Dysphoric mood states are related to sensitivity to temporal changes in contingency
A controversial finding in the field of causal learning is that mood contributes to perceptions of uncorrelated relationships. When people are asked to report the degree of control they have, people with dysphoria or depression are more realistic than others in recognising non-contingency between their actions and outcomes (Alloy & Abramson, 1979). The strongest evidence for this depressive realism (DR) effect is based on an experimental procedure in which the dependent variables are verbal or written ratings of contingency or cause. In order to address the possible confounds that such ratings may introduce, we used a two response free-operant causal learning task and performance based dependent measures. Participants were required to respond to maximize the occurrence of a temporally contiguous outcome that was programmed with different and temporally varying probabilities across two responses. Dysphoric participants were more sensitive to the changing outcome contingencies than controls even thought they responded at a similar rate. During probe trials, in which the outcome was masked, their performance recovered quicker than that of the control group. These data provide unexpected support for the depressive realism hypothesis suggesting that dysphoria is associated with heightened sensitivity to temporal shifts in contingency.