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A Habit-Goal Framework of Depressive Rumination



Rumination has been robustly implicated in the onset and maintenance of depression. However, despite empirically well-supported theories of the consequences of trait rumination (response styles theory; Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991), and of the processes underlying state episodes of goal-oriented repetitive thought (control theory; Martin & Tesser, 1989, 1996), the relationship between these theories remains unresolved. Further, less theoretical and clinical attention has been paid to the maintenance and treatment of trait depressive rumination. We propose that conceptualizing rumination as a mental habit (Hertel, 2004) helps to address these issues. Elaborating on this account, we propose a framework linking the response styles and control theories via a theoretical approach to the relationship between habits and goals (Wood & Neal, 2007). In this model, with repetition in the same context, episodes of self-focused repetitive thought triggered by goal discrepancies can become habitual, through a process of automatic association between the behavioral response (i.e., repetitive thinking) and any context that occurs repeatedly with performance of the behavior (e.g., physical location, mood), and in which the repetitive thought is contingent on the stimulus context. When the contingent response involves a passive focus on negative content and abstract construal, the habit of depressive rumination is acquired. Such habitual rumination is cued by context independent of goals and is resistant to change. This habit framework has clear treatment implications and generates novel testable predictions. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2014 APA, all rights reserved).
A Habit-Goal Framework of Depressive Rumination
Edward R. Watkins
University of Exeter and University of Western Australia
Susan Nolen-Hoeksema
Yale University
Rumination has been robustly implicated in the onset and maintenance of depression. However, despite
empirically well-supported theories of the consequences of trait rumination (response styles theory;
Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991), and of the processes underlying state episodes of goal-oriented repetitive
thought (control theory; Martin & Tesser, 1989,1996), the relationship between these theories remains
unresolved. Further, less theoretical and clinical attention has been paid to the maintenance and treatment
of trait depressive rumination. We propose that conceptualizing rumination as a mental habit (Hertel,
2004) helps to address these issues. Elaborating on this account, we propose a framework linking the
response styles and control theories via a theoretical approach to the relationship between habits and
goals (Wood & Neal, 2007). In this model, with repetition in the same context, episodes of self-focused
repetitive thought triggered by goal discrepancies can become habitual, through a process of automatic
association between the behavioral response (i.e., repetitive thinking) and any context that occurs
repeatedly with performance of the behavior (e.g., physical location, mood), and in which the repetitive
thought is contingent on the stimulus context. When the contingent response involves a passive focus on
negative content and abstract construal, the habit of depressive rumination is acquired. Such habitual
rumination is cued by context independent of goals and is resistant to change. This habit framework has
clear treatment implications and generates novel testable predictions.
Keywords: rumination, control theory, response styles, goal, habit
Depressive rumination is the tendency to repetitively analyze
oneself and one’s problems, concerns, and feelings of distress and
depressed mood (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991;Watkins, 2008). Pro-
spective longitudinal and experimental studies have implicated
depressive rumination in the onset and maintenance of symptoms
and diagnosis of major depression (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2000;
Nolen-Hoeksema, Wisco, & Lyubomirsky, 2008;Watkins, 2008),
as well as anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and substance/
alcohol abuse, leading to the hypothesis that it is a transdiagnostic
pathological process (Harvey, Watkins, Mansell, & Shafran, 2004;
Ehring & Watkins, 2008;Nolen-Hoeksema & Watkins, 2011).
The principal theory concerning depressive rumination is the
response styles theory (RST; Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991), which hy-
pothesizes that depressive rumination is a stable, enduring, and
habitual trait-like tendency to engage in repetitive self-focus in
response to depressed mood (see Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 2008).
RST argues that depressive rumination leads to depression by
enhancing negative mood-congruent thinking, impairing problem
solving, and interfering with instrumental behavior, with these
mechanisms confirmed in experimental studies (Nolen-Hoeksema,
1991;Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 2008).
A distinct alternative view of rumination is provided by
control theory accounts, which define it as “a class of conscious
thoughts that revolve around a common instrumental theme and
that recur in the absence of immediate environmental demands
requiring the thoughts” (Martin & Tesser, 1996, p. 7). This account
explains the conditions leading to state episodes of ruminative
thought. It hypothesizes that state rumination is initiated by, and
focused on, a perceived discrepancy between one’s goals and one’s
current state and continues until the goal is either attained or
abandoned (Martin & Tesser, 1989,1996). Unlike RST, this ac-
count encompasses both normal and constructive versus abnormal
and unconstructive forms of repetitive thought: Goal-oriented ru-
mination can be helpful if focus on the unresolved goal facilitates
progress, but unhelpful if it only serves to increase salience of the
discrepancy. Consistent findings confirm that unattained person-
ally important goals predict repetitive thought in real-world studies
(see Watkins, 2008).
Watkins (2008) examined what processes determine whether
repetitive thought has unconstructive versus constructive conse-
quences. During rumination, negative thought content, negative
context (e.g., negative mood), and abstract-evaluative thinking
focused on the meaning and implications of negative events (e.g.,
asking “Why?”) relative to concrete thinking, focused on the
details, process, and context of negative events (e.g., asking
“How?”), contribute to unconstructive outcomes. In control theory,
goals, events, and actions can be represented at different levels of
abstraction within a hierarchy ranging from abstract representa-
tions capturing their decontextualized gist and characterizing why
they occurred or are performed, down to concrete representations
of their contextual and situational details characterizing how they
occurred or are to be performed. Effective self-regulation requires
Edward R. Watkins, Mood Disorders Centre, School of Psychology,
University of Exeter, Exeter, United Kingdom, and School of Psychology,
University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia; Susan Nolen-Hoeksema,
Department of Psychology, Yale University.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Edward R.
Watkins, Sir Henry Wellcome Building for Mood Disorders Research, University
of Exeter, Perth, Australia, EX4 4GG. E-mail:
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Journal of Abnormal Psychology © 2014 American Psychological Association
2014, Vol. 123, No. 1, 24–34 0021-843X/14/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0035540
flexible movement through the hierarchy to match circumstances.
Overly abstract processing of negative information was hypothe-
sized and found to be unhelpful because it increases the personal
importance of events and exacerbates emotional reactivity (Wat-
kins, Moberly, & Moulds, 2008) and impairs problem-solving by
limiting the availability of detailed alternative plans (Watkins &
Moulds, 2005). This elaborated control theory account (Watkins,
2008) provides a partial reconciliation between RST and control
theory because it identifies abstract-evaluative thinking focused on
negative content as pathological, consistent with the RST charac-
terization of depressive rumination as focusing on the causes and
implications of depressive mood.
Despite the successes of these theories, key questions such as
“What are the developmental antecedents of individual differences
in rumination?” and “What makes it so difficult to break free of
rumination once it has begun?” remain unanswered (Nolen-
Hoeksema et al., 2008, p. 418). Moreover, the relationship be-
tween state episodes of goal-oriented repetitive thought and the trait
tendency toward depressive rumination is unresolved. Are they sepa-
rate and distinct processes? Or do some individuals transition from
state episodes of goal-oriented rumination into more habitual de-
pressive rumination?
A major but relatively unelaborated implication within RST is
that depressive rumination is a habitual cognitive response to
negative mood (Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 2008). We propose that
more explicitly considering rumination as a mental habit (see
Hertel, 2004) has value in generating potential insights and testable
hypotheses relevant to these issues. Habits are behaviors that are
performed frequently in stable contexts (Ji & Wood, 2007). In
classical conditioning and learning theory (e.g., Hull, 1943), habits
are learned behavioral responses to situational cues that have
become established through a history of systematic repetition and
reinforcement. A stimulus–response (S-R) habit is learnt when a
particular behavioral response is contingent on the stimulus (Dick-
inson, 1985;Mackintosh, 1983;Rescorla & Wagner, 1972). For
example, with overtraining or training with interval schedules of
reward contingency, animals learn to perform a response habitu-
ally to set cues, even when the reward is devalued, for example, by
making animals mildly ill with a lithium chloride injection after
consuming sucrose pellets (Dickinson, 1985).
Wood and Neal (2007, p. 843) defined habits as “learned dis-
positions to repeat past responses. They are triggered by features of
the context that have covaried frequently with past performance,
including performance locations, preceding actions in a sequence,
and particular people.” Habitual behavior typically involves some
automaticity (Verplanken, 2006;Verplanken & Orbell, 2003;
Wood, Tam, & Witt, 2005). A behavior can be conceptualized as
automatic on several distinct dimensions: lack of conscious aware-
ness, not requiring extensive resources to be performed (e.g.,
performed equally well under cognitive load vs. not under load),
lack of control, and lack of conscious intent (Bargh, 1994). Ver-
planken, Friborg, Wang, Trafimow, and Woolf (2007, p. 526)
proposed that a habit is “a behavior that has a history of repetition,
is characterized by a lack of awareness and conscious intent, is
mentally efficient, and is sometimes difficult to control.”
As a response that occurs frequently, unintentionally, and repet-
itively to the same emotional context (depressed mood), depressive
rumination fulfils all of these conceptualizations of habit. Its gold
standard measure, the Response Styles Questionnaire (Nolen-
Hoeksema & Morrow, 1991), assesses the frequency of repeated
ruminative behaviors in response to the stable internal context of
feeling sad, down, or depressed. Depressive ruminators report that
rumination occurs without conscious intent, and that they are
unable to control it (Watkins & Baracaia, 2001). A self-reported
index of habitual negative thinking capturing frequency, lack of
conscious awareness, lack of conscious intent, mental efficiency,
and difficulty in control was positively correlated with both trait
and state rumination (Verplanken et al., 2007).
More explicitly, Hertel (2004) hypothesizes that rumination is a
habit of thought, noting that the initiation of an episode of rumi-
nation often occurs automatically, without conscious awareness or
effort. Hertel argues that impairments in cognitive control may
enable the emergence of such mental habits. Situations in which
stimulus and task dimensions do not inherently constrain and guide
attention (e.g., tasks with lax external control) afford habitual
rumination in patients with depression (Hertel, 1998), whereas
situations constrained to force participants to sustain attention on
particular task stimuli do not (Hertel & Rude, 1991). Outlining an
argument further developed here, Hertel (2004, p. 208) proposes
that “the best antidote to maladaptive habits is a new set of habits”
formed through repeated practice at more controlled responses.
In this article, we focus on analyzing depressive rumination as
a habit, consistent with Hertel (2004), while adding Wood and
Neal’s (2007) empirically supported theoretical framework. We
propose that applying this habit-goal framework provides a means
to understand the relationship between trait depressive rumination
(RST) and goal-oriented state repetitive thought (control theory),
helps to explain why rumination may be hard to change, and
suggests novel therapeutic implications and testable predictions.
A Habit-Goal Framework of Depressive Rumination
Wood and Neal (2007) argue that repeated performance of a
behavior in a consistent context can lead to the development of
habitual responding via (a) associative learning and (b) instrumen-
tal learning. They identify three interrelated principles that sum-
marize the development and performance of habits: (a) habits are
cued by context; (b) habit context–response associations are not
mediated by goals; and (c) because habits are acquired slowly with
experience, they are inherently conservative and tend to persist
even in the face of antagonistic current goals or intentional behav-
ior. These principles reflect properties within conditioning models
(Mackintosh, 1983;Rescorla & Wagner, 1972), in which (a) habits
are acquired when responses are contingent on stimulus contexts;
(b) S-R habit strength is not mediated by goals; (c) because habits
are acquired slowly, they extinguish or countercondition slowly.
We propose that these principles provide a useful framework to
consider how the consequences of habits may play out in depres-
sive rumination, with implications for understanding and treating
depressive rumination.
First Principle: Habits are Directly Cued by Context
as a Result of Frequent Covariation of the Behavior
With the Cueing Context
Wood and Neal (2007, p. 844) propose that “habits typically are
the residue of past goal pursuit: they arise when people repeatedly
use a particular behavioral means in particular contexts to pursue
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their goals.” Such context cues become automatic triggers for the
behavioral response, such that the behavior is controlled by the
presence or absence of the cue, rather than mediated by an implicit
or explicit goal. Thus, a goal-based response that occurs frequently
and contingently to a particular context could result in the devel-
opment of a habitual response to that context, consistent with
classic S-R theories of learning (Mackintosh, 1983). Context in-
cludes physical setting (e.g., bedroom), time of day, the people
(e.g., alone), behaviors performed prior to, and internal state (e.g.,
mood, fatigue; Ji & Wood, 2007), and any combination thereof in
which the behavior typically occurs.
The formation of associative links between the habitual re-
sponse and a potential cueing context requires the repeated coacti-
vation of the mental representations of both response and context,
as a consequence of contingent pairings between the response and
the cueing context across multiple episodes in the environment.
The learning of a habit (S-R association) requires the context and
the response to occur close together in time (temporal contiguity),
and for the potential habitual response (e.g., rumination) to be
contingent on the stimulus context. With repetition across multiple
episodes, incremental changes are hypothesized to occur in pro-
cedural memory, such that the common features of response and
context become learnt and encoded (Gupta & Cohen, 2002). Im-
portantly, multiple different behaviors occurring in a particular
context will weaken any reliable covariation and contingency
between any one particular habitual behavior and the contextual
cue: “The greater the numbers of behaviors linked to a given
context, the lesser the capacity for the context to cue any one
behavior directly” (Wood & Neal, 2007, p. 858).
Implications for depressive rumination. This habit-goal
framework suggests that depressive rumination will become a
habitual trait if state episodes of ruminative thought are contingent
on the context of negative mood, such that the negative mood state
becomes an automatic cue for ruminative thought. This account
provides a mechanism by which state episodes of repetitive
thought initiated by goal discrepancy (consistent with control
theory) can become habitual if such thinking is contingent on a
co-occurring context (negative affect; consistent with RST). With
respect to goal-discrepancy accounts of rumination (Martin &
Tesser, 1989,1996;Watkins, 2008), the identification of an unre-
solved goal (or of insufficient goal progress) can directly generate
repetitive thought as a function of increased priming and accessi-
bility of goal-relevant information, and the perseverance of goal-
related thoughts (Brunstein & Gollwitzer, 1996;Goschke & Kuhl,
1993;Martin & Tesser, 1989;Zeigarnik, 1938).
Control theory accounts (Carver & Scheier, 1982) and goal
models of emotion (Oatley & Johnson-Laird, 1987) also predict
that insufficient goal progress can generate negative affect (e.g.,
perceived loss of valued goal produces sadness). These dual effects
of unresolved goals afford the opportunity for sad mood (or other
mood states) to co-occur with repetitive thought, making it a
potential mechanism for developing habitual repetitive thought.
Building on Wood and Neal (2007), this goal-habit framework
suggests that habitual rumination can emerge as an unintended
residue of goal-oriented repetitive thought.
However, the repetitive thought produced by unresolved goals is
not necessarily pathological: As noted earlier, goal-oriented repet-
itive thought can be constructive (Watkins, 2008). Thus, the habit
of pathological depressive rumination would only develop under
conditions in which the form of state repetitive thought contingent
on a stable context (e.g., depressed mood) was predominantly
passive, negative, and abstract. If, over time, an individual used a
range of different behaviors (e.g., distraction, abstract thought) in
response to unresolved goals and associated negative mood, there
may be no distinct contingency between context and response, and
no particular habit would develop. Conversely, the repeated use of
concrete action-oriented thinking in the face of goal discrepancy
might buffer against the development of unhelpful rumination-as-
a-habit (Watkins, 2008), instead forming a helpful habit of prob-
lem solving to sad mood. Thus, the co-occurrence of episodes of
goal-discrepancy rumination and negative mood is insufficient to
result in trait depressive rumination, explaining why many people
can experience occasional episodes of negative rumination without
necessarily developing depressive-rumination-as-a-habit.
This habit-goal framework suggests hypotheses about the de-
velopmental antecedents of individual differences in depressive
rumination. The formation of habitual depressive rumination is
hypothesized to involve two background conditions: (a) environ-
ments and situations that generate repeated and frequent episodes
of goal-discrepancy repetitive thought contiguous and contingent
with negative mood (and other contextual cues, e.g., behavior of
others; locations), such as the experience of having hard-to-
abandon personally important goals chronically thwarted (e.g.,
chronic stress, abuse, or trauma); and (b) a restricted repertoire of
coping behaviors and/or reduced flexibility in selecting behaviors
within this repertoire, constraining individuals toward passive and
abstract responses, which increases the likelihood of unhelpful
episodes of repetitive thought becoming contingent to negative
To date, these background conditions have tended to be studied
in isolation. A novel prediction from this framework is that the
effect of one background condition on the formation of
rumination-as-a-habit will be moderated by the presence or ab-
sence of the other condition. Being in an ongoing difficult situation
will not necessarily lead to habitual depressive rumination: Ongo-
ing difficulties may lead to episodes of state rumination as a
normal and often adaptive response to unresolved goals, but this
will not result in habitual depressive rumination unless unhelpful
episodes of repetitive thought are contingent on the associated context
(e.g., sad mood), which will be facilitated by a reduced range of
coping options. Conversely, having a tendency toward abstract
processing or passive responses will not necessarily lead to habit-
ual depressive rumination, unless there are ongoing unresolved
goals that afford the opportunity for repeated episodes of repetitive
thought in a co-occurring context, leading to repetitive thought
being contingent on negative mood. Of course, some circum-
stances may simultaneously produce both conditions (e.g., neglect,
abuse), and are thus significant risk factors for habitual rumination.
Consistent with exposure to chronically unresolved goals acting
as a setting condition, trait depressive rumination is associated
with history of sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and assault, which
reflect situations in which major personal goals of safety, affilia-
tion, and sense-making tend to be chronically unresolved (e.g.,
Conway, Mendelson, Giannopoulos, Csank, & Holm, 2004;Spa-
c & Alloy, 2002). Further, ongoing chronic stress and re-
duced sense of mastery in women predicted increases in trait
rumination over time (Nolen-Hoeksema, Larson, & Grayson,
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This account hypothesizes that developmental circumstances
and socialization processes that encourage limited and passive
responding increase the likelihood of developing habitual rumina-
tion. Such circumstances include overcontrolling parenting, re-
duced positive reinforcement, and socialization into the stereotypi-
cally feminine gender role identity.
Operant conditioning approaches hypothesize that when active
responses repeatedly fail to receive sufficient positive reinforce-
ment, the contingency learnt is that there is no value in being
active, leading to a reduced behavioral repertoire and increased
passive responding (Ferster, 1973). Thus, any environment char-
acterized by reduced positive reinforcement is hypothesized to
engender the development of passive responding. Mothers who did
not explicitly encourage their 5- to 7-year-old children to try
different approaches, and who told the child what to do, had
children who become more helpless, passive, and poorer at active
problem solving when faced with an upsetting and frustrating
situation (Nolen-Hoeksema, Mumme, Wolfson, & Guskin, 1995).
Consistent with such parenting being associated with habitual
rumination, in a retrospective design, Spasojevi´
c and Alloy (2002)
found that undergraduates who reported overcontrolling parenting
during their childhood reported increased trait rumination, after
controlling for levels of psychopathology. Further, in a multiwave
prospective study, Gaté et al. (2013) found that laboratory obser-
vation of reduced positive maternal behavior (indexed by fre-
quency of happy, pleasant, or caring affect, and approving, vali-
dating, affectionate, or humorous statements) when discussing and
planning a pleasant event with the child at age 12 prospectively
predicted trait depressive rumination in the child at age 15, but
only in girls. Thus, fewer validating and caring responses from
mothers to daughters when jointly planning a pleasant event pre-
dicted later rumination. This gender effect is consistent with the
commonly found gender difference in the expression of rumina-
tion, with rumination more frequent in girls and women than boys
and men (Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 1999), with this gender differ-
ence emerging in early adolescence (ages 12 to 13; Jose & Brown,
This gender difference in rumination may partially reflect de-
velopmental differences in the socialization into gender role iden-
tities. The stereotypically feminine gender role identity emphasizes
greater focus on emotions and passivity. Therefore, socialization
into this gender role is hypothesized to increase the likelihood of
developing rumination-as-a-habit. Consistent with this, in a pro-
spective longitudinal study, Broderick and Korteland (2004) found
that 9- to 12-year-old schoolchildren strongly identifying with the
feminine role identity reported significantly more trait rumination
at follow-up, regardless of gender. Cox, Mezulis, and Hyde (2010)
found that greater feminine gender role identity among children at
age 11, and maternal encouragement of emotion expression in
response to the child completing a difficult math task, each sepa-
rately mediated the relationship between child gender and the
development of trait depressive rumination at age 15, after con-
trolling for trait rumination at age 11.
An abstract style of responding to difficulties is also implicated
in impaired problem solving and reduced action orientation (Wat-
kins, 2008). In healthy individuals, there appears to be flexibility
and contextual variability in the use of abstract versus concrete
processing, with individuals adopting abstract processing as a
default mode, particularly when in positive mood, but switching
toward concrete processing in response to difficulties and sad
mood (Beukeboom & Semin, 2005;Watkins, 2011). This flexibil-
ity in regulating processing mode to different contexts is hypoth-
esized to be functional, with concrete processing aiding problem
solving, and thus adaptive for difficult situations, whereas abstract
processing aids longer-term planning, generalization, and consis-
tency and stability of behavior toward long-term goals across time
and situations, and is thus adaptive when things are going well.
There are individual differences in the tendency and/or ability to
regulate processing mode to context, with depressed patients im-
paired at becoming more concrete in response to sad mood relative
to healthy controls (Watkins, 2011;Watkins, Moberly, & Moulds,
2011). We hypothesize that these individual differences influence
the formation of habitual depressive rumination: Impaired regula-
tion of processing mode reduces flexibility in responding and
increases the likelihood of episodes of repetitive thought being
unhelpful, providing circumstances for such thinking to become
contingent on low mood.
Such dysregulation of processing mode could reflect deficits in
cognitive control: Individuals with deficits in executive/inhibitory
control, either because of greater cognitive load or reduced cog-
nitive resources, may be impaired at effectively regulating pro-
cessing in response to situational demands (Watkins, 2011). Dys-
regulation of processing mode could also be the consequence of
past developmental learning and parenting style. Praising or crit-
icizing a child generically (i.e., as a person, “You are a good boy”),
rather than giving feedback on the specific process and concrete
behavior (e.g., “You came up with a good solution”), can lead
children to think in abstract trait terms (for both positive and
negative events), leading to helplessness in response to later mis-
takes (Cimpian, Arce, Markman, & Dweck, 2007;Kamins &
Dweck, 1999).
The hypothesized relationship between habitual depressive ru-
mination and a restricted coping repertoire is probably bidirec-
tional. As well as a reduced range of coping strategies increasing
the chance of episodes of unhelpful repetitive thought becoming
contingent on negative mood, habitual rumination may also reduce
flexibility in selecting coping strategies. Rumination mediates the
relationship between induced negative affect and working memory
capacity (Curci, Lanciano, Soleti, & Rimé, 2013) and causally
reduces central executive functioning (Watkins & Brown, 2002),
which are implicated in flexible responding.
Second Principle: Habit Context–Response
Associations Are Not Mediated by Goals
Wood and Neal (2007) suggest that the habitual response is then
activated by the perception of the cues in the context in which the
behavior has been repeatedly performed, such that the habit is
performed without mediation by a goal. Supporting this account,
contexts, but not goals, automatically trigger overt habit perfor-
mance (Ji & Wood, 2007;Neal, Wood, Labrecque, & Lally, 2012).
For strong habits, attitudes and intentions have limited predictive
power on behavior, whereas one index of habit strength (opera-
tionalized by combining frequency and stability of behavior to the
same context) predicts how much people repeat behavior, even in
the absence of an explicit supporting goal (Ji & Wood, 2007;Neal
et al., 2012;Ouellette & Wood, 1998).
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Implications for depressive rumination. The goal-habit
framework suggests that depressive rumination would be triggered
by the relevant cueing context (e.g., negative mood) in the absence
of a personally important unresolved goal or of an intention to
think about the related concern. The habit being directly cued by
context means that depressive rumination can occur without direct
intention and without effort. Once the habit is formed, rumination
can still occur even if the unresolved goals that originally triggered
episodes of state repetitive thought have been attained or aban-
doned. Moreover, negative mood states induced by processes other
than a perceived goal discrepancy, such as direct physical or
biological effects (e.g., effect of weather, pharmacological agent),
or direct responses to stimuli (e.g., empathic response to another’s
distress, watching a sad movie), could then trigger rumination,
extending the range of situations cueing this response.
This principle could be tested by adapting the methodologies
used by Ouellette and Wood (1998) and Neal et al. (2012) in which
habit strength, context, explicit goals, self-efficacy, attitudes, and
beliefs are examined as prospective predictors of the repeated
behavior (episodes of depressive rumination). Habit strength is
hypothesized to predict subsequent ruminative behavior, as as-
sessed by diary or experience sampling methods, over and above
motivational and belief variables.
Motivated cueing and instrumental learning. In addition to
associative learning, Wood and Neal (2007, p. 846) propose that
habit associations may also arise through a process in which the
reward value of response outcomes (e.g., positive affect from eating
popcorn) is conditioned onto context cues (e.g., movie theater) that
have historically accompanied the receipt of those rewards. This
analysis builds on instrumental learning theories in which habits
develop as organisms learn context–response associations in order to
obtain rewarding events.
In this process of motivated cueing, given sufficient repetitions,
the reward associated with a response is conditioned on the con-
textual cue, such that the cue then motivates the response by
activating a desire or urge toward the response as an opportunity to
acquire the associated reward.
Because depressive rumination has such clear negative conse-
quences, it is not obvious what potential reward value or instru-
mental function it may have. Nonetheless, motivated cueing could
potentially cement the strength of the habit if robust reinforcing
functions for rumination exist.
Rumination has been hypothesized to act as avoidance that is
negatively reinforced by reducing distress. Martell, Addis, and
Jacobson (2001, p. 121) proposed that “although rumination may
be experienced as aversive to the individual, it is possible that it is
maintained by the avoidance of even more aversive conditions.”
Rumination may put off overt action and avoid the risk of actual
failure and humiliation, or serve to avoid unwanted personal char-
acteristics (e.g., becoming selfish) through constant vigilance and
criticism of one’s performance. Nolen-Hoeksema et al. (2008)
hypothesized that rumination is reinforced by the reductions in
distress that come from withdrawing from aversive situations and
from being relieved of responsibility for outcomes. Although trait
rumination is correlated with avoidance (e.g., Giorgio et al., 2010),
this is not direct evidence that rumination has an avoidant function.
Rumination may also have perceived positive reward value as a
means to increase understanding and insight into self, feelings, and
problems, and to make sense of difficulties (Lyubomirsky &
Nolen-Hoeksema, 1993;Watkins & Baracaia, 2001). Believing
that rumination increases understanding predicts the maintenance
of trait rumination over 8 weeks prospectively (Kingston, Watkins,
& O’Mahen, 2013), while experimentally manipulating appraisals
that rumination is helpful versus unhelpful for understanding prob-
lems causally influenced state rumination occurring to a subse-
quent failure task (Kingston & Watkins, 2013).
However, there is no direct experimental evidence of whether
depressive rumination has any reinforcing qualities and whether
they consolidate it as a habit. Testing this functional hypothesis is
challenging: Each individual may have his or her own idiosyn-
cratic function(s) for rumination, making it hard to detect the
effects of manipulating rumination on functional outcomes within
standardized experimental conditions. Experimental studies also
need to ensure that the function under test is of value to the
participant. For example, there is no point in testing for an
avoidant function unless the study design exposes the participant
to a sufficiently negative experience that is meaningful and moti-
vating for the participant to avoid. Kingston, Watkins, and Nolen-
Hoeksema (2013) exposed undergraduates to the challenging sit-
uation of believing they had to be assertive to a friend or family
member about a difficult issue, before randomizing them to rumi-
nating about this situation versus thinking over the situation in a
nonruminative way, and assessed various indices of avoidance as
dependent variables. Consistent with Nolen-Hoeksema et al.’s
(2008) hypothesis, rumination increased justification for avoidance
by reducing sense of responsibility and increasing certainty that
efforts would be fruitless, relative to the control condition.
This design only tested whether manipulating rumination influ-
ences outcomes that enable inference about function. A necessary
further stage to test the functional hypothesis is to examine
whether such inferred functions increase the use of rumination.
One potential next step is to test whether individual differences in
the effect of manipulated rumination on justification for avoidance
prospectively predicts trait rumination.
Third Principle: Because Habits Are Acquired Slowly
With Experience, They Are Conservative and Do Not
Alter in Response to Current Goals or Infrequent
Counterhabitual Responses
Wood and Neal (2007, p. 844) argue that “habits arise from
context–response learning that is acquired slowly with experience.
As a result, habit dispositions do not alter in response to people’s
current goals or occasional counterhabitual responses. Thus, habits
possess conservative features that constrain their relation with
goals.” Hertel (2004, p. 208) noted that “habits of thought are
difficult to oppose.” Habits are insensitive and resistant to changes
in goals, outcomes, and intentions, including the devaluing of
outcomes (Dickinson, 1985).
Because control of a habitual behavior is outsourced directly to
those contextual cues that have been reliably paired with past
enactment of the behavior, habits are enacted and performed
without reference to goals or outcomes. Because a habitual behav-
ior is not especially sensitive to either outcomes or goals, it
continues to be performed even if it has unhelpful outcomes.
Further, because automatic cueing of behavior in response to
contextual cues is likely to be more immediately available and
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require less executive capacity than more deliberate and thoughtful
actions, it will tend to take precedence over intentional behaviors.
Thus, when in conflict with habits, goals have little impact on
actual behavior. Similarly, when goals are in concert with habits
and both dictate the same response, goals effectively become
Implications for depressive rumination. This analysis sug-
gests that once rumination becomes a habit, it will be hard to stop
even if new behavioral goals are adopted, even if it has negative
consequences, or even if the rumination is at odds with an indi-
vidual’s attitudes and intentions. This is consistent with the phe-
nomenological quality reported by patients of “not being able to
help” ruminating (Watkins & Baracaia, 2001). Intentions to stop
ruminating alone are unlikely to be successful and habitual rumi-
nation will be resistant to change. The goal-habit framework thus
provides a partial explanation of why patients find it so difficult to
break free of rumination once it has begun, even when they
recognize it has negative consequences.
Implications for the Treatment of
Depressive Rumination
This framework offers a fresh approach to considering interven-
tions for depressive rumination when allied with the literature on
successful habit change. It suggests, for the reasons noted thus far,
that interventions focused on changing individual’s beliefs, atti-
tudes, and intentions, and on providing new information, are
unlikely to be effective at changing habitual behaviors, as empir-
ically confirmed by Verplanken and Wood (2006) and Webb and
Sheeran (2006). Changing goals, persuasion, cognitive restructur-
ing, or psychoeducation is thus hypothesized to be less effective at
changing depressive rumination. Although trait rumination has not
been frequently examined in randomized controlled trials of psy-
chological interventions, the few extant studies suggest that rumi-
nation does not change significantly in response to cognitive–
behavioral therapy (CBT; Schmaling, Dimidjian, Katon, &
Sullivan, 2002) or that elevated rumination predicts worse out-
comes to CBT (Jones, Siegle, & Thase, 2008). We hypothesize
that the more rumination is a strong (vs. weak) habit, the harder it
will be for patients to stop, and the less successful information-
based interventions will be (Webb & Sheeran, 2006).
Instead, Wood and Neal (2007, p. 860) propose that “interven-
tions to maximize habit change provide people with concrete tools
for controlling habit cueing.” The current framework suggests that
habits can be broken by altering or avoiding exposure to the cues
that trigger habit performance (Verplanken & Wood, 2006). Re-
moving contextual cues could occur as a consequence of deliberate
attempts to control cue exposure, which may require ongoing and
sustained effortful control to identify and avoid relevant cues, or
from unplanned changes that occur naturally as a consequence of
life events, such as moving to a new house or changing jobs. Wood
et al. (2005) found that when the location or environment associ-
ated with a habitual behavior (e.g., TV watching) changed when
students transferred to a new university, the behavior became less
Hence, this framework suggests that one way to reduce depres-
sive rumination is to alter or reduce exposure to its triggering
context. When the cueing context for rumination involves a par-
ticular location (e.g., bedroom), person, preceding behavior (e.g.,
sitting down for a coffee after work), or environmental feature
(e.g., sad music), environmental modification to remove or avoid
the triggering context is hypothesized to interrupt depressive ru-
One context identified by Hertel (1998,2004) is situations that
lack external control over attention and that therefore afford mind
wandering. Habitual rumination is more likely to occur when the
current activity or task does not externally constrain attentional
focus. Habitual rumination will be triggered during tasks that are
open-ended, unstructured, and rely on self-control, and when an
individual has an “empty” unplanned period of time, such as lying
in bed doing nothing. Introducing more structure and constraints
into activities may change the context to reduce the triggering of
habitual rumination.
A long-term reduction in rumination is possible if contextual
cues can be permanently removed or consistently avoided. How-
ever, this strategy is dependent on individuals being able to accu-
rately identify cues for habits, requiring a detailed functional and
contextual analysis to determine the triggering cues for rumination,
although this may not always be successful. Consistent with this
hypothesis, an intervention incorporating functional analysis and
stimulus control (rumination-focused CBT, Watkins et al., 2007;
utilizing behavioral activation principles, Martell et al., 2001)
successfully reduced depression and rumination (Watkins et al.,
2011) in a randomized controlled trial. However, this treatment
had multiple components, and the effectiveness of stimulus control
has not been tested as a separate intervention. This framework
predicts that stimulus control alone will reduce trait depressive
rumination when there are identifiable environmental cues tracta-
ble to modification.
However, when the cueing context is an internal state, such as a
negative mood, as typical for depressive rumination, it is less
straightforward to permanently alter or avoid the context. This
framework predicts that reducing the negative mood would, at
least temporarily, reduce the enactment of the depressive rumina-
tion habit. This framework predicts that any intervention that
reduces negative mood, whether antidepressant medication, psy-
chotherapy, distraction, or change in circumstances, would reduce
the expression of habitual rumination by removing one cue that
triggers the ruminative habit. Consistent with this, self-reported
trait rumination reduces as acute symptoms of depression diminish
(Roberts, Gilboa, & Gotlib, 1998).
However, a key implication of this framework is that removing
the context does not change the context–response association
underlying the habit but only limits its expression. On any subse-
quent return of the triggering context, such as another period of sad
or depressed mood, the ruminative habit would reoccur. This
analysis therefore predicts that any interventions that improve
mood state will temporarily disrupt depressive rumination, but
only interventions that directly modify the context–response asso-
ciation will lead to long-standing reductions in depressive rumi-
nation and associated depressive vulnerability. In sum, improve-
ments in mood can temporarily reduce rumination by removing a
potential cue for the habit. However, because of their conservative
nature, habits are easily reactivated and do not change unless the
S-R association itself is counterconditioned.
This account can partially explain the high rates of relapse and
recurrence (50% to 80%) and the limited sustained recovery (less
than one third at 1 year) obtained for even our best interventions
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for depression (Hollon et al., 2002). We hypothesize that many
interventions for depression improve symptoms in the short term
through positive expectancy, remoralization, increased activation,
and therapist support, but because they do not directly target
depressogenic habits like rumination, they leave patients vulnera-
ble to relapse. A novel testable prediction is that posttreatment
measures indexing habit strength for rumination (and alternative
coping strategies) will better prospectively predict sustained re-
covery for depression than posttreatment beliefs, expectancies, and
symptoms. One such measure is the Self-Report Habit Index,
which measures the frequency and automaticity of behavior, has
good reliability and validity predicting actual habitual behavior
(Orbell & Verplanken, 2010;Verplanken & Orbell, 2003;Ver-
planken et al., 2007), and is adaptable for different behaviors.
This key implication suggests that directly targeting the auto-
matic context–response association will improve the efficacy and
durability of interventions for rumination and depression. Marteau,
Hollands, and Fletcher (2012) noted that most interventions aimed
at changing health-related behaviors target reflective processes
rather than automatic habits, and that this may explain the relative
inefficacy of these interventions. We propose that this analysis is
equally pertinent to improving mental health, because automatic
mental habits (e.g., rumination) are a central process within psy-
To be effective at modifying the context–response association,
and thereby reducing habitual rumination, the unhelpful rumina-
tive response to the cueing context needs to be replaced with a
more helpful response, with the patient in effect learning a new
more adaptive habit. This echoes Hertel’s (2004, p. 209) recom-
mendation toward “the training of new habits through practice in
control.” Changing these habits requires “counterconditioning or
training to associate the triggering cue with a response that is
incompatible and thereby conflicts with the unwanted habit”
(Wood & Neal, 2007, p. 859). Such an intervention involves
repeated practice at utilizing an alternative incompatible coping
strategy (e.g., concrete thinking, relaxation) in response to the
identified triggering contextual cue (e.g., sad mood) to develop the
new context–response association. Critically, this habit analysis
predicts that systematically counterconditioning alternative func-
tional responses to the cueing context for rumination will improve
prevention of relapse and recurrence, whether as a distinct acute
treatment or following successful acute treatment of depression.
This analysis suggests that traditional CBT approaches such as
thought challenging will not necessarily be effective at changing
habitual rumination. Successfully challenging a thought or belief
would not change the underlying S-R habit. However, thought
challenging could potentially be an effective intervention for ru-
mination if repetitively trained as an alternative coping skill in
response to cues for rumination.
By the same logic, cognitive bias modification (CBM) ap-
proaches used to change negative biases (Hertel & Mathews, 2011)
are likely to have value in reducing habitual rumination. CBM
typically involves the repeated training of desired responses; in-
corporates programmed contingencies between stimuli, responses,
and desirable outcomes (e.g., faster task performance); and is
assumed to involve the same associative and instrumental learning
processes as habit formation, and to work on processes that are
often outside conscious awareness. Thus, Hertel and Mathews
(2011, p. 528) argued that “in interpretation retraining, contingen-
cies between ambiguous situations and their preexperimental res-
olutions are, in effect, counterconditioned.” There is now initial
evidence supporting the assumption that CBM influences mental
habits: Hertel, Holmes, and Benbow (in press) used a variant of
Jacoby’s (1996) process dissociation approach to confirm that
interpretation bias training changed automatic, habitual processes
rather than controlled recollection. Further, there is growing evi-
dence that rumination is associated with biases in disengaging
attention from negative information (Koster, De Lissnyder, Derak-
shan, & De Raedt, 2011), abstract construal (Watkins, 2008), and
negative interpretative bias (Mor, Hertel, Ngo, Schachar, & Redak,
in press). CBM approaches therefore seem particularly pertinent to
changing mental habits. The effects of CBM may perhaps be
enhanced by training adaptive biases in response to contextual
cues for unwanted habits, with Hertel and Mathews (2011, p. 529)
arguing that “training should incorporate situational cues that
typically provoke the deployment of negative biases in real life.”
Practice may need to be more extensive than typically employed
in current psychological interventions. Lally, Van Jaarsveld, Potts,
and Wardle (2010) examined the development of habits for vol-
unteers practicing an eating, drinking, or exercise behavior daily in
the same context. Self-reported automaticity of the trained re-
sponse increased with repetition in the consistent context, but took
a median of 66 repetitions to reach a training plateau, with con-
siderable individual variation. Moreover, to ensure the required
cueing context (e.g., mood state) is active prior to practicing the
alternative response, treatment may require active attempts to
engineer the cueing context in therapy sessions, such as mood
challenges or in imago exposure to cues. Such challenges provide
an opportunity to test whether the habitual response to the cue has
changed. This framework suggests that assessing the habitual
nature of rumination and alternative coping strategies during ther-
apy has clinical value to determine whether a new habit has
successfully been trained. Practice and training would optimally
continue until the new adaptive habit reaches a self-reported as-
To our knowledge, there has only been one explicit attempt to
test repeated training of an alternative response to the contextual
cues for rumination as an intervention. Building on the evidence
that concrete processing is an adaptive alternative to depressive
rumination (Watkins, 2008), a proof-of-principle randomized con-
trolled trial found that training dysphoric individuals to be more
concrete when faced with difficulties reduced depression, anxiety,
and rumination relative to a no-treatment control (Watkins, Baey-
ens, & Read, 2009). Concreteness training is a form of CBM that
involves repeated practice at focusing on the specific details,
context, and sequence of difficult events, and asking “How the
event happened?” During the training, concrete thinking is explic-
itly used as a response to identified warning signs for rumination
and is practiced repeatedly with audio-recorded exercises.
In a Phase II randomized controlled trial, concreteness training
was found to be superior to treatment-as-usual in reducing rumi-
nation, worry, and depression in patients with major depression
recruited in primary care (Watkins et al., 2012). A control relax-
ation training condition, in which patients practiced progressive
relaxation as an alternative response to cues for rumination, also
significantly reduced depression relative to treatment-as-usual and
did not significantly differ from concreteness training. These re-
sults suggest that repeated training in any functional alternative
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response to rumination may be an effective intervention, consistent
with the current habit analysis.
Relative to relaxation training, concreteness training signifi-
cantly reduced trait rumination, suggesting that interposing a cog-
nitive alternative may be more effective at reducing habitual
rumination, perhaps because it facilitates adaptive repetitive
thought in place of maladaptive repetitive thought as an example
of transfer-appropriate processing (see Hertel & Mathews, 2011,
for full discussion). Moreover, consistent with the hypothesis that
concreteness training works through establishing an alternative
habitual response to replace rumination, the benefits of concrete-
ness training were significantly stronger in those patients who
reported that the practiced self-help response had become habitual
(Watkins et al., 2012).
This habit analysis has implications for the generalizability and
sustainability of clinical improvement. Several theorists (Bouton,
2000;Hertel & Mathews, 2011;Wood & Neal, 2007) have noted
that new patterns of associative learning (i.e., new functional S-R
associations) intended to replace older patterns of associations are
inherently unstable, enabling the original patterns of learning to
recur under certain circumstances. These recurrences occur be-
cause the original learning that underpins the unwanted habit
remains intact following counterconditioning or extinction, with
new learning overlaid on the original learning. In these circum-
stances, a conditioned cue (e.g., sad mood) is in the position of
potentially signaling two available cue–response associations (e.g.,
rumination vs. concrete thinking). Which association is predomi-
nant and which behavior it evokes will be determined by the
current occasion-setting context. If there are differences between
the setting contexts under which the original learning and subse-
quent counterconditioning occur, shifts back to the original setting
context can renew the original relationship and original contingen-
cies. A key implication of considering rumination-as-habit is that
despite conditioning of new responses, the old habitual response
can recur under particular circumstances, potentially leading to
relapse. Thus, even after successful counterconditioning of a new
habitual response to sad mood, there may be a lapse back into
rumination when the conditioned cue is encountered in a different
setting context.
Moreover, because the original unwanted habit typically results
from a large number of learning trials in which the triggering cue
and the habitual response were paired over many different settings
and situations, more setting contexts will be associated with the
original unwanted habit than the replacement habit, which may be
constrained to fewer contexts (e.g., the therapeutic setting). One
way to counter these renewal effects is to promote the retrieval of
the new learning (i.e., the new habit) through explicit retrieval cues
and reminders throughout and after the training (e.g., flashcards,
texts from therapist; Hertel & Mathews, 2011). Another approach
is to increase the generalization of the counterconditioning by
conducting the training across different and varied contexts (e.g.,
using multiple variants of the cueing context; pairing sad mood
with new response in different settings, such at home, at the office,
when alone, and with other people; see Hertel & Mathews, 2011,
for further detail).
In addition, the performance of unwanted habits becomes more
likely when individuals are under cognitive load, distracted, pre-
occupied, or stressed (Botvinick & Bylsma, 2005;Schwabe &
Wolf, 2011). We hypothesize that the habitual ruminative response
is more likely to be triggered under circumstances of stress, pres-
sure, or fatigue. The ruminative response is thus likely to be
hardest to stop at those times when individuals most need to stop
The habit literature suggests that a further way to control habit-
ual rumination is by “inhibiting the performance of the habitually
cued response once it has been activated” (Wood & Neal, 2007,p.
854). Quinn, Pascoe, Wood, and Neal (2010) provided evidence
from episode-sampling studies that vigilant monitoring (thinking
“don’t do it”; watching for slipups) was the best strategy for
self-control of strong habits in daily life, relative to do nothing,
stimulus control, and distraction. However, inhibition of habitual
behaviors requires the availability of sufficient levels of effortful
self-control: On days when students had a sustained load on
self-control, they were more likely to fail at overriding habitual
behaviors but not nonhabitual behaviors (Neal & Wood, 2007).
Moreover, self-control is a finite resource that is depleted follow-
ing effortful attempts to inhibit or control thoughts, feelings, and
actions (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000). It is likely to be reduced
in patients with depression (Joormann, 2010). This raises questions
over the long-term sustainability of effortful inhibition of strong
habits in daily life. Inhibition of habitual responses may most
usefully contribute to long-term change by interrupting a habitual
response to enable a new pattern of responding to be countercon-
Focusing on self-control and inhibition in habits is particularly
relevant to habitual rumination because difficulties in turning
attention away from negative stimuli are characteristic of rumina-
tion. It remains unresolved to what extent these difficulties reflect
difficulties in disengaging attention from negative material (Koster
et al., 2011) and/or difficulties in inhibiting no-longer-relevant
material (Joormann, 2006,2010). Consistent with the former,
habitual rumination is correlated with selective attentional bias
toward sad faces (Joormann, 2004;Joormann, Dkane, & Gotlib,
2006) and negative words (Donaldson, Lam, & Mathews, 2007),
although the causal direction of this relationship is not yet deter-
mined. Consistent with the latter, habitual rumination is correlated
with poor performance on inhibition-related tasks, including neg-
ative affective priming (e.g., Joormann, 2006) and suppression-
induced forgetting (Hertel & Gerstle, 2003), and with difficulties
in removing now-irrelevant information from working memory
(Joormann & Gotlib, 2008;Joormann, Levens, & Gotlib, 2011).
Interventions that strengthen inhibitory control or effortful self-
control may thus have potential to reduce the expression of habit-
ual rumination. There is preliminary evidence that it may be
possible to improve working memory capacity through repeated
training on cognitive tasks (e.g., Jaeggi, Buschkuehl, Jonides, &
Perrig, 2008), and that repeated practice can strengthen self-
regulatory control (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000). If robust and
replicable, such cognitive training has potential to improve self-
control of habitual rumination as part of a treatment intervention,
particularly if combined with counterconditioning of alternative
We note that this habit analysis is not necessarily unique to
rumination. Because the theoretical framework is based on generic
concepts of conditioning and habit formation, the principles artic-
ulated could be applied to other behaviors and emotional regula-
tion strategies. Nevertheless, our focus in this article is to consider
the value of applying this approach to habitual rumination, and to
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
reconcile state episodes of repetitive thought engendered by goal
discrepancy with trait habitual tendency toward rumination. We
further note that rumination may be harder to break than other
habits, such as those involving overt behavioral routines. First,
rumination tends to be triggered by internal states, which makes it
harder to successfully use stimulus and environmental control.
Second, changing habits requires a concerted and deliberate at-
tempt at self-control in the form of generating an alternative
nonhabitual response. However, habitual rumination reduces an
individuals’ ability to exert such self-control because of its impact
on executive control and working memory (e.g., Curci et al., 2013;
Watkins & Brown, 2002). Thus, unlike many habits, by dint of
occupying mental resources, rumination may be harder to change,
indicating the importance of training ruminators into new habits,
for example, by CBM.
We have articulated a habit-goal framework of depressive ru-
mination that elaborates on conceptualizations of depressive rumi-
nation as a mental habit (Hertel, 2004) and recent work consider-
ing the relationship between goals and habits (Wood & Neal,
2007). This approach links RST and control theory by explicating
the mechanisms and conditions by which state episodes of goal-
discrepancy repetitive thought could develop into habitual depres-
sive rumination. Further, this habit account generates new insights
and testable predictions concerning the developmental antecedents
of individual differences in rumination. The habitual nature of
depressive rumination provides a partial account of why it can be
so difficult to break free from rumination. Understanding the
possible conditions and mechanisms that influence habit formation
and habit change provides a new perspective on how to optimize
psychological interventions for depressive rumination.
This manuscript reflects an ongoing collaboration between the
authors, with an original draft complete when Susan Nolen-
Hoeksema tragically passed away. It is hoped that, in some small
part, this final manuscript pays tribute to Susan, her wisdom and
thoroughness, her friendship, and her work by elaborating on her
seminal conceptualization of rumination and showing new insights
and value. Susan was first in research, first in teaching, and first in
the hearts of her peers and students; as a collaborator, she made
ideas flow in a way that was exciting and exhilarating: She will be
greatly missed.
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Received June 29, 2013
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Accepted December 2, 2013
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... Response Styles Theory of depression (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991) proposes that rumination (including brooding rumination) exacerbates depressive symptoms by interfering with problem-solving behaviour. This theory further posits that the habitual traitlike brooding rumination tendency is an automatic response conditioned to triggering stimuli such as negative affect with the aim of lifting one's mood (Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 2008;Watkins & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014). Control Theory as another prominent model of rumination suggests, however, that brooding rumination is caused by a discrepancy between individuals' perceptions of their current and desired goal states (Martin & Tesser, 1996). ...
... According to this model, negative mood caused by a goal discrepancy leads to increased thinking about the desired goal. Hence, brooding rumination represents an unsuccessful attempt at instrumental problem-solving that maintains depression (Watkins & Roberts, 2020) and is characterized by overly abstract and passive cognitive processing that may only increase the salience of perceived discrepancies (Ehring & Watkins, 2008;Watkins & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014). ...
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Objectives: Individuals frequently engage in comparisons on how they are doing relative to different standards. According to the general comparative-processing model, comparisons can be perceived as aversive (appraised as threatening the motives of the comparer) or appetitive (appraised as consonant with, or positively challenging the motives). Research indicates that aversive comparisons are associated with depression. We hypothesize that aversive comparisons play a significant role in the relationship between brooding rumination and depression. Drawing on central propositions of control theory that discrepancies instigate rumination, we investigated the mediating role of brooding rumination in this relationship. Reflecting the different directionality, we also examined whether well-being comparisons mediate the relationship between brooding rumination and depression. Methods: Dysphoric participants (N = 500) were administered measures of depression and brooding rumination, and the Comparison Standards Scale for Well-being. The latter assesses aversive social, temporal, counterfactual, and criteria-based comparisons regarding their (a) frequency, (b) perceived discrepancy to the standard, and (c) engendered affective valence. Results: The relationship between the frequency of aversive comparisons with depression was partially accounted for by comparison discrepancy and engendered affective valence and brooding rumination. The relationship between rumination and depression was partially mediated by sequential comparison processes. Conclusions: Longitudinal research needs to unravel the underlying directionality of the relationship between depression, brooding, and comparison. Relevant clinical implications of well-being comparison are discussed.
... However, a study by van der Kaap-Deeder [48] showed that depressive symptoms related positively to rumination over need-frustrating memories. Related research has also found that certain developmental circumstances and socialization processes (such as over-controlling parenting and reduced positive reinforcement) can lead to habitual rumination [49]. For example, ongoing stress and a reduced sense of mastery predicted increases in rumination over time [50]. ...
... Specifically, it is the brooding mode that coincides with the occurrence of depressive symptoms. This view is consistent with research on rumination from the perspective of Control Theory [24,49,65], which does present rumination as a potentially successful strategy for dealing with goal discrepancies [14]. ...
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Research within the framework of Basic Psychological Need Theory (BPNT) finds strong associations between basic need frustration and depressive symptoms. This study examined the role of rumination as an underlying mechanism in the association between basic psychological need frustration and depressive symptoms. A cross-sectional sample of N = 221 adults (55.2% female, mean age = 27.95, range = 18–62, SD = 10.51) completed measures assessing their level of basic psychological need frustration, rumination, and depressive symptoms. Correlational analyses and multiple mediation models were conducted. Brooding partially mediated the relation between need frustration and depressive symptoms. BPNT and Response Styles Theory are compatible and can further advance knowledge about depression vulnerabilities.
... Rumination is the habit of thinking repetitively, recurrently, uncontrollably, and passively about a negative past or current event [9,10]. Rumination as a thinking style is thought to emerge first in early adolescence around the time of puberty and has lasting negative effects across development [5,8,11]. ...
... Living in such a stressful environment may encourage the adolescent to adopt coping strategies, such as rumination, as a way of processing or avoiding the experience and emotions [75]. Though intended to help them face adversity, these coping and emotion regulation strategies may then grow into more maladaptive or passive ruminative habits, which place the adolescent at risk for depression and more severe depressive symptoms [10,12,13,76]. As adolescents emerge into young adult developmental roles and spaces where it is adaptive and expected to approach and problem solve, avoidance, passivity and rumination may be a hindrance to adaptive functioning. ...
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Rumination is a vulnerability for depression and potentially linked to inhibitory control weaknesses. We aimed to replicate the association observed in adults between inhibitory control and rumination in adolescents, and to examine putative moderating roles of childhood maltreatment and perceived family cohesion in an adolescent sample at risk for depression due to familial/personal history. Ninety adolescents aged 11–17 (M = 14.6, SD = 1.8) completed self-report scales of rumination, maltreatment, and family cohesion, and performed a task assessing inhibitory control. Hierarchical regression models showed no significant relation between inhibitory control and moderator variables on rumination. However, adolescents who reported higher levels of maltreatment and who perceived lower family cohesion tended to indicate higher levels of rumination (BChilhood Maltreatment = 27.52, 95% CIs [5.63, 49.41], BFamily Cohesion = -0.40, 95% CIs [-0.65, -0.15]). These findings demonstrate an alternative understanding of factors that increase depression onset risk and recurrence in adolescents.
... However, a study by van der Kaap-Deeder [48] showed that depressive symptoms related positively to rumination over need-frustrating memories. Related research has also found that certain developmental circumstances and socialization processes (such as over-controlling parenting and reduced positive reinforcement) can lead to habitual rumination [49]. For example, ongoing stress and a reduced sense of mastery predicted increases in rumination over time [50]. ...
... Specifically, it is the brooding mode that coincides with the occurrence of depressive symptoms. This view is consistent with research on rumination from the perspective of Control Theory [24,49,65], which does present rumination as a potentially successful strategy for dealing with goal discrepancies [14]. ...
Full-text available
Research within the framework of Basic Psychological Need Theory (BPNT) finds strong associations between basic need frustration and depressive symptoms. This study examined the role of rumination as an underlying mechanism in the association between basic psychological need frustration and depressive symptoms. A cross-sectional sample of N = 221 adults (55.2% female, mean age = 27.95, range = 18–62, SD = 10.51) completed measures assessing their level of basic psychological need frustration, rumination, and depressive symptoms. Correlational analyses and multiple mediation models were conducted. Brooding partially mediated the relation between need frustration and depressive symptoms. BPNT and Response Styles Theory are compatible and can further advance knowledge about depression vulnerabilities.
... ER has been defined as a conscious or unconscious and automatic or controlled attempt to increase or decrease an emotional experience (for a review see Braunstein et al., 2017) in order to appropriately respond to environmental demands (Campbell-Sillis and Barlow, 2007;Berking and Wupperman, 2012). Thus, rumination may be described as an automatic ER response conditioned to triggering stimuli, such as low mood (Watkins and Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014), which involves self-reflection and self-focused attention (Lyubomirsky and Nolen-Hoeksema, 1993). Goals of rumination may include attempts at problem-solving or gaining clarity regarding symptoms (e.g., "Why do I have these symptoms?"). ...
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Background Metacognitive Training for Depression in older adults (MCT-Silver; ) is a cognitive-behavioral based group intervention that aims at reducing depression by targeting (meta)cognitive beliefs and rumination. In the present study, it was examined whether negative cognitive beliefs, positive metacognitive beliefs and/or rumination may be implicated as mediators of MCT-Silver’s effects on depression. Materials and methods We conducted a secondary analysis of a randomized controlled trial comparing MCT-Silver to an active control intervention (cognitive remediation) including 66 older adults (60 years and older) with complete baseline data. Clinician-rated (Hamilton Depression Rating Scale) and self-reported (Beck Depression Inventory-II) depression, negative cognitive beliefs (Dysfunctional Attitudes Scale-18B), positive metacognitive beliefs (positive beliefs subscale; Metacognition Questionnaire-30) and rumination (10-item Ruminative Response Scale) were assessed before (pre) and after 8 weeks of treatment (post), as well as 3 months later (follow-up). It was examined whether change in depression (pre- to follow-up) was mediated by change in negative cognitive beliefs, positive metacognitive beliefs and/or rumination (pre- to post-assessment). Results Mediation results differed for self-reported vs. clinician-rated depression. The effect of MCT-Silver on reduction in clinician-rated depression was mediated by a reduction in self-reported rumination, whereas reduction in self-reported depression was mediated by a reduction in negative cognitive beliefs. Positive metacognitive beliefs were not a significant mediator for either outcome. Conclusion The current study provides initial evidence for the roles of negative cognitive beliefs and rumination in the treatment of depression in later life with MCT-Silver. Given the divergence of findings and lack of causal precedence, mechanisms of change for MCT-Silver cannot yet be equivocally identified.
... The TPJ, especially in the right hemisphere, has been established as a key region of the theory of mind and is involved in building models of other people's perspective-taking [45]. Individuals with higher RNT are often preoccupied with self-critical thoughts and past instances of failure, rather than attempting to improve present circumstances by incorporating others' perspectives [20,[46][47][48][49]. Thus, it is possible that individuals in the active group might have learned to regulate the RSC activity together with the function of the rTPJ by applying emotion regulation strategies (i.e., retrieving an emotional episodic memory and reconsolidating it from a third person's perspective), which might have contributed to a reduction in RNT, although we do not emphasize this finding due to the exploratory nature of the analyses. ...
Introduction: Repetitive negative thinking (RNT) is a cognitive process focusing on self-relevant and negative experiences, leading to a poor prognosis of major depressive disorder (MDD). We previously identified that connectivity between the precuneus/posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ) was positively correlated with levels of RNT. Objective: In this double-blind, randomized, sham-controlled, proof-of-concept trial, we employed real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging neurofeedback (rtfMRI-nf) to delineate the neural processes that may be causally linked to RNT and could potentially become treatment targets for MDD. Methods: MDD-affected individuals were assigned to either active (n = 20) or sham feedback group (n = 19). RNT was measured by the Ruminative Response Scale-brooding subscale (RRS-B) before and 1 week after the intervention. Results: Individuals in the active but not in the sham group showed a significant reduction in the RRS-B; however, a greater reduction in the PCC-rTPJ connectivity was unrelated to a greater reduction in the RRS-B. Exploratory analyses revealed that a greater reduction in the retrosplenial cortex (RSC)-rTPJ connectivity yielded a more pronounced reduction in the RRS-B in the active but not in the sham group. Conclusions: RtfMRI-nf was effective in reducing RNT. Considering the underlying mechanism of rtfMIR-nf, the RSC and rTPJ could be part of a network (i.e., default mode network) that might collectively affect the intensity of RNT. Understanding the relationship between the functional organization of targeted neural changes and clinical metrics, such as RNT, has the potential to guide the development of mechanism-based treatment of MDD.
Memories connected to ruminative concerns repetitively capture attention, even in situations designed to alter them. However, recent research on memory updating suggests that memory for benign substitutes (e.g., reinterpretations) might be facilitated by integration with the ruminative memories. As a first approach, two experiments (Ns = 72) mimicked rumination-related memories with rumination-themed stimuli and an imagery task. College undergraduates screened for ruminative status first studied and imaged ruminative cue-target word pairs, and then in a second phase they studied the same cues re-paired with benign targets (along with new and repeated pairs). On the test of cued recall of benign targets, they judged whether each recalled word had been repeated or changed across the two phases (or was new in the second phase). When target changes were not remembered, recall of benign targets revealed proactive interference that was insensitive to ruminative status. However, when participants remembered change and the ruminative targets, their recall of benign targets was facilitated, particularly if they identified as ruminators (Experiment 1). When the test simply asked for recall of either or both targets (Experiment 2), ruminators recalled both targets more frequently than did others. These outcomes suggest that ruminative memories might provide bridges to remembering associated benign memories, such as reinterpretations, under conditions consistent with everyday ruminative retrieval.
Anhedonia, a lack of pleasure in things an individual once enjoyed, and rumination, the process of perseverative and repetitive attention to specific thoughts, are hallmark features of depression. Though these both contribute to the same debilitating disorder, they have often been studied independently and through different theoretical lenses (e.g., biological vs. cognitive). Cognitive theories and research on rumination have largely focused on understanding negative affect in depression with much less focus on the etiology and maintenance of anhedonia. In this paper, we argue that by examining the relation between cognitive constructs and deficits in positive affect, we may better understand anhedonia in depression thereby improving prevention and intervention efforts. We review the extant literature on cognitive deficits in depression and discuss how these dysfunctions may not only lead to sustained negative affect but, importantly, interfere with an ability to attend to social and environmental cues that could restore positive affect. Specifically, we discuss how rumination is associated to deficits in working memory and propose that these deficits in working memory may contribute to anhedonia in depression. We further argue that analytical approaches such as computational modeling are needed to study these questions and, finally, discuss implications for treatment.
Objective: The aim of this work was to review evidence on the association between psychological rumination and distress in those diagnosed with cancer. Methods: Six databases were searched for studies exploring rumination alongside overall assessments of psychological distress, depression, anxiety, or stress. Results: Sixteen studies were identified. Rumination was associated with distress cross-sectionally and longitudinally. However, once baseline depression was controlled for, the association was no longer seen. The emotional valence of ruminative thoughts and the style in which they were processed, rather than their topic, was associated with distress. Brooding and intrusive rumination were associated with increased distress, deliberate rumination had no association, and reflection/instrumentality had mixed findings. Conclusions: This review highlights that it is not necessarily the topic of content, but the style and valence of rumination that is important when considering its association with distress. The style of rumination should be the target of clinical intervention, including brooding and intrusion.
Background: School-to-work transition is crucial for young adults, requiring them to maintain their values-based action, even though this task is likely to cause rumination associated with depression. In the HExAGoN model, individuals with rumination tend to engage in abstract-analytic thought (AAT) but not in concrete-experiential thought (CET). Although this inflexible style of thought is assumed to decrease values-based action and increase depression, no empirical research has examined these relationships in young adults during their transition period. Therefore, this study examined the bidirectional relationships between AAT, CET, depression, and values-based action in young adults. Methods: A one-year five-wave longitudinal survey was conducted on 756 third-year university students who engaged in job searches in Japan. Cross-lagged panel model and random-intercept cross-lagged panel model were used to estimate the bidirectional relationships at the between-person and within-person levels, respectively. Results: AAT and CET had bidirectional associations with depression and values-based action at the between-person level. Furthermore, CET decreased depression and marginally improved values-based action at the within-person level. Limitations: The study comprised only university students in Japan and had a high attrition rate. Conclusions: The findings suggest that CET can reduce depression and improve values-based action in young adults undergoing the transition. It may also expand the understanding of the treatment and prevention of depression in young adults.
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Interventions to change everyday behaviors often attempt to change people’s beliefs and intentions. As the authors explain, these interventions are unlikely to be an effective means to change behaviors that people have repeated into habits. Successful habit change interventions involve disrupting the environmental factors that automatically cue habit performance. The authors propose two potential habit change interventions. “Downstream-plus” interventions provide informational input at points when habits are vulnerable to change, such as when people are undergoing naturally occurring changes in performance environments for many everyday actions (e.g., moving households, changing jobs). “Upstream” interventions occur before habit performance and disrupt old environmental cues and establish new ones. Policy interventions can be oriented not only to the change of established habits but also to the acquisition and maintenance of new behaviors through the formation of new habits.
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The two most common forms of repetitive negative thought (RNT) are rumination and worry, which are both repeatedly implicated in the onset and maintenance of depression and anxiety disorders. It is therefore of theoretical and clinical value to understand why people engage in worry and rumination, despite their negative consequences. A variety of vulnerability factors have been implicated, including distal factors relating to personality, abuse, and overcontrolling parenting; and proximal cognitive factors, including abstract processing and perceptions of the function of repetitive thought (RT). The current study provided a cross-sectional examination of these vulnerability factors alongside rumination and worry in a large sample of adults, with reference to a new integrative model of RNT. Structural equation modelling analyses indicated that a model in which neuroticism and emotional abuse were related to RNT via their association with perceptions about the function of RT provided a good fit to the data.
This article analyzes the relationship between skill learning and repetition priming, 2 implicit memory phenomena. A number of reports have suggested that skill learning and repetition priming can be dissociated from each other and are therefore based on different mechanisms. The authors present a theoretical analysis showing that previous results cannot be regarded as evidence of a processing dissociation between skill learning and repetition priming. The authors also present a single-mechanism computational model that simulates a specific experimental task and exhibits both skill learning and repetition priming, as well as a number of apparent dissociations between these measures. These theoretical and computational analyses provide complementary evidence that skill learning and repetition priming are aspects of a single underlying mechanism that has the characteristics of procedural memory.
It was hypothesized that women are more vulnerable to depressive symptoms than men because they are more likely to experience chronic negative circumstances (or strain), to have a low sense of mastery, and to engage in ruminative coping. The hypotheses were tested in a 2-wave study of approximately 1,100 community-based adults who were 25 to 75 years old. Chronic strain, low mastery, and rumination were each more common in women than in men and mediated the gender difference in depressive symptoms. Rumination amplified the effects of mastery and, to some extent, chronic strain on depressive symptoms. In addition, chronic strain and rumination had reciprocal effects on each other over time, and low mastery also contributed to more rumination. Finally, depressive symptoms contributed to more rumination and less mastery over time.
This chapter addresses what is by far the largest research area in the examination of memory in clinical groups - research conducted with depressed or naturally unhappy (but possibly non-diagnosed) people. It explores the connection between memory phenomena and habits of thought. More so than most anxious people, depressed people ruminate about their troubles. The practiced thought patterns of rumination facilitate memory for emotionally consistent events and interfere with memory for other events. Moreover, these habits take over under conditions of poor cognitive control, the main feature of cognition in depression. Here, depression is used imprecisely to refer to both diagnostic categories and the self-reported state of dysphoria. "Dysphoria" is used to denote undiagnosed negative affect, of the sort that produces moderate-to-high scores on the Beck Depression Inventory. The chapter argues that the negative consequences of habitual thinking can be overcome by external control or by the training of new habits of thought.