Negativity Bias Continues After Patients Recover From MDD

Patients with remitted major depressive disorder (MDD) appear to have more difficulty with the cognitive control of negative than positive information, according to study results published in the Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical Science.

“Our findings suggest that people who have a history of depression spend more time processing negative information, such as sad faces, than positive information, such as happy faces, and that this difference is greater compared to healthy people with no history,” said study lead author Alainna Wen, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at the Anxiety and Depression Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Because more negative thinking and mood and less positive thinking and mood are characteristic of depression, this could mean that these individuals are at a greater risk for having another depressive episode.”

The finding stems from a meta-analysis of 44 studies that included 2081 participants with remitted MDD and 2285 healthy control participants. The studies looked at participant response times to negative, positive, and neutral stimuli. For example, some studies may have directed participants to push certain buttons when shown happy, sad, and neutral faces. Others may have focused on participants’ responses to positive, negative, and neutral words.

Response times to negative and positive stimuli were faster for healthy participants compared with participants with remitted MDD, according to the findings. However, participants with remitted MDD spent more time processing negative than positive stimuli compared with controls, “indicating,” researchers wrote, “greater difficulty controlling irrelevant negative (versus positive) stimuli in remitted MDD.”

Overall, the results suggest people with remitted MDD are not only less able to control the information they process, but they also demonstrate a bias for focusing on negative over positive, or even neutral, information, according to Dr Wen.

“The current findings have implications for the treatment of depression,” Dr Wen said. “Focusing on reducing the processing of negative information alone may not be sufficient to prevent depression relapse. Instead, patients may also benefit from strategies to increase the processing of positive information.”



Wen A, Fischer ER, Watson D, Yoon KL. Biased cognitive control of emotional information in remitted depression: a meta-analytic review. J Psychopathol Clin Sci. Published online August 21, 2023. doi:10.1037/abn0000848

Formerly depressed patients continue to focus on negative. News release. American Psychological Association (APA); August 17, 2023. Accessed September 22, 2023.