Research Article: Emotional Reasoning Processes and Dysphoric Mood: Cross-Sectional and Prospective Relationships

Date Published: June 24, 2013

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): David Berle, Michelle L. Moulds, Bernhard T. Baune.


Emotional reasoning refers to the use of subjective emotions, rather than objective evidence, to form conclusions about oneself and the world [1]. Emotional reasoning appears to characterise anxiety disorders. We aimed to determine whether elevated levels of emotional reasoning also characterise dysphoria. In Study 1, low dysphoric (BDI-II≤4; n = 28) and high dysphoric (BDI-II ≥14; n = 42) university students were administered an emotional reasoning task relevant for dysphoria. In Study 2, a larger university sample were administered the same task, with additional self-referent ratings, and were followed up 8 weeks later. In Study 1, both the low and high dysphoric participants demonstrated emotional reasoning and there were no significant differences in scores on the emotional reasoning task between the low and high dysphoric groups. In Study 2, self-referent emotional reasoning interpretations showed small-sized positive correlations with depression symptoms. Emotional reasoning tendencies were stable across an 8-week interval although not predictive of subsequent depressive symptoms. Further, anxiety symptoms were independently associated with emotional reasoning and emotional reasoning was not associated with anxiety sensitivity, alexithymia, or deductive reasoning tendencies. The implications of these findings are discussed, including the possibility that while all individuals may engage in emotional reasoning, self-referent emotional reasoning may be associated with increased levels of depressive symptoms.

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Prevailing cognitive-behavioural models of mental disorders emphasise the influence of cognitions (automatic thoughts, beliefs and interpretations) on emotions. These models only give passing regard to the possibility that the relationship between cognitions and emotions may be bidirectional or that emotional states may influence cognitive content and processes. Beck and Emery [2] encouraged therapists to discuss with clients how they may be basing their interpretations on feelings rather than facts (suggesting an influence of feelings and emotion on cognition) and “mistaking feelings for facts” has become a standard inclusion in the “unhelpful thinking habits” sections of many cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) manuals [3]. However, there is little empirical research on such processes in clinical disorders.

The high dysphoric group comprised 42 participants and the low dysphoric group 28 participants. Table 1 summarises the demographic characteristics and self-report scores for the sample.

The findings of this study indicated that both the low and high dysphoric groups engaged in emotional reasoning, as evidenced by more negative ratings for the scenarios that indicated a negative emotional response. However, with few exceptions, scores on the emotional reasoning task were not significantly greater for the high dysphoric group than the low dysphoric group. It is noteworthy that one of the self-referent ratings – incompetence – approached significance (p>.05 after controlling for multiple comparisons).

There were no differences in emotional reasoning scores according to order of presentation, except for the anxiety related scenario of perceived dangerousness (F = 3.39, df = 7, 98, p = .003).

The findings of these two studies suggest that most individuals, even those who do not meet criteria for a mental disorder, engage in emotional reasoning. This is consistent with our first hypothesis in Study 2. In this respect, our findings are discrepant from those of Arntz et al. [1] but concordant with those reported by Engelhard et al. [5]. It is noteworthy, however, that even in the Arntz et al. study there was a trend for non-anxious participants to engage in emotional reasoning, as evidenced by non-significantly greater danger ratings when an anxious script ending was included. Together, these findings suggest that emotional reasoning may characterise all individuals to a greater or lesser extent.