One influential view is that vulnerability to major depressive disorder (MDD) is associated with a proneness to experience negative emotions in general. In contrast, blame attribution theories emphasise the importance of blaming oneself rather than others for negative events. Our previous exploratory study provided support for the attributional hypothesis that patients with remitted MDD show no overall bias towards negative emotions, but a selective bias towards emotions entailing self-blame relative to emotions that entail blaming others. More specifically, we found a decreased proneness for contempt/disgust towards others relative to oneself (i.e. self-contempt bias). Here, we report a definitive test of the competing general negative versus specific attributional bias theories of MDD.
We compared a medication-free remitted MDD (n = 101) and a control group (n = 70) with no family or personal history of MDD on a previously validated experimental test of moral emotions. The task measures proneness to specific emotions associated with different types of self-blame (guilt, shame, self-contempt/disgust, self-indignation/anger) and blame of others (other-indignation/anger, other-contempt/disgust) whilst controlling for the intensity of unpleasantness.
We confirmed the hypothesis that patients with MDD exhibit an increased self-contempt bias with a reduction in contempt/disgust towards others. Furthermore, they also showed a decreased proneness for indignation/anger towards others.
This corroborates the prediction that vulnerability to MDD is associated with an imbalance of specific self- and other-blaming emotions rather than a general increase in negative emotions. This has important implications for neurocognitive models and calls for novel focussed interventions to rebalance blame in MDD.