• Why did I DO that?!
  • Oh if I could do that all over again!
  • What was I thinking?
  • If only I had … instead!

Is it just me? Or do you also sometimes get stuck on something that happened? Do you also sometimes get stuck wishing that you had done something differently? Please tell me it’s not just me!

Rumination is a facet of negative affective states (or, in English, bad moods!). And as with most psychological phenomena that are common among us, the evolutionary perspective can help us understand some of the roots of this one (see my brief textbook, Evolutionary Psychology 101, on this point).

In a highly cited article on the evolutionary underpinnings of depression, Keller and Nesse (2006) provided evidence that rumination only pertains to certain classes of depression. Rumination is cognitive in nature, and is characterized by obsessive thoughts about what could have been. Maybe you came to a job interview late and missed an amazing opportunity. Perhaps you said something at a dinner party about the host that you didn’t exactly mean – but you said it anyway - and have not been invited back. Or maybe you chose to go to a particular graduate program, moved across the country, only to later think obsessively about some other program that you wish you had gone to instead. And so forth. Rumination!

An Evolutionary Analysis of Rumination

Taking an evolutionary perspective, Keller and Nesse argued that the symptoms of depressed mood should map onto the causes of depressed mood. Prior scholars of negative affective states, such as the people who put together the DSM-IV, did not fully draw connections between causes of depressed mood and the symptoms that one can expect. In their research, Keller and Nesse discussed two broad causes of depression (a) loss of some kind (such as death of a family member) and (b) failure of some kind (such as coming late to an interview and losing a job opportunity). They predicted that rumination, or obsessive thinking about what could have been, should correspond to the latter cause of depression – failure that one can attribute to his or her own actions. On the other hand, they predicted that loss of a loved one should cause other outcomes (such as a need to be with others) - but not necessarily rumination. And in a multi-study project, this is exactly what they found.

The evolutionary reasoning provided by these researchers is essentially as follows: If you mess something up that’s important, thinking about what went wrong and what you can do better next time is relatively adapative. Rumination after failure helped our ancestors be more likely to succeed later on. And the reason that some of us experience rumination after failure these days follows the same reasoning.

So rumination may well be unpleasant – and it hardly makes you the most popular person in your household - but when you think about it, there are potential beneficial outcomes associated with it. In short, it’s part of our nature and has a function.

Coda: Make Better Mistakes Tomorrow

I was thinking about this blog when I was running in the mountains earlier today (which is pretty much how I write, by the way) – and I passed a woman on the trail who had a t-shirt that I think said it pretty well. The shirt said this: “Make better mistakes tomorrow.” There – in four words – is the evolutionary function of rumination! I guess I’ll "run" with that ... and suggest you do the same!

References and Related Information

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Glass, D. J. (2012). Evolutionary clinical psychology, broadly construed: Perspectives on obsessive-compulsive disorder. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 6(3), 292-307.

Keller, M. C., & Nesse, R. M. (2006). The evolutionary significance of depressive symptoms: Different life events lead to different depressive symptom patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 316-330.

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