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Appetitive and Aversive Motivation in Depression

Appetitive and Aversive Motivation in Depression

The constructs of appetitive and aversive motivation are central to behavioral theories of depression. Depression is viewed as associated with the activation of aversive motivation and/or a disruption of appetitive motivation, and the greater emphasis is on the disruption of appetitive motivation. Indeed, disruption of appetitive motivation is a common feature of almost all behavioral theories of depression. Similarly, in the cognitive theories of Beck  and Abramson and her colleagues, the depressed patient is seen as having developed expectations that reward-seeking will be ineffective (hopelessness). Bereavement, the prototype for reactive depressions, causes a reduction in, or absence of, both rewards and cues for rewards. A primary anhedonia—an inability to experience pleasure or to respond to rewards—is postulated by the more biological approaches. In still other theories, activation of aversive motivation is said to disrupt or inhibit appetitive motivation. Note that in many of these theories aversive motivation is relevant to depression primarily in sofar as it inhibits or disrupts appetitive motivation, because the loss of appetitive motivation is what distinguishes depression from anxiety. This view is supported by findings based on self-report inventories, in which high negative affect is associated with both anxiety and depression, but only depression is associated with the absence of positive affect. Taking a more cognitive approach, Clark, Beck, & Stewart found that anxious patients expressed more fear of punishment in the form of thoughts of anticipated harm and danger, whereas depressed patients showed more concern about an inability to obtain rewards as indicated by hopelessness and more negative thoughts involving loss and past failure. The depressed patients expressed certainty (a ‘‘knowing’’ mode) about these events, whereas the anxious patients were apprehensive about what might happen (a ‘‘questioning’’ mode).

The application of Gray’s theory organizes these theoretical approaches along the following lines. In the extinction model, any event that interferes with reward-seeking behavior (e.g., loss events, failures, or disabilities) places the person on extinction, initially creating negative affect (frustrative nonreward) as a result of disconfirmed positive expectations. To the extent that this interference is perceived as enduring—either by an evaluation of the initial event or resulting from experience with continued trials—expectancies change in the direction of seeing one’s behavior as ineffective (hopelessness as proposed by the cognitive theories). As these expectancies change in a negative direction from helplessness (uncertainty) to hopelessness (certainty), the aversive motivational reaction diminishes (there are no longer positive expectations to be frustrated) and is replaced by the failure to activate appetitive motivation. In the approach–avoidance conflict model, reward motivation is blocked by aversive motivation in the form of fears of response-contingent punishment for making the appetitive response itself or for failure to perform successfully. If the person is strongly tempted to make the appetitive response, the aversive state of fear or anxiety will predominate.

However, if the person comes to feel that the cost of such responding is unacceptably high and gives up, then hopelessness will prevail, appetitive behavior will be abandoned (a dominance of passive avoidance), and the anxiety will diminish (there is no threat in the absence of a response). In one well-documented phenomenon, anxiety disorders precede major depression rather than the reverse; this is interpreted in this context as an anxiety-induced shift from approach–avoidance conflict to a dominance of passive avoidance and the accompanying hopelessness. In the uncontrollable punishment model (e.g., an abused child, a battered wife, or a humiliated employee), avoidance responses are unsuccessful, leading to a state of hopelessness. In this case, however, aversive motivation will continue to be strong because of the continuing threat of punishment.

Not infrequently, uncontrollable punishment will be mixed with one of the other models. For example, a young widow with several children, little education, and few financial resources may be exposed to numerous threats of punishment, as well as with the loss of rewards previously associated with her husband. It is also important to note that the reciprocal antagonism between the appetitive and aversive motivational systems means that they are not completely independent. Activation of either system will tend to inhibit the other to some extent, and inactivation of either system will tend to disinhibit the other. Thus, even with a depression whose primary etiology involves inactivating appetitive motivation, there may be an increase in aversive motivation as well. Consequently, aversive motivation may increase as a primary etiological factor and also as a secondary consequence of the disruption of appetitive motivation that contributes to the common finding that anxiety is frequently seen in depression The amount of aversive motivation will depend on the strength of the person’s aversive motivational system (disinhibiting a weak system will not result in much anxiety) and on the strength of the environmental cues for punishment and frustrative nonreward.

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