Science

Depression, Negative Thoughts Can Be Contagious, Study Says

By Nina Sen , Apr 19, 2013 06:10 PM EDT

Depression and negative thoughts can be contagious, a new study says.

Researchers have found that negative thoughts can rub off on people. Scientists followed people who respond negatively to stressful life events. These people often see a negative outcome as a result of their own inadequacies or a factor they have no ability to change.

The researchers, psychological scientists Gerald Haeffel and Jennifer Hames of the University of Notre Dame, decided to see whether a major life transition such as starting college could lead to more students affected by depression from their peers.

"Our findings suggest that it may be possible to use an individual's social environment as part of the intervention process, either as a supplement to existing cognitive interventions or possibly as a stand-alone intervention," Haeffel wrote.

They followed 103 roommates who had been paired up randomly, all of whom had just started their first year of university. Students completed a measure of stressful life events and wrote down their feelings at three and six month intervals.

Scientists say they looked at "cognitive vulnerability," which can predict who is more likely to be affected by depression and negative thoughts. The results revealed that freshmen that were randomly assigned to a roommate with high levels of cognitive vulnerability were likely to "catch" their roommate's cognitive style.

If a student was assigned to a negative thinker, they quickly became depressed themselves, exhibiting negative thoughts within six months. The reverse was also true as those who were paired with a cheery roommate reported a decrease in negative thinking. The findings could be used to treat depression and assess conditions that make a person vulnerable to the disease.

"Surrounding a person with others who exhibit an adaptive cognitive style should help to facilitate cognitive change in therapy," Haeffel and Hames wrote in their findings.

The research was published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

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