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PLoS One. 2013 May 15;8(5):e64512. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0064512. Print 2013.

Reduced specificity of personal goals and explanations for goal attainment in major depression.

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Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, United Kingdom.



Overgeneralization has been investigated across many domains of cognitive functioning in major depression, including the imagination of future events. However, it is unknown whether this phenomenon extends to representations of personal goals, which are important in structuring long-term behaviour and providing meaning in life. Furthermore, it is not clear whether depressed individuals provide less specific explanations for and against goal attainment.


Clinically depressed individuals and controls generated personally important approach and avoidance goals, and then generated explanations why they would and would not achieve these goals. Goals and causal explanations were subsequently coded as either specific or general.


Compared to controls, depressed individuals did not generate significantly fewer goals or causal explanations for or against goal attainment. However, compared to controls, depressed individuals generated less specific goals, less specific explanations for approach (but not avoidance) goal attainment, and less specific explanations for goal nonattainment.


Our results suggest that motivational deficits in depression may stem partly from a reduction in the specificity of personal goal representations and related cognitions that support goal-directed behaviour. Importantly, the findings have the potential to inform the ongoing development of psychotherapeutic approaches in the treatment of depression.

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