Goal dysregulation in depression

Document Type

Conference Proceeding


World Institute for Advanced Research and Science [W.I.A.R.S.]


School of Arts and Humanities




Originally published as: Dickson, J. M., & Moberly, N. J. (2017). Goal dysregulation in depression. In International Psychological Applications Conference and Trends (pp. 53-57). Portugal: World Institute for Advanced Research and Science [W.I.A.R.S.] Original article available here


Goal motivation is fundamental to human experience and well-being. Despite the development of prominent theoretical models of goal motivation and its importance in daily life, research has rarely examined goal dysregulation processes in clinical depression. This research presents data from two studies that aimed to investigate aspects of goal regulation in clinically depressed adults, relative to never depressed adults. In both studies, depressed participants were recruited from Improving Access to Psychological Therapy clinics in the north of England and control participants were recruited from the same region. In Studies 1 and 2, participants generated personally important approach goals (e.g., improve my marathon time) and avoidance goals (e.g., avoid getting upset over little things). In Study 1, participants generated explanations why they would and would not achieve these goals. Goals and causal explanations were subsequently coded as either specific or general. In Study 2, participants completed self-report measures of goal attainment, and the ease of disengagement from unattainable goals and re-engagement with new goals. Results, in Study 1, found that compared to controls, depressed individuals did not generate significantly fewer goals or causal explanations for, or against, goal achievement and valued their goals similarly. Compared to controls, however, depressed individuals generated less specific goals, less specific explanations for approach (but not avoidance) goal achievement, and less specific explanations for goal non-attainment. In Study 2, both groups (depressed and never depressed) reported a similar number of goals and valued their personal goals similarly. However, depressed participants reported fewer approach goals (but not more avoidance goals), rated their approach goal (rewarding) outcomes as less likely to happen and avoidance goal (threatening) outcomes as more likely to happen. Depressed individuals also reported greater ease of disengagement from unattainable goals and more difficulty re-engaging with new goals than controls. Overall, the results suggest that motivational deficits in depression may stem partly from a reduction in the specificity of personal goal representations, and related pessimistic cognitions that hinder goal-directed behaviour. Our findings extend current knowledge of the psychopathology of depression from a goal regulation perspective and may inform the development of more effective goal-based treatments for depression.

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