Accepted cognitive models of mental disorders propose that anxious and depressed patients are characterized by a negatively skewed view of the world. They claim that ambiguous everyday situations such as an acquaintance who does not greet us are generally interpreted in a threatening, egocentric manner by people who suffer from anxiety or depression. Healthy people, on the other hand, are more “realistic” and keep other, less threatening interpretations in mind as well. The influential branch of cognitive psychotherapy is based on these ideas.
Two studies, one conducted in English and one in German, investigated whether people currently suffering from panic disorder, social phobia or depression show such an interpretive bias for negative meanings, and if so, if this bias is general or limited to disorder-specific concerns. Each study consisted of questionnaire and experimental sections where participants read ambiguous vignettes. Contrary to the predictions of cognitive models, the results indicated that patients suffering from anxiety and depression seem to lack the ability to disregard negative interpretations of ambiguous scenarios rather than displaying a negative interpretive bias. Thus the results support research on “positive illusions”: exaggerated beliefs in control and mastery play a protective role for mental and physical health. Cognitive models should be specified to include a) the possible self-referent nature of an interpretive bias (It is not general!), and b) the absence of a protective mechanism present in healthy controls that disregards negative interpretations as “unlikely.”