Andrew Mathews & Colin
MacLeod talks with ScienceWatch.com and answers a
few questions about this month's New Hot Paper in the field
Article Title: Cognitive vulnerability to emotional
Authors: Mathews, A;MacLeod, C
Journal: ANNU REV CLIN PSYCHOL
* MRC, Cognit & Brain Sci Unit, Cambridge,
* MRC, Cognit & Brain Sci Unit, Cambridge,
* Univ Western Australia, Sch Psychol, Crawley, WA,
Why do you think your paper is highly
The high citation rate likely reflects two main factors. First, it reviews
recent research linking clinical disorders with experimental cognitive
psychology, and so may be of interest to workers in both areas. Second, it
has theoretical and applied implications: for new explanations of emotional
disorders, based on biases in basic cognitive processes such as attention
and interpretation; and for new approaches to treatment by changing these
Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or
synthesis of knowledge?
This paper is a review article of recent research discoveries and methods,
but its principal contribution is to synthesize this knowledge. We reviewed
findings on selective attention, interpretation, inhibitory control, and
associative memory that have been used in previous attempts to explain
specific emotional problems and bring them together to provide an overall
account of how selective processing biases may cause and/or maintain
Would you summarize the significance of your paper
in layman's terms?
Emotional states such as depression and anxiety are accompanied by
particular ways of thinking and seeing the world (e.g. whether your glass
is half full or empty). Some psychiatrists, such as Aaron Beck, of the
University of Pennsylvania, have long argued that negative ways of thinking
actually cause emotional disorders.
This paper reviews recent research evidence that biases in how information
is processed in the brain—biases of which we are not usually
aware—can influence what we attend to and how we interpret and
remember events, and thus influence both our thoughts and emotional state.
This evidence has implications for understanding why emotional problems
persist despite being unwanted, and for helping to improve them by
retraining these underlying biases in a more positive direction.
How did you become involved in this research, and
were there any problems along the way?
We have been close collaborators for 25 years, during which the
information-processing approach to emotional pathology has developed from a
relatively obscure area of specialist interest, to become a major research
focus for clinical and cognitive psychologists alike.
Andrew Mathews trained in clinical psychology before moving to more basic
research on cognitive aspects of anxiety and depression. Colin MacLeod
began as a cognitive researcher, before becoming interested in clinical
problems and cognitive aspects of emotion. We first came to work together
when Mathews recruited MacLeod to a research position in 1983. Despite our
subsequent independent relocation to different continents, we have
continued our collaboration.
Where do you see your research leading in the
At present, cognitive therapy for emotional disorders seeks to change
dysfunctional thinking patterns by having people consciously monitor their
styles of thinking, and deliberately changing them. Such approaches have
proven therapeutic value but they also have limitations. Not all thoughts
are amenable to deliberate control, and not all individuals are capable of
maintaining this control, especially when under stress.
An exciting aspect of our present work is the development of indirect
cognitive bias modification methods, designed to change styles of
information processing through extensive practice in simple tasks designed
to encourage automatic selection of more positive meanings. Using these
methods will allow investigation of many important questions about the
underlying mechanisms of emotional disorders, and the integration of
cognitive bias modification procedures into clinical practice.
Do you foresee any social or political implications
for your research?
Every year, around 12% of the population suffers from clinical depression
or anxiety. In addition to the distress they cause to individuals and their
families, these emotional disorders also incur significantly direct and
indirect economic costs, which exceed $65 billion per annum in the US
alone. Our research, together with the other work reviewed in this paper,
is intended to increase understanding of the causes of such disorders, and
to enhance their prevention and remediation, with attendant benefits to all
members of society.
Department of Psychology
University of California
Davis, CA, USA
Institute of Psychiatry
University of London
London, UK Web |
Colin MacLeod, BSc., MPhil., DPhil.
Professor of Psychology
School of Psychology
University of Western Australia
Crawley, WA Australia Web |
KEYWORDS: POSTTRAUMATIC-STRESS-DISORDER; GENERALIZED ANXIETY
DISORDER; IMPLICIT ASSOCIATION TEST; OVERGENERAL AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL
MEMORY; THREATENING FACIAL EXPRESSIONS; SELF-FOCUSED ATTENTION; SOCIAL
PHOBIA; PANIC DISORDER; SELECTIVE ATTENTION; THOUGHT SUPPRESSION.