The Squeaky Wheel

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Depression Can Be Contagious For College Roommates

Negative thinking styles can be contagious among close friends

A new study finds that negative thinking styles that make people vulnerable to depression can be contagious among college students.

Cognitive Vulnerability and Depression

How we perceive stressful events, interpret them, and process them has a major impact on our ability to cope adaptively with them. For example, people with cognitive vulnerabilities might perceive events more negatively, feel more helpless about them, and ruminate about them, while non-cognitively vulnerable people might see the same events as less dire, feel less paralyzed by them, take them less personally and respond to them more positively.

Much research has demonstrated that the negativity associated with cognitive vulnerability is a risk factor for depression. While our thinking and coping styles—whether they make us cognitively vulnerable or not--are often established by the time we reach late adolescence, they can still change. The current study assumed that a person’s cognitive style might be more susceptible to change during a significant life transition—starting college.

Depressive Thinking Can Be Contagious

The researchers gave incoming students a battery of tests before they moved in with their randomly assigned roommates, another set of tests three months into the semester, and another six months later. Doing so allowed them to assess the cognitive style of the participants and see whether their cognitive style changed over time and in which direction.

Findings indicated that students who were not classified as cognitively vulnerable themselves but roomed with a person who was, ‘caught’ their roommate's maladaptive cognitive style. As a result, they showed more evidence of cognitive vulnerability at the three month mark, and even had twice as many symptoms of depression at the six month mark. The results were so significant (given the short period of time), the researchers hypothesized this effect might not be limited to situations of major life transitions.

What You Can Do to Prevent ‘Catching’ Cognitive Vulnerability

Cognitive vulnerability refers to specific forms of thinking in which the person interprets events negatively, feels helplessness or hopeless about them, and ruminates about negative events and feelings. However, it is possible to mitigate the impact of being around people who tend to think in such negative ways. Here are some suggestions:

1. Become aware. Pay attention to the cognitive styles of those around you and do not take another person’s negativity as ‘truth’ but as a potentially overly-negative way of thinking about which you can ‘agree to disagree’.

2. Modify your own negativity. Optimism is something that can be learned. If you catch yourself in a cycle of negative thinking, stop and balance out your thoughts with reasonable but positive ways of thinking about the same events.

3. Suggest positive interpretations. College roommates spend a lot of time together and often become close friends. When appropriate, offer the other person other ways of thinking about the situation that might make them feel less hopeless and more proactive.

4. Hang out with positive people. Since the influence of cognitive vulnerability can go both ways, adding positive, optimistic, proactive, folks to your circle of friends (or introducing them to your roommate) can counterbalance the negative impact a roommate or close friend can have on your own emotional well-being.

For more about how to manage rumination and negative thinking, check out my forthcoming book, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries.

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Copyright 2013 Guy Winch

Reference: Gerald J. Haeffel and Jennifer L. Hames, Cognitive Vulnerability to Depression Can Be Contagious Clinical Psychological Science 2167702613485075, first published on April 16, 2013 as doi:10.1177/2167702613485075

Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem. more...

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