15 December 2022

Absolutist Thinking Characterizes Depression, Anxiety, and Suicidal Thoughts, Study Shows

By Mohammed Almosaiwi, Ph.D. Student at the University of Reading


Absolutism – refers to words, phrases, and ideas that denote totality, either in magnitude or probability.  Absolutist thoughts are unqualified by nuance and overlook the complexity of a given subject.  There are two main forms of absolutist thinking; dichotomous (all-or-nothing) thinking and categorical imperatives.  The former refers to a binary black-and-white view of the world, and the latter is the tendency to place totally rigid demands on yourself and others around you.

We believe that people with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation are overly disposed to absolutist thinking and that this would manifest itself in their style of language.  Using automated text-analysis, we examined the natural language of over 6,400 members in online forums.  We found that those reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety used approximately 50% more absolutist words (e.g. “always”, “nothing”, “completely”) and those reporting symptoms of suicidal ideation used approximately 80% more absolutist words.  This was in comparison to 19 different control forums, for example, Cancer Forum, Mumsnet, StudentRoom and many others.

How do we know that using more absolutist words actually reflects more absolutist thinking?  In a second study, we calculated the prevalence of absolutist words in mental health conditions known to be linked to absolutist thinking (borderline personality disorder and eating disorder) with mental health groups not linked to absolutist thinking (post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia).  All groups are shown to have the same levels of psychological distress, but only the groups known to be linked to absolutist thinking had elevated levels of absolutist words.  This confirms that a greater use of absolutist words is specific to absolutist thinking, and not psychological distress per se.

So far this is all correlational work, there is nothing other than theory to suggest that absolutism causes depression.  In a third study, we examined ‘recovery groups’, which were a separate subset of the depression and suicidal ideation groups.  Here, members believe they have recovered from a depressive episode, and write positive, encouraging posts about their recovery.  We found that positive emotion words were elevated by approximately 70%, while negative emotion words were used at comparable levels to control forums.  Nevertheless, they continued to use a high prevalence of absolutist words, significantly greater than control groups and much closer to anxiety and depression levels.  Crucially, those who have previously had depressive symptoms are more likely to have them again. Therefore, their greater tendency for absolutist thinking, even when there are currently no symptoms of depression, is a sign that it may play a role in causing depressive episodes.

Our work supports the new ‘third-wave’ psychotherapies - most notably mindfulness – which advocates a flexible outlook, acceptance, and freedom from attachments.  Indeed, John Teasdale, an early proponent of mindfulness, has published work showing that absolute responding on questionnaires (both positive and negative) is a strong marker for future depression.  It should be noted that replication attempts of this work have been mixed, largely because using questionnaires introduces complications which we avoided by examining ordinary language.

In our research, and in clinical psychology more broadly, absolutist thinking is viewed as an unhealthy thinking style which disrupts emotion regulation and hinders people from adaptively achieving their goals.  Yet we all, to varying extents, are disposed to it – why is this?  Primarily, because it’s much easier than dealing with the true complexities of life.  The term cognitive miser, first introduced by Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor in 1991, describes how humans seek the simplest and least effortful ways of thinking.  Nuance and complexity are expensive - it takes up precious time and energy - so wherever possible we try to cut corners.  This is why we have biases, prejudices and form habits.  It’s why the study of heuristics (intuitive ‘gut-feeling judgments) is so useful in behavioral economics and political science.  However, there is no such thing as a free lunch, the time and energy saved through absolutist thinking have a cost.  In order to successfully navigate through life, we need to appreciate nuance, understand complexity, and embrace flexibility.  When we succumb to absolutist thinking for the most important matters in our lives – such as our goals, relationships, and self-esteem – the consequences will be disastrous.


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