The Importance of Cognition for Psychopathology

June 6, 2020
Cognitive processes play a fundamental role in many psychological disorders. In fact, processes such as attention, memory, or reasoning can work differently in the context of a psychological affliction.

The importance of cognition for psychopathology is marked. The presence and evolution of different cognitive factors is the variable that determines whether or not certain psychological problems are present or not.

We’re talking about anxiety, sadness, blame (emotions), or maladaptive behavior. Some people might recognize an anxiety attack, a self-harming depressive crisis, or the rituals that a person suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) might carry out.

However, processes such as attention, reasoning, and memory manifest themselves differently in different types of psychological disorders. These processes aren’t the same in well-adjusted people as they are in people with maladaptive behaviors that affect their day-to-day life. That doesn’t mean, however, that these processes are the same in everyone with a psychological disorder.

For example, the fact that people with OCD, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have maladjusted expectations doesn’t mean that they’ve always had them or that they’ll have them forever.

An anxious woman covering her face illustrating cognition for psychopathology

Cognitive factors of psychopathology

The psychological processes that can be affected by different psychological disorders are memory, reasoning, thought, attention, perception, and emotional regulation.

We’ll talk about some of them with examples referencing a wide variety of disorders. The goal is to understand the importance of cognitive factors in psychopathology.

Attention: excessive or defective

Attention is a process that illustrates the importance of cognition in psychopathology. It’s a psychological process that shows a maladjusted pattern in people with psychological disorders.

This pattern has to do with hypervigilance. People with psychological conditions tend to pay more attention to stimuli that support their fears and worries.

An individual with social phobia, for example, tends to pay more attention to negative information and personal functioning. Not only are they hypervigilant of signals that could indicate they aren’t well-received by those around them but also of the sensations in their body (change in heart rate and breathing, etc.) This is self-attention.

Memory games

In the cognitive process of memory, the phenomena that occur depend on the disorder in question. Some of those are:

  • Selective memory. People with panic disorder, OCD, PTSD, GAD, mood disorders, or eating disorders tend to remember information that validates their fears. Therefore, someone with depression can remember information that holds up the idea that their family doesn’t understand or support them and erases memories that contradict that idea.
  • Overgeneralized memory. Autobiographical memory can be specific or overgeneralized. Individuals with some mood disorders, eating disorders, or PTSD remember things in a diffuse or vague way, which distorts their memory.
  • Recurring memory. With PTSD or panic disorder, the memory process is often plagued by intrusive and unwanted memories about the traumatic situation.
  • Ability to trust memories. Individuals with OCD often feel as if they can’t trust their memory to work properly. If you can’t trust your memory, then you’ll wonder if you really did turn off the stove or lock the door. That uncertainty leads to compulsions.

Reasoning bias

Everyone has biases in their reasoning. However, you can understand the importance of cognition in psychopathology through these much more extreme biases. There are different reasoning biases associated with different disorders. For example:

  • Ambiguous stimuli interpretation bias. In disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder or mood disorders, there’s a tendency to interpret ambiguous stimuli as negative. These stimuli can be gestures and changes in facial expressions, etc.
  • Negative attributional style. This reasoning bias is typical of depressive disorders. The negative attributional style means that the negative events that take place come from internal causes. They are also stable and aren’t going to change. In psychotic disorders, you tend to see a positive attributional style, i.e. the “other” is always the one to blame for whatever bad thing that happened.
  • Probability judgment. In certain disorders, there’s a tendency to overestimate the probability that something bad will happen. Individuals suffering from these disorders also overestimate the terrible consequences of this awful imaged event. As we mentioned above, these often show up in phobias, OCD, GAD, PTSD, psychotic disorders, or depressive disorders.

Thought traps

Ruminations, intrusions, and preoccupations are elements that tend to become heightened or intensified when associated with a psychological disorder. Consequently, you can see the importance of cognition in psychopathology with disorders such as OCD, where the intrusions and recurring thoughts are heightened. Not only that but, in addition to appearing more often, they’re more intense or powerful.

For people with depression, the thought is “I’m worthless”. People with anxiety think: “They’ll stop loving me”. For people with OCD, on the other hand, it’s “I’m going to contaminate myself”. In general, people with a psychological condition overestimate the importance of these thoughts. So much so, that they eventually become their reality.

Thought suppression, for example, becomes especially problematic for people with OCD. If you try to use your will to “not think” about certain things, distract yourself, or eliminate thoughts, the opposite usually occurs.

A curly-haired woman with her eyes closed.

Conclusions: change is difficult

Therefore, knowing the importance of cognition in psychopathology helps understand why it’s so complicated to change these things if you don’t work on them. When a mental health professional is going to design a treatment plan for a patient with OCD, they have to understand that:

  • There are cognitive factors behind everything else, that make it difficult to get rid of the problem.
  • These cognitive impediments can be an obstacle to the success of the prescribed treatment measures.

As a result, if an individual with depression has a negative attributional style, it’d be very complicated for them to break away from their systematic rule when faced with a routine that has both negative and positive events. That’s why intervention by a specialist is so important.