forms of Mania, auditory hallucinations may arise. I am not suggesting that hallucinations are equal to vividness, but I would definitely love to see studies determining whether the auditory sense is heightened in Mania (maybe more absolute pitch perception in Mania) and a corresponding loss of auditory absolute pitch perception in depression. If so found, it may happen that music literally becomes subdued for people with depression and they sort of do not hear the music present in everyday life!

Whether other sense like touch, vestibular/ kinesthetic , proprioception (a heightened sense of which may give rise to eerie out-pf-body experiences in Mania) are also diminished in depression is another area where research may be fruitful.

Of course I have also speculated about the others senses and would love to hear studies supporting/contradicting this thesis. But given that senses are attenuated in depression and exaggerated in mania the question remains why? Which brings me to the topic of this post- why is the world bleak /bland to a depressive and vivid for a manic?

This was also the question asked by Mark Changizi (@Mark_Changizi) on twitter with respect to this new study uncovered today and I replied that this may be due to broaden-and-build theory being applied to sensory domain or sensory gating phenomenon differentially acting in manic/ depressive states, while Mark was of the opinion that it might be the result of physiological arousal with arousal being the variable of interest controlling whether the sense remain acute or dull?

I do not see the two views necessarily contradictory and it may be that chronic affect per se activates arousal and that is the mediating variable involved in its effect on senses; and we can design experiments to resolve this by measuring the effect of state sadness/ happiness/arousal on visual acuity (if the effects of state manipulations are big enough); howsoever, I woudl like to elaborate on my broaden and build theory.

In the cognitive, psychological and psychosocial domains the broaden and build theory of positive affect is more or less clearly elaborated and delineated. I wish to extend this to the sensory domain. I propose that chronic positive affect signals to our bodies/brains that we can afford to make our attention more diffuse, let senses be perceived more vividly as we have more resources available to process incoming data; conversely in a chronic low affect state we might like to conserve resources by narrowing focus/ literally narrowing the range of sensory inputs/reducing the sensitivity of sense organs and pool those resources elsewhere.

I know this is just a hypothesis , but I am pretty convinced and would love to hear the results of experiments anyone conducts around this theory.
Bubl, E., Kern, E., Ebert, D., Bach, M., & Tebartz van Elst, L. (2010). Seeing Gray When Feeling Blue? Depression Can Be Measured in the Eye of the Diseased Biological Psychiatry, 68 (2), 205-208 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.02.009

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How Mood and felt Energy are related to thought variability and speed

There is a recent article by Pronin and Jacobs, on the relationship between mood, thought speed and experience of ‘mental motion’ that builds up on their previous work.

Let us see how they describe thought speed and variability and what their hypothesis is:

1. The principle of thought speed. Fast thinking, which involves many thoughts per unit time, generally produces positive affect. Slow thinking, which involves few thoughts per unit time, generally produces less positive affect. At the extremes of thought speed, racing thoughts can elicit feelings of mania, and sluggish thoughts can elicit feelings of depression.

2. The principle of thought variability. Varied thinking generally produces positive affect, whereas repetitive thinking generally produces negative affect. This principle is derived in part from the speed principle: when thoughts are repetitive, thought speed (thoughts per unit time) diminishes. At its extremes, repetitive thinking can elicit feelings of depression (or anxiety), and varied thinking can elicit feelings of mania (or reverie).

Let me clarify at the outset that they are aware of the effects of though speed on variability and vice versa; as well as the effects of mood on felt energy and vice versa; thus they know that one can confound the other. Another angle they consider is the relationship between thought speed/variability i.e the form of thought and the contents of thought (whether having emotional salience or neutral) and investigated whether the effects of speed and variability were confounded with though content; they found negative evidence for this inetrcationist view.

Let me also clarify that I differ slightly (based on my interpreation of their data) from their original hypothesis, in the sense that I believe that their data shows that speed affects felt energy and variability affects affect and that the effects of speed on mood may be mediated by the effect of speed on felt energy and similarly the effect of variability on felt energy may be mediated by its effects on mood.

Thus my claim is that:

  1. Thought speed leads to more felt energy. Extremes of ‘racing thoughts’ leads to the manic feeling of being very energetic (when accompanied with positive mood, this may give rise to feelings of grandiosity- I have the energy to achieve anything), while also may lead to anxiety states (when accompanied with negative affect) in which one cannot really suppress a negative chain of thoughts – one following the other in fast succession, regarding the object of ones anxiety. The counterpart to this the state where thoughts come slowly (writer’s block etc) and when accompanied with negative affect, this can easily be viewed as depression.
  2. Thought variability leads to more positive affect: Extremes of ‘tangential thoughts’ leads to the manic feeling of being in a good mood (when accompanied with high energy , this manifest as feelings of euphoria); while the same tangential thoughts when accompanied by low felt energy may actually be felt as serenity/ calmness/ reverie. The counterpart to this is the state of thoughts that are stuck in a rut – when accompanied with low energy this leads to feelings of depression and sadness.

Thus, to put simply : there are two dimensions one needs to take care of – mood (thought variability) x energy (thought speed) and high and low extremes on these dimensions are all opposites of their counterpart.

Before we move on, I’ll let the authors present their other two claims too:

3. The combination principle. Fast, varied thinking prompts elation; slow, repetitive thinking prompts dejection. When speed and variability oppose each other, such that one is low and the other high, individuals’ affective experience will depend on factors including which one of the two factors is more extreme. The psychological state elicited by such combinations can vary apart from its valence, as shown in Figure 1. For example, repetitive thinking can elicit feelings of anxiety rather than depression if that repetitive thinking is rapid. Notably, anxious states generally are more energetic than depressive states. Moreover, just as fast-moving physical objects possess more energy than do identical slower objects, fast thinking involves more energy (e.g., greater wakefulness, arousal, and feelings of energy) than does slow thinking.

4. The content independence principle. Effects of thought speed and variability are independent of the specific nature of thought content. Powerful affective states such as depression and anxiety have been traced to irrational and dysfunctional cognitions (e.g., Beck, 1976). According to the independence principle, effects of mental motion on mood do not require any particular type of thought content.

They review a number of factors and studies that all point to a causal link between thought speed and energy and between thought variability and mood. More importantly they show the independent effects of though speed and variability from the effects of thought content on mood. I’ll not go into the details of the studies and experiments they performed, as their article is available freely online and one can read for oneself (it makes for excellent reading); suffice it to say that I believe they are on the right track and have evidence to back their claims.

What are the implications of this:

The speed and repetition of thoughts, we suggest, could be manipulated in order to alter and alleviate some of the mood and energy symptoms of mental disorders. The slow and repetitive aspects of depressive thinking, for example, seem to contribute to the disorder’s affective symptoms (e.g., Ianzito et al., 1974; Judd et al., 1994; Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991; Philipp et al., 1991; Segerstrom et al., 2000). Thus, techniques that are effective in speeding cognition and in breaking the cycle of repetitive thought may be useful in improving the mood and energy levels of depressed patients. The potential of this sort of treatment is suggested by Pronin and Wegner’s (2006) study, in which speeding participants’ cognitions led to improved mood and energy, even when those cognitions were negative, self-referential, and decidedly depressing. It also is suggested by Gortner et al.’s (2006) finding that an expressive writing manipulation that decreased rumination (even while inducing thoughts about an upsetting experience) rendered recurrent depression less likely.

There also is some evidence suggesting that speeding up even low-level cognition may improve mood in clinically depressed patients. In one experiment, Teasdale and Rezin (1978) instructed depressed participants to repeat aloud one of four letters of the alphabet (A, B, C, or D) presented in random order every 1, 2, or 4 s. They found that those participants required to repeat the letters at the fastest rate experienced the most reduction in depressed mood. Similar techniques could be tested for the treatment of other mental illnesses. For example, manipulations might be designed to decrease the mental motion of manic patients, perhaps by introducing repetitive and slow cognitive stimuli. Or, in the case of anxiety disorders, it would be worthwhile to test interventions aimed at inducing slow and varied thought (as opposed to the fast and repetitive thought characteristic of anxiety). The potential effectiveness of such interventions is supported by the fact that mindfulness meditation, which involves slow but varied thinking, can lessen anxiety, stress, and arousal.

 hat tip: Ulterior Motives
Pronin, E., & Jacobs, E. (2008). Thought Speed, Mood, and the Experience of Mental Motion Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3 (6), 461-485 DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-6924.2008.00091.x
Pronin, E., & Wegner, D. (2006). Manic Thinking: Independent Effects of Thought Speed and Thought Content on Mood Psychological Science, 17 (9), 807-813 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01786.x

Low Mood and Risk Aversion: a poor State outcome?

Daniel Nettle, writes an article in Journal Of Theoretical Biology about the evolution of low mood states. Before I get to his central thesis, let us review what he reviews:

Low mood describes a temporary emotional and physiological state in humans, typically characterised by fatigue, loss of motivation and interest, anhedonia (loss of pleasure in previously pleasurable activities), pessimism about future actions, locomotor retardation, and other symptoms such as crying.

This paper focuses on a central triad of symptoms which are common across many types of low mood, namely anhedonia, fatigue and pessimism. Theorists have argued that, whereas their opposites facilitate novel and risky behavioural projects. These symptoms function to reduce risk-taking. They do this, proximately, by making the potential payoffs seem insufficiently rewarding (anhedonia), the energy required seem too great (fatigue), or the probability of success seem insufficiently high (pessimism). An evolutionary hypothesis for why low mood has these features, then, is that is adaptive to avoid risky behaviours when one is in a relatively poor current state, since one would not be able to bear the costs of unsuccessful risky endeavors at such times .

I would like to pause here and note how he has beautifully summed up the low mood symptoms and key features; taking liberty to define using my own framework of Value X Expectancy and distinction between cognitive(‘wanting’) and behavioral (‘liking’) side of things :

  • Anhedonia: behavioral inability to feel rewarded by previously pleasurable activities. Loss of ‘liking’ following the act. Less behavioral Value assigned.
  • Loss of motivation and interest: cognitive inability to look forward to or value previously desired activities. Loss of ‘wanting’ prior to the act. Less cognitive Value assigned.
  • Fatigue: behavioral inability to feel that one can achieve the desired outcome due to feelings that one does not have sufficient energy to carry the act to success. Less behavioral Expectancy assigned.
  • Pessimism: cognitive inability to look forward to or expect good things about the future or that good outcomes are possible. Less cognitive Expectancy assigned.

The reverse conglomeration is found in high mood- High wanting and liking, high energy and outlook. Thus, I agree with Nettle fully that low mood and high mood are defined by these opposed features and also that these features of low and high mood are powerful proximate mechanisms that determine the risk proneness of the individual: by subjectively manipulating the Value and Expectancy associated with an outcome, the high and low mood mediate the risk proneness that an organism would display while assigning a utility to the action. Thus, it is fairly settled: if ultimate goal is to increase risk-prone behavior than the organism should use the proximate mechanism of high mood; if the ultimate goal is to avoid risky behavior, then the organism should display low mood which would proximately help it avoid risky behavior.

Now let me talk about Nettle’s central thesis. It has been previously proposed in literature that low mood (and thus risk-aversion) is due to being in a poor state wherein one can avoid energy expenditure (and thus worsening of situation) by assuming a low profile. Nettle plays the devil’s advocate and argues that an exactly opposite argument can be made that the organism in a poor state needs to indulge in high risk (and high energy) activities to get out of the poor state. Thus, there is no a prior reason as to why one explanation may be more sound than the other. To find out when exactly high risk behavior pay off and when exactly low risk behaviors are more optimal, he develops a model and uses some elementary mathematics to derive some conclusions. He, of course , bases his model on a Preventive focus, whereby the organism tries to minimize getting in a state R , which is sub-threshold. He allows the S(t) to be maximized under the constraint that one does not lose sight of R. I’ll not go into the mathematics, but the results are simple. When there is a lot of difference between R (dreaded state) and S (current state), then the organism adopts a risky behavioral profile. when the R and S are close, he maintains low risk behavior, however when he is in dire circumstances (R and S are very close) then risk proneness again rises to dramatic levels. To quote:

The model predicts that individuals in a good state will be prepared to take relatively large risks, but as their state deteriorates, the maximum riskiness of behaviour that they will choose declines until they become highly risk-averse. However, when their state becomes dire, there is a predicted abrupt shift towards being totally risk-prone. The switch to risk-proneness at the dire end of the state continuum is akin to that found near the point of starvation in the original optimal foraging model from which the current one is derived (Stephens, 1981). The graded shift towards greater preferred risk with improving state is novel to this model, and stems from the stipulation that if the probability of falling into the danger zone in the next time step is minimal, then the potential gain in S at the next time step should be maximised. However, a somewhat similar pattern of risk proneness in a very poor state, risk aversion in an intermediate state, and some risk proneness in a better state, is seen in an optimal-foraging model where the organism has not just to avoid the threshold of starvation, but also to try to attain the threshold of reproduction (McNamara et al., 1991). Thus, the qualitative pattern of results may emerge quite generally from models using different assumptions.

Nettle, then extrapolates the clinical significance from this by proposing that ‘agitated’ / ‘excited’ depression can be explained as when the organism is in dire straits and has thus become risk-prone. He also uses a similar logic for dysphoric mania although I don’t buy that. However, I agree that euphoric mania may just be the other extreme of high mood and more risk proneness and goal achievements; while depression the normal extreme of low mood and adverse circumstances and risk aversion. To me this model ties up certain things we know about life circumstances and the risk profile and mood tone of people and contributes to deepening our understanding.
Nettle, D. (2009). An evolutionary model of low mood states Journal of Theoretical Biology, 257 (1), 100-103 DOI: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2008.10.033

The bipolar phenotype: Excessive self-regulatory focus?

In my last post I had hinted that bipolar mania and depression may both be characterized by an excessive and overactive self-regulatory focus: with promotion focus being related to Mania and prevention focus being related to depression. It is important to pause and note that the bipolar propensity is towards more self-referential goal-directed activity resulting in excessive use of self-regulatory focus. To clarify, I am sticking my neck out and claiming that depression is marked by an excessive obsession with self-oriented goal directed activities- but with a preventive focus thus focusing more on self’s responsibilities and duties , obligations etc with respect to other near and dear ones. Mania on the other hand, also has excessive self-oriented goal-directed focus, but the focus is promotional with obsession with hopes, aspirations etc, which are relatively more inward-focused and not too much dependent on significant others.

Thus, my characterization of depression as a state where regulatory reference is negative (one is focused on avoiding landing up in a negative end-state like being a burden on others), the regulatory anticipation is negative ( one anticipates pain as a result of almost any act one may perform and thus dreads day-to-day- activity) and the regulatory focus is negative (preventive focus whereby one is more concerned with duties and obligations to perform and security is a paramount need). The entire depressive syndrome can be summed up as an over activity of avoidance based mechanisms. However, please note that still there is an excess of self-referential/self-focused thinking and one is greatly motivated (although might be lacking energy) to bridge the differences between the real self and the ‘ought’ self. One can say that one’s whole life revolves around trying to become the ‘ought’ self, or rather one conceptualizes oneself in terms of the ‘ought’ self.

Contrast this with Mania, where the regulatory reference is positive (one is focused on achieving something grandiose ) , regulatory anticipation is positive (one feels in control and believes that only good things can happen to the self) and regulatory focus is positive (promotional focus whereby one is more concerned with hopes, aspirations etc and growth / actualization needs). Still, juts like in depression there is an excess of focus on self and one is greatly motivated (and also has the energy) to bridge the difference between the real and the ‘ideal’ self. One can say that one’s whole life revolves around trying to become the ‘ideal’ self , or rather one conceptualizes oneslef in terms of an ‘ideal’ self.

What can we predict from above: we know that brain’s default network is involved in self-focused thoughts and ruminations. We can predict, and know for a fact, that the default network is overactive in schizophrenics (and thus by extension in bipolars who I believe have the same underlying pathology, at least as far as psychotic spectrum is concerned)and thus we can say with confidence that indeed the regulatory focus should be high for bipolars and this should be correlated with default network activity. We can also predict that during the Manic phase, the promotion focus related neural network should be more active and in depressive phase the prevention-related areas of the brain should be more active. this last hypothesis still needs experimentation, but lets backtrack a bit and first look at the neural correlates of the promotion and preventive regulatory self-focus.

For this, I refer the readers to an , in my view, important study that tried to dissociate the medial PFC and PCC activity (both of which belong to the default network) while people engaged in self-reflection. Here is the abstract of the study:

Motivationally significant agendas guide perception, thought and behaviour, helping one to define a ‘self’ and to regulate interactions with the environment. To investigate neural correlates of thinking about such agendas, we asked participants to think about their hopes and aspirations (promotion focus) or their duties and obligations (prevention focus) during functional magnetic resonance imaging and compared these self-reflection conditions with a distraction condition in which participants thought about non-self-relevant items. Self-reflection resulted in greater activity than distraction in dorsomedial frontal/anterior cingulate cortex and posterior cingulate cortex/precuneus, consistent with previous findings of activity in these areas during self-relevant thought. For additional medial areas, we report new evidence of a double dissociation of function between medial prefrontal/anterior cingulate cortex, which showed relatively greater activity to thinking about hopes and aspirations, and posterior cingulate cortex/precuneus, which showed relatively greater activity to thinking about duties and obligations. One possibility is that activity in medial prefrontal cortex is associated with instrumental or agentic self-reflection, whereas posterior medial cortex is associated with experiential self-reflection. Another, not necessarily mutually exclusive, possibility is that medial prefrontal cortex is associated with a more inward-directed focus, while posterior cingulate is associated with a more outward-directed, social or contextual focus.

The authors then touch upon something similar to what I have said above, that one can be too much planful or goal-directed (bipolar propensity) , but it would still make sense to find whether the focus is promotional or preventive. To quote:

The idea of variation in individuals’ regulatory focus highlights the difference between agendas and traits; two people could both be described by the trait ‘planful’, but planful about what? A person with a predominantly promotion focus would be more likely to be planful about attaining positive rewards or outcomes, while a person with a predominantly prevention focus would be more likely to be planful about avoiding negative events or outcomes. Although a promotion or prevention focus may dominate, the aspects of the self that are active change dynamically across situations (e.g. Markus and Wurf, 1987), thus most individuals have both promotion and prevention agendas. For example, the same person can hold both the hope of becoming rich (a promotion agenda) and the duty to support an aging parent (a prevention agenda), or the aspiration to be a good citizen and the obligation to be a well-informed voter. As individuals, hopes and aspirations and duties and obligations make up a large part of our mental life and constitute the motivational scaffolding for much of our behaviour.

Now comes the study design:

The present studies investigated neural activity when participants were asked to think about self-relevant agendas related to either a promotion (think about your hopes and aspirations) or prevention (think about your duties and obligations) focus. We compared neural activity associated with thinking about these two different types of self-relevant agendas and with thinking about non-self-relevant topics (distraction). We expected greater activity in anterior and/or posterior medial regions associated with these two self-reflection conditions compared with the distraction control condition because thinking about one’s agendas, like thinking about one’s traits, is self-referential. Such a finding would also be consistent, for example, with Luu and Tucker’s (2004) proposal that both anterior cingulate and posterior cingulate cortex contribute to action regulation by representing goals and expectancies.

And this is what they found:

A double dissociation was found when participants were cued to think about promotion and prevention agendas on different trials for the first time during scanning (Experiment 2) and when they spent several minutes thinking about either promotion or prevention agendas before scanning (Experiment 1), indicating that it results from what participants are thinking about during the scan and not from some general effect (e.g. mood) carried over from the pre-scan period of self-reflection,

Here is what they discuss:

In short, the double dissociation between medial PFC and anterior/inferior medial posterior areas and our two self-reflection conditions indicates that these brain areas serve somewhat different functions during self-focus. There are a number of interesting possibilities that remain to be sorted out. Differential activity in these anterior medial and posterior medial regions as a function of the types of agendas participants were asked to think about could reflect: (i) differences in the representational content in the specific features of agendas, schemas, possible selves and so forth that constitute hopes and aspirations on the one hand and duties and obligations on the other (cf. Luu and Tucker, 2004); (ii) differences in the type(s) of component processes these agendas are likely to engage and/or the representational content they are likely to activate, for example, discovering new possibilities (hopes) vs retrieving episodic memories (e.g. Maddock et al., 2001) of past commitments (duties); (iii) differences in affective significance of hopes and aspirations (attaining the positive) and duties and obligations (avoiding the negative, Higgins, 1997; 1998); (iv) different aspects of the subjective experience of self, such as the subjective experience of control (an instrumental self) vs the subjective experience of awareness (an experiential self; Johnson, 1991; Johnson and Reeder, 1997; compare, e.g. Searle, 1992 and Weiskrantz, 1997, vs Shallice, 1978 and Umilta, 1988); (v) differences in the social significance of hopes and aspirations (more individual) and duties and obligations (involving others). This last possibility is suggested by findings linking the posterior cingulate with taking the perspective of another (Jackson et al., 2006). It may be that thinking about duties and obligations (a more outward focus) tends to involve more perspective-taking than does thinking about hopes and aspirations (a more inward focus). The greater number of mental/emotional references from the promotion group on the pre-scan essay and the tendency for a greater number of references to others from the prevention group are consistent with the hypothesis that medial PFC activity is associated with a more inward focus whereas posterior cingulate/precuneus activity is associated with a more outward, social focus. Clarifying the basis of the similarities and differences between neural activation associated with thinking about hopes and aspirations vs duties and obligations would begin to help differentiate the relative roles of brain regions in different types of self-reflective processing.

They do discuss clinical significance of their studies , but not in terms I would have loved to. I would like to see, whether there is state/trait hyperactivity and dissociation between the mPFC and PCC activation when the variable of depressive episode or manic episode subject is introduced. I’ll place my bets that there would be an interaction between the type of episode and the over activity in the corresponding default-brain regions; but would like to see that data collected.

So my thesis is that the self-reflective and focused default network is overactive in biploar/psychotic spectrum people, but a bias or tilt towards promotion or preventive focus leads to their recurring and periodic episdoes of mania and depression.

Lastly let me touch upon affect in these state and what Higgins had to say about this in his paper covered yesterday. Higgins proposed that bipolar is due to a promotional focus, with mania induced when there is not much mismatch (or awareness of mismatch) between the ideal and real self; while depression or sadness and melancholia induced when one becomes aware of the discrepancy between the ideal and the real self. He proposes that ‘ought’ and real self discrepancy leads to anxiety and nervousness/ agitation; while a preventive focus and congruency between ‘ought’ and real leads to calmness/quiescence.

I disagree with his formulations, in as much as I differentiate between a regulatory focus and the corresponding awareness of discrepancies in that direction. To Higgins they are the same; if someone has a promotional focus , he would also be more aware of the discrepancies between his ideal and real self and thus be saddened. I disagree. I believe that if one has a promotional focus one is driven by goals to make the resl self as close to the ideal self as possible and if one is not able to do so, one would use defense mechanisms to delude oneself , but will not admit to its reality, as the reality of incongruence along the focused dimension is too painful. However, because on is consciously focused on promotions, one would be aware of trade-offs and will acknowledge to himself that his ‘ought’ self, which anyway is not too important for his self-concept, is not congruent to the real self. Thus, one wit a predominant promotion focus may be painfully aware of the discrepancy between his ‘ought’ and real self and thus might be nervous, agitated/ irritable- all symptoms of Mania.

A depressive person on the other hand has a predominant preventive focus and all actions/ ruminations are driven by responsibilities and obligations. Here acknowledging to oneself that one has failed in meeting obligations may be catastrophic so one will try to delude oneself that one is closer to the ‘ought’ self than is the case. However, one may not require any defense mechanisms when judging the discrepancy between the ‘ideal’ and real self as that ‘ideal’ self is no longer a matter of life and death! One would be aware that one is not focusing too much on hopes and aspirations and thus feel despondent/ sad/ melancholic – again classical symptoms of depression. Yet, despite the affect of sadness, all rumination would be focused on ‘ought’ self and thus the content be of guilt, duties, burden, responsibilities, etc.

I’m sure there is some grain of truth in my formulation, but wont be able to state emphatically unless the above proposed dissociation study involving default region and bipolar people is done. If one of you decide to do that, do let me know the results, even if they contradict the thesis.
Johnson, M. (2006). Dissociating medial frontal and posterior cingulate activity during self-reflection Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 1 (1), 56-64 DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsl004
Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain American Psychologist (52), 1280-1300

Beyond pleasure and pain: promotion, prevention, desire and dread.

The hedonic principle says that we are motivated to approach pleasure and avoid pain. This, as per Higgins is too simplistic a formulation. He supplants this with his concepts of regulatory focus, regulatory anticipation and regulatory reference. That is too much of jargon for a single post, but let us see if we can make sense.

First, let us conceptualize a desired end-state that an organism wants to be in- say eating food and satisfying hunger. This desired end-state becomes the current goal of the organism and leads to gold-directed behavior. Now, it is proposed that given this desired end-state, the organism has two ways to go about achieving or moving towards the end-state. If the organism has promotion or achievement self-regulation focus, then it will be more sensitive to whether the positive outcome is achieved or not and will thus have an approach orientation whereby it would try to match his next state to the desired state or try approaching the desired end-sate as close as possible. On the other hand, if the organism has a prevention or safety self-regulation focus, then it will be more sensitive to the negative outcome as to whether it becomes worse off after the behavior and will have an avoidance orientation whereby it would try to minimize the mismatch between his next state and the desired state. Thus given n next states with different food availability , the person with promotion focus will choose a next state that is as close, say within a particular threshold, to the desired state of satiety ; while the person with the prevention focus will be driven by avoiding all the sates that have a sub-threshold food availability and are thus mis-matched with the end-goal of satiety. thus, the number and actual states which are available for choosing form are different for the two groups: the first set is derived from whether the states are within a particular range of the end-state; the second set is derived from excluding all the states that are not within a particular range of the end-state. Put this way it is easy to see, that these strategies of promotion or prevention focus, place different cognitive and computational demands: the former requires explortation/ maximizing, the other may be satisfied by satisficing. (see my earlier post on exploration/ exploitation and satisficers / maximisers where I believe I was slightly mistaken).

Now, that I have explained in simple terms (hopefully) the concepts of self-regulatory focus, let me quote from the article and show how Higgins arrives at the same.

The theory of self-regulatory focus begins by assuming that the hedonic principle should operate differently when serving fundamentally different needs, such as the distinct survival needs of nurturance (e.g., nourishment) and security (e.g., protection). Human survival requires adaptation to the surrounding environment, especially the social environment (see Buss, 1996). To obtain the nurturance and security that children need to survive, children must establish and maintain relationships with caretakers who provide them with nurturance and security by supporting, encouraging, protecting, and defending them (see Bowlby, 1969, 1973). To make these relationships work, children must learn how their appearance and behaviors influence caretakers’ responses to them (see Bowlby, 1969; Cooley, 1902/1964; Mead, 1934; Sullivan, 1953). As the hedonic principle suggests,children must learn how to behave in order to approach pleasure and avoid pain. But what is learned about regulating pleasure and pain can be different for nurturance and security needs. Regulatory-focus theory proposes that nurturance-related regulation and security-related regulation differ in regulatory focus. Nurturance-related regulation involves a promotion focus, whereas security related regulation involves a prevention focus.
People are motivated to approach desired end-states, which could be either promotion-focus aspirations and accomplishments or prevention-focus responsibilities and safety. But within this general approach toward desired end-states, regulatory focus can induce either approach or avoidance strategic inclinations. Because a promotion focus involves a sensitivity to positive outcomes (their presence and absence), an inclination to approach matches to desired end-states is the natural strategy for promotion self-regulation. In contrast, because a prevention focus involves a sensitivity to negative outcomes (their absence and presence), an inclination to avoid mismatches to desired end-states is the natural strategy for prevention self-regulation (see Higgins, Roney, Crowe, & Hymes, 1994).

Figure 1 (not shown here, go read the article for the figure) summarizes the different sets of psychological variables discussed thus far that have distinct relations to promotion focus and prevention focus (as well as some variables to be discussed later). On the input side (the left side of Figure 1), nurturance needs, strong ideals, and situations involving gain-nongain induce a promotion focus, whereas security needs, strong oughts, and situations involving nonloss-loss induce a prevention focus. On the output side (the right side of Figure 1), a promotion focus yields sensitivity to the presence or absence of positive outcomes and approach as strategic means, whereas a prevention focus yields sensitivity to the absence or presence of negative outcomes and avoidance
as strategic means.

Higgins then goes on describing many experiments that support this differential regulations focus and how that is different from pleasure-pain valence based approaches. He also discusses the regulatory focus in terms of signal detection theory and here it is important to note that promotion focus leads to leaning towards (being biased towards) increasing Hits and reducing Misses ; while prevention focus means leaning more towards increasing correct rejections and reducing or minimizing false alarms. Thus,a promotion focus individual is driven by finding correct answers and minimizing errors of omission; while a preventive focused person is driven by avoiding incorrect answers and minimizing errors of commission. In Higgin’s words:

Individuals in a promotion focus, who are strategically inclined to approach matches to desired end-states, should be eager to attain advancement and gains. In contrast, individuals in a prevention focus, who are strategically inclined to avoid mismatches to desired end-states, should be vigilant to insure safety and nonlosses. One would expect this difference in self-regulatory state to be related to differences in strategic tendencies. In signal detection terms (e.g., Tanner & Swets, 1954; see also Trope & Liberman, 1996), individuals in a state of eagerness from a promotion focus should want, especially, to accomplish hits and to avoid errors of omission or misses (i.e., a loss of accomplishment). In contrast, individuals in a state of vigilance from a prevention focus should want, especially, to attain correct rejections and to avoid errors of commission or false alarms (i.e., making a mistake). Therefore, the strategic tendencies in a promotion focus should be to insure hits and insure against errors of omission, whereas in a prevention focus, they should be to insure correct rejections and insure against errors of commission .

He next discusses Expectancy x Value effects in utility research. Basically , whenever one tries to decide between two or more alternative actions/ outcomes, one tries to find the utility of a particular decision/ behavioral act based on both the value and expectance of the outcome. Value means how desirable or undesirable (i.e what value is attached) that outcome is to that person. Expectancy means how probable it is that the contemplated action (that one is deciding to do) would lead to the outcome. By way of an example: If I am hungry, I want to eat food. Lets say there are two actions or decisions that have different utility that can lead to my hunger reduction. The first involves begging for food from the shopkeeper; the second involves stealing the food from the shopkeeper. The first may be having positive value (begging might not be that embarrassing) , but low expectancy (the shopkeeper is miserly and unsympathetic) ; while the second act may have negative value (I believe that stealing is wrong and would like to avoid that act) but high expectancy (I am sure I’ll be able to steal the food and fulfill my hunger). the utility I impart to the two acts may determine what act I eventually decide to indulge in.

Higgins touches on research that showed that Expectancy X value have a multiplicative effect i.e as expectancy increases, and value increases the motivation to take that decision/ course of action increases non-linearly. He clarifies that this interaction effect is seen in promotion focus , but not in preventive focus:

Expectancy-value models of motivation assume not only that expectancy and value have an impact on goal commitment as independent variables but also that they combine multiplicatively (Lewin, Dembo, Festinger, & Sears, 1944; Tolman, 1955; Vroom, 1964; for a review, see Feather, 1982). The multiplicative assumption is that as either expectancy or value increases, the impact of the other variable on commitment increases. For example, it is assumed that the effect on goal commitment of higher likelihood of goal attainment is greater for goals of higher value. This assumption reflects the notion that the goal commitment involves a motivation to maximize the product of value and expectancy, as is evident in a positive interactive effect of value and expectancy. This maximization prediction is compatible with the hedonic or pleasure principle because it suggests that people are motivated to attain as much pleasure as possible.
Despite the almost universal belief in the positive interactive effect of value and expectancy, not all studies have found this effect empirically (see Shah & Higgins, 1997b). Shah and Higgins proposed that differences in the regulatory focus of decision makers might underlie the inconsistent findings in the literature. They suggested that making a decision with a promotion focus is more likely to involve the motivation to maximize the product of value and expectancy. A promotion focus on goals as accomplishments should induce an approach-matches strategic inclination to pursue highly valued goals with the highest expected utility, which maximizes Value × Expectancy. Thus, the positive interactive effect of value and expectancy assumed by classic expectancy-value models should increase as promotion focus increases.
But what about a prevention focus? A prevention focus on goals as security or safety should induce an avoid-mismatches strategic inclination to avoid all unnecessary risks by striving to meet only responsibilities that are clearly necessary. This strategic inclination creates a different interactive relation between value and expectancy. As the value of a prevention goal increases, the goal becomes a necessity, like the moral duties of the Ten Commandments or the safety of one’s child. When a goal becomes a necessity, one must do whatever one can to attain it, regardless of the ease or likelihood of goal attainment. That is, expectancy information becomes less relevant as a prevention goal becomes more like a necessity. With prevention goals, motivation would still generally increase when the likelihood of goal attainment is higher, but this increase would be smaller for high-value goals (i.e., necessities) than low-value goals. Thus, the second prediction was that the positive interactive effect of value and expectancy assumed by classic expectancy value models would not be found as prevention focus increased. Specifically, as prevention focus increases, the interactive effect of value and expectancy should be negative.

And that is exactly what they found! the paper touches on many other corroborating readers and the interested reader can go to the source for more. Here I will now focus on his concepts of regulatory expectancy and regulatory reference.

Regulatory Reference is the tendency to be either driven by positive and desired end-states as a reference end-point and a goal; or to be driven by negative and undesired end-states as goals that are most prominent. For example, eating food is a desirable end-state; while being eaten by others is a undesired end-sate. now an organism may be driven by the end-sate of ‘getting food’ and thus would be regulating approach behavior of how to go about getting food. It is important to contrast this with regulatory focus; while searching for food, it may have promotion orientation focusing on matching the end state; or may have prevention focus i.e avoiding states that don’t contain food; but it is still driven by a ‘positive’ or desired end-state. On the other hand, when the regulatory reference is a negative or undesirable end-state like ‘becoming food’, then avoidance behavior is regulated i.e. behavior is driven by avoiding the end-state. Thus, any state that keeps one away from ‘being eaten’ is the one that is desired; this may involve promotion focus as in approaching states that are opposite of the undesired state and provide safety from predator; or it may have a prevention focus as in avoiding states that can lead one closer to the undesired end-state. In words of Higgins:

Inspired by these latter models in particular, Carver and Scheier (1981, 1990) drew an especially clear distinction between self-regulatory systems that have positive versus negative reference values. A self-regulatory system with a positive reference value has a desired end state as the reference point. The system is discrepancy reducing and involves attempts to move one’s (represented) current self-state as close as possible to the desired end-state. In contrast, a self-regulatory system with a negative reference value has an undesired end-state as the reference point. This system is discrepancy-amplifying and involves attempts to move the current self-state as far away as possible from the undesired end-state.

To me Regulatory Reference is similar to Value associated with a utility decision and determines whether when we are choosing between different actions/ goals , the end-states or goals have a positive connotation or a negative connotation.

That brings us to Regulatory anticipation: that is the now well-known Desire/ dread functionality of dopamine mediated brain regions that are involved in anticipation of pleasure and pain and drive behavior. This anticipation of pleasure or pain is driven by our Expectancies of how our actions will yield the desired/undesired outcomes and can be treated as the equivalent to Expectancy in the Utility decisions. The combination of independent factors of regulatory reference and regulatory anticipation will drive what end-state or goal is activated to be the next target for the organism. Once activated, its tendencies towards promotion focus or prevention focus would determine how it strategically uses approach/ avoidance mechanisms to archive that goal or move towards the end-state. Let us also look at regulatory anticipation as described by higgins:

Freud (1920/1950) described motivation as a “hedonism of the future.” In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Freud, 1920/1950), he postulated that people go beyond total control of the “id” that wants to maximize pleasure with immediate gratification to regulating as well in terms of the “ego” or reality principle that avoids punishments from norm violations. For Freud, then, behavior and other psychical activities were driven by anticipations of pleasure to be approached (wishes) and anticipations of pain to be avoided (fears). Lewin (1935) described how the “prospect” of reward or punishment is involved in children learning to produce or suppress, respectively, certain specific behaviors (see also Rotter, 1954). In the area of animal learning, Mowrer (1960) proposed that the fundamental principle underlying motivated learning was regulatory anticipation, specifically, approaching hoped-for desired end-states and avoiding feared undesired endstates. Atkinson’s (1964) personality model of achievement motivation also proposed a basic distinction between self-regulation in relation to “hope of success” versus “fear of failure.” Wicker, Wiehe, Hagen, and Brown (1994) extended this notion by suggesting that approaching a goal because one anticipates positive affect from attaining it should be distinguished from approaching a goal because one anticipates negative affect from not attaining it. In cognitive psychology, Kahneman and Tversky’s (1979) “prospect theory” distinguishes between mentally considering the possibility of experiencing pleasure (gains) versus the possibility of experiencing pain (losses).

Why I have been dwelling on this and how this fits into the larger framework: Wait for the next post, but the hint is that I believe that bipolar mania as well as depression is driven by too much goal-oriented activity- in mania the focus being promotion; while in depression the focus being preventive; Higgins does discuss mania and depression in his article, but my views differ and would require a new and separate blog post. Stay tuned!
Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain American Psychologist (52), 1280-1300

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