About one-fifth of the adult population in the United States experiences some kind of mood disorder, with about 6 percent of the population suffering from severe mood-related disorders. The most prevalent instances fall into one of two classes: depressive disorders or anxiety disorders. But why do some people develop depression during very stressful times while others develop anxiety disorder? The answer may lie in regulatory fit and regulatory engagement.
My work on motivational systems recognizes a distinction between the two different types of basic preferences that people exhibit when pursuing their goals, each corresponding with a distinct regulatory state.
People who tend to make decisions and pursue their goals in an eager way, seeking opportunities for advancement, operate in a promotion state. Promotion people are more likely to consider a number of courses of action and exercise a greater willingness to take risks. People who are motivated primarily by cultivating safety and security as they pursue goals operate in a prevention state; they are intently concerned with avoiding errors and less likely to consider a wide variety of options.
When a promotion person operates in an environment in which there is a lot of innovation and risk taking, her environment fits her regulatory state. If you put that same promotion person in an environment where most of her colleagues are vigilant and slow to take risks, she’ll have a hard time operating in the prevailing prevention state — it’s a nonfit for her promotional motivation system. Conversely, when a prevention person finds himself in an eager, risk-taking work culture, she’s in a nonfit environment. (You can read more about the underlying research and its management and marketing applications in Columbia Ideas at Work.)
Depression versus anxiety
I’ve long been interested in why some people fall into depression and others develop anxiety disorder. And I believe that the logic of the two regulatory states, prevention and promotion, can account for these two very different reactions to stress.
Depression and anxiety both represent failures in goal pursuit — depression is a failure in promotion pursuit, while anxiety is a failure in prevention pursuit. When life isn’t going well, people with a promotion focus become sad and discouraged; people with a prevention focus become anxious, tense and worried.
To more fully understand how the promotion and prevention regulatory states inform depression and anxiety, I’ve investigated the role that engagement plays in intensifying how we value the activities we take part in and the goals we pursue.
Engagement is a way of understanding value — how much people value an activity or goal. And engagement is directly related to intensity. Typically when someone’s engagement in an activity or in pursuit of a goal increases — under fit conditions — intensity increases. Sometimes obstacles to goals can make us engage even more intently in what we are doing — and as a result, a goal can become more highly valued; sometimes obstacles cause us to disengage in what we’re doing, and goals and rewards become devalued.
Under fit conditions, both motivational types are engaged. But promotional people decrease their engagement after failure, while prevention people increase their engagement after failure.
When people with a promotion focus fail, they become less eager, and become sad and discouraged. They are no longer enthusiastic — and that’s a nonfit for promotion, there is less of the eagerness that fits their system. The nonfit causes a promotional person to disengage, and that deintensifies all the positive things in life. Loss of interest in even the good things in life is the major symptom of depression.
Prevention is the exact opposite — when prevention-focused personalities fail in prevention, they become more vigilant, anxious and on guard than ever. In prevention, the increased vigilance fits their system — so they actually become more engaged, intensifying all the negative things in life. All the negatives become more negative — which is precisely the main symptom of generalized anxiety disorder.
This work represents the first time in psychology that there has been a theory for why depressed people lose interest in everything and why anxious people generalize their anxiety to everything: they are reacting differently to failures in their distinct regulatory states with respect to both regulatory fit and engagement, which deintensifies positives in one case and intensifies negatives in the other.
If failures in promotion and prevention do account for the two major symptoms of depression and anxiety and explain why they are different, what does that imply for treatment? Tim Strauman of Duke University and I have received a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to consider this question. Our hypothesis is that by increasing engagement for promotional personalities you can make life’s positives once more positive, and by decreasing engagement for prevention personalities you can deintensify the negatives. We intend to pursue new interventions in therapy that directly address the differences in engagement.
Photo credit: Yoel Ben-Avraham