Success/failure condition influences attribution of control, negative affect, and shame among patients with depression in Singapore

14 October, 2019

The World Health Organization designates the 10th of October as World Mental Health Day with the aim of educating people on mental health issues, and allowing stakeholders tackling such issues to share their work with the public.

Not only is it important to increase awareness of mental health issues, it is also paramount to understand the factors that can cause, alleviate, or prevent them. Research on this can be found in ‘Success/failure condition influences attribution of control, negative affect, and shame among patients with depression in Singapore’ (BMC Psychiatry, 2017) by Professor Catherine Tang, Associate Professor Eddie Tong (both from NUS Psychology), and their co-authors.

Patients with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and healthy individuals for a control group were recruited for the study. They were asked to fill out the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) questionnaire where they were to indicate to what extent (from 1 – very slightly or not at all to 5 – extremely) they were experiencing each emotion listed in the PANAS. This was used to measure their existing negative affects, such as shame.

The participants were then randomly assigned to the success or failure condition. A digit-string was flashed on the screen for three seconds and participants were given 20 seconds to write down what they could remember. Five digits were given for the success condition and 12 were given for the failure condition. Regardless of their performance, the participants in the success condition were told that they passed the test, while those in the failure condition were told that they failed. They were then asked to complete the PANAS again.

The authors discovered that as is similarly the case in other cultures, Asian (Singaporean) patients with depression blamed themselves for their poor performance in the failure condition but were hesitant to attribute their success to their own ability in the success condition. They further found out that depressed patients assigned to the success condition did not experience a reduction in their negative feelings and shame. Finally, the study revealed that Asians (Singaporeans) have an inclination to share responsibility across both success and failure conditions by attributing their success or failure to external factors that either help or hinder them. This can be due to the more collectivist culture in Asian countries such as Singapore.

This research is crucial as there are a dearth of studies on control attribution and depression in Asia. It also has clinical implications in the realm of reattribution training, which helps patients to situate themselves and understand what is within or outside their personal control. This training assists patients in reattributing their causes of failure, where in the past they may have attributed these causes solely to their personal lack of effort or ability.

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