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Scand J Psychol. 2016 Feb;57(1):73-82. doi: 10.1111/sjop.12233. Epub 2015 Jun 11.

A learning theory account of depression.

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Department of Psychology, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden.
Department of Neuroscience, Psychiatry, Uppsala University, Uppsala University Hospital, Uppsala, Sweden.
Center for Clinical Research, Dalarna, Sweden.
Department of Psychology, University of Washington, Seattle, USA.


Learning theory provides a foundation for understanding and deriving treatment principles for impacting a spectrum of functional processes relevant to the construct of depression. While behavioral interventions have been commonplace in the cognitive behavioral tradition, most often conceptualized within a cognitive theoretical framework, recent years have seen renewed interest in more purely behavioral models. These modern learning theory accounts of depression focus on the interchange between behavior and the environment, mainly in terms of lack of reinforcement, extinction of instrumental behavior, and excesses of aversive control, and include a conceptualization of relevant cognitive and emotional variables. These positions, drawn from extensive basic and applied research, cohere with biological theories on reduced reward learning and reward responsiveness and views of depression as a heterogeneous, complex set of disorders. Treatment techniques based on learning theory, often labeled Behavioral Activation (BA) focus on activating the individual in directions that increase contact with potential reinforcers, as defined ideographically with the client. BA is considered an empirically well-established treatment that generalizes well across diverse contexts and populations. The learning theory account is discussed in terms of being a parsimonious model and ground for treatments highly suitable for large scale dissemination.


Depression; behavior activation; behavioral principles; learning theory


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