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Self-focused attention, self-analysis, and rumination in everyday life : friend or foe? Lavallee, Loraine F.

Abstract

In the health psychology literature there has been a proliferation of research linking forms of self-attention to psychological distress, especially to depression. The broad conclusion that self-attention is harmful, however, challenges the central premise of self-regulation theory - a theory detailing the role of self-attention as the engine of an adaptive regulating system that enables people to achieve their goals. In an attempt to reconcile these perspectives, I conducted two studies to distinguish the forms and states of self-attention that serve an adaptive self-regulation function from those that create a vulnerability to depression. Both studies included a pretest and a daily diary component. Participants were pretested on trait self-attention, trait negative affectivity (Study 1), depression (Study 2), and a goal inventory. Study 2 included a follow-up session where participants again completed the depression inventory. For the diary component, participants described and rated the most negative event they experienced during the rating period (twice daily for 2 weeks in Study 1; once daily for 4 weeks in Study 2). Diary self-report measures of self-attention included: level of rumination (Study 1), initial self-analysis (Study 2), and multi-day-protracted attention (Study 2). After the diaries were completed, participants' event descriptions were coded for goal-relevance and level of self-focused attention (SFA). Consistent with self-regulation theory, participants' goal-related events elicited stronger self-attentional responses (higher levels of SFA, rumination, initial self-analysis, and protracted attention) than did their goal-unrelated events. These within-person effects were not moderated by the pretest measures, nor did they predict levels of emotional distress. Thus, in daily life it appears to be typical and not harmful for people to respond to goal-setbacks by engaging in elevated levels of introspection, self-analysis, and even negative, symptom-focused rumination. With respect to individual differences, people higher in pretest rumination and in chronic daily rumination, initial self-analysis and protracted attention experienced higher levels of emotional distress. Chronic daily levels of initial self-analysis and rumination predicted emotional distress after controlling for pretest levels of distress. Thus, self-attention appears to create a vulnerability to depression only when people have chronic difficulty containing initial levels of self-analysis and rumination in response to negative events.

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