|Abstract: ||Many psychological problems are characterized by a gradual broadening of the complaints over stimuli, contexts, and behaviors. This expansion of the complaints over stimuli, contexts, and behaviors is known as generalization. Notwithstanding the fact that generalization leads to the onset and maintenance of psychopathology, it remains unclear what cognitive factors underlie the process of generalization. This doctoral thesis focuses on the study of abstract repetitive thought or an abstract processing style (e.g., anxious worry and depressive rumination) as a potential key-factor driving generalization. The key hypothesis of this project, thus, is that an abstract processing style (vs. a concrete processing style) leads to more generalization. This key hypothesis has been examined in several studies with different paradigms in three parts.|
In Part 1 we developed a depression-relevant generalization-conditioning paradigm. We adopted a well-known procedure from the fear conditioning literature to use in a more depression relevant context with a commonly used experimental manipulation of abstract and concrete processing style. In Chapter 1, we found that participants with more depressive symptoms in the abstract induction showed more negative generalization compared to participants in the concrete induction group. This effect was thus clearly moderated by depressive symptoms. In Chapter 2, using a more advanced and probably more sound and improved way for analyzing generalization gradients we found that an abstract processing style leads to slower and hence more generalization for negative stimuli compared to the concrete condition, confirming the maladaptive consequences of an abstract processing mode in negative contexts. Hence, both chapters indicate that abstract processing in this newly developed generalization-conditioning paradigm increases negative generalization.
In Part 2 we developed a memory paradigm with angry facial affect stimuli to assess generalization and used a processing style induction of abstract and concrete thought embedded within the memory task. Our dependent variable, the amount of angry faces falsely associated with the self, was a more implicit behavioral measure than measures used in our and other previous studies that examined the influence of processing mode. In Chapter 3, we found that an abstract processing style, compared to a concrete processing style, increases the false memory for angry faces being paired with the self (i.e., generalization to the self). These results were not moderated by level of social anxiety symptoms. In Chapter 4, we attempted to replicate the study of Chapter 3. We could not completely replicate the findings of the original study. However, when we post-hoc selected participants for whom the manipulation was more successful, the findings are in line with the previous findings. The results of this part suggest that abstract thought can lead to (over)generalization of bad/failure/angry feelings toward the self (‘Everyone is always angry at me’) that is often seen in social phobia and depression.
In Part 3 we examined positive generalization following a success performance (Chapter 5) and positive and negative generalization following a success or a failure performance (Chapter 6) in sport participants/athletes. These studies were online questionnaire-based experiments with a written induction of abstract and concrete processing style. Different forms of generalization were measured, namely generalization to future events following a single event and generalization to the self-concept. In Chapter 5, abstract processing about a positive event (i.e., a good performance) increased positive generalization relative to a concrete processing style. In Chapter 6, we did not find that abstract processing per se has any adaptive effects on positive generalization following a success or detrimental effects on negative generalization following a failure. However, individuals using an abstract ‘why’ processing style (i.e., thinking about causes) can make functional or dysfunctional causal attributions. Our results then indicated that sport participants with more internal, controllable, and stable attributions showed more positive generalization and sport participants with more external, uncontrollable, and stable attributions showed more negative generalization (for both measures of generalization to the self and across situations/to the future).
The three parts are preceded by a general introduction that sets the stage with a short introduction of the key concepts and aims of the doctoral project. A general discussion gives an overview and discussion of the overall results and provides limitations, directions for future research and clinical/practical implications.