Some recent research has focused on how poor cognitive control, mediated by rumination, leads to or sustain depression and anxiety symptoms (e.g., Cohen, Mor, & Henik, 2015; Snyder, & Hankin, 2016; Vanderhasselt, et al., 2014). Although the research findings are valuable, their assumptions of “cognitive control,” which resembles a motivation-related willpower, fail to identify the cognition regulating this type of control and the real reason for focusing on negativity. This post examines four flawed assumptions in their discussion and suggests that it is accurate cognitive structures (cognitive understanding) that serve as the mental mechanisms administering adaptive cognitive control over negative emotions.

The first flawed assumption is that cognitive control is the main function of our cognition.

In reality, however, the foremost purpose of our cognition involves helping us meet our basic needs, such as the needs for food, nutrition, love, happiness, friendship, belonging, family, communication, mental health, physical health, and all other things we need for survival and growth (e.g., Sun, 2013, 2014). In order to satisfy those needs, we must be able to overcome conflict and to create/maintain balanced interactions with the self, others, and the changing social, psychological, physical worlds, and the ecosystem by accurately understanding the reality.

More specifically, our cognition guides us to understand the operations of the physical, social, and psychological worlds through its two connected components: cognitive (knowledge) structures and processes. The cognitive structures about human behavior refer to our organized mental systems of social entities (self and others, events, situations), their interactions and rules/patterns that govern these entities and their interactions and developments. On the other hand, the cognitive processes involve the application of the knowledge/information (which may be accurate or distorted) to make sense of social experience and the living environments by administering such mental processes as encoding, evaluating, interpreting, attributing, reasoning, and decision making, including the control of attention, initiation and/or reaction. Adaptive mental control, as a part of cognitive processes, is regulated by the accurate understanding of reality. On the other hand, it is the misrepresentations or distorted cognitive structures about reality that lead to false judgments, miscommunication, maladaptive decision-making and actions, poor cognitive control, experiencing obstacles, frustrations and invalidations in fulfilling one’s needs. For instance, a woman could not stop experiencing guilty feelings (lack of cognitive control) because she had the distorted perception that her frustrations in a variety of domains resulted from her violations of some moral standards. Distorted cognitive structures are characterized as misrepresentations of reality but unawareness of the cognitive distortions.

The second flawed assumption suggests that focusing on negativity or rumination is maladaptive and biased. Rumination is regarded as narrowly heeding or difficulty removing unwanted negative information from working memory (e.g., Snyder, & Hankin, 2016). On the contrary, focusing on negative experiences is a normal learning process for a naïve scientist, which is everybody. Focusing on negativity per se may not be inaccurate or maladaptive, because people are motivated to learn from both good and bad experiences, (negative experiences are often more informative) in order to solve comparable problems or avoid being trapped in similar predicaments for the time to come. Normal human beings are active goal-pursuing individuals who are constantly seeking meaning in their social and mental experiences by developing new hypotheses and theories to explain their experiences in pursuing their goals, particularly those related to frustrations and conflicts in meeting one’s basic needs. 

Third flawed assumption states that lack of cognitive control generates the rumination on negativity. The fact is, as discussed earlier, one’s cognitive structures or degrees of understanding of reality regulate the person’s attention, cognitive control and other components of cognitive processes. The process of trying to understand one’s experiences becomes an impasse, not because it focuses on negativity, but because the perceiver’s cognitive structures misrepresent the reality regarding rules governing human mind and behavior, yet he or she stills tries to use the invalid cognitions to define the self and to evaluate, explain,and predict the self’s experiences, or guide one’s interpersonal interactions (Sun, 2013, 2014).

The fourth problematic assumption is that enhancing cognitive control can treat depression. However, enhanced cognitive control or strong repression of negative thinking and emotions may help tell the person what not to do, to think or to feel, but it has difficulty solving the person’ problems by creating new understanding of the experiences of invalidation, or by unlearning one’s past or current hurts. Although optimism is generally beneficial, engaging positive thinking provides no new and accurate explanations about how and why the person has experienced frustrations and invalidations. The control does not offer any new ways to improve one’s situations or to minimize failure in meet one’s basic needs. Clinical observations show that clients’ emotional pains did not go away simply because they could shift their attention and regulate their emotions. This is because they had not understood the “why” question about their lives.

In short, our cognitive structures, as a developmental system, have the capacity to advance to a higher (more accurate) level of understanding about social and psychological reality, as the result of learning from the interacting experiences. Only by developing this type of understanding, which can both transcend our current limited beliefs about reality and integrate our positive and negative experiences, can we cure or minimize depression (Sun, 2014), obtaining the true and meaningful cognitive control.

A related post: Wrong Self-Appraisals Result from the Use of Wrong Criteria


Cohen, N., Mor, N., & Henik, A. (2015). Linking executive control and emotional response: A training procedure to reduce rumination. Clinical Psychological Science, 3(1), 15-25. doi:10.1177/2167702614530114

Snyder, H. R., & Hankin, B. L. (2016).  Spiraling out of control.  Clinical Psychological Science, 4, 1047 – 1064.

Sun, K. (2013). Correctional counseling: A Cognitive Growth Perspective (2nd ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Sun, K. (2014). Treating Depression and PTSD behind Bars: An Interaction Schemas Approach.  In R. C. Tafrate and D. Mitchell (Eds.), Forensic CBT: A handbook for clinical practice  (Chap. 22, pp. 456-470).  Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

Vanderhasselt, M., De Raedt, R., De Paepe, A., Aarts, K., Otte, G., Van Dorpe, J., & Pourtois, G. (2014). Abnormal proactive and reactive cognitive control during conflict processing in major depression. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 123(1), 68-80. doi:10.1037/a0035816

About the Author

Key Sun Ph.D.

Key Sun, Ph.D., is a psychologist and social worker. He has taught at Central Washington University and Bastyr University.

You are reading

The Justice and Responsibility League

The Factor That Administers Cognitive Control over Emotions

Cognitive understanding of reality regulates emotions.

Impact of the I Ching on Carl G. Jung & its implications

Jung, Taoist psychology, and cross-cultural communications

What Leaders Can Gain From Ideas of Mental Health Counseling

Principles of mental health counseling provide insights about good leadership