In action or inaction? Social approach-avoidance tendencies in major depression

Sina Radke, Franziska Güths, Julia A André, Bernhard W Müller, Ellen R A de Bruijn
Psychiatry Research 2014 November 30, 219 (3): 513-7
In depression, approach deficits often impair everyday social functioning, but empirical findings on performance-based measurements of approach-avoidance behavior remain conflicting. To investigate action tendencies in patients with depression, the current study used an explicit version of the Approach-Avoidance Task (AAT). In this task, participants responded to emotional faces by either pulling a joystick toward (approach) or pushing it away from themselves (avoid). Reaction times to happy and angry expressions with direct and averted gaze were assessed in 30 patients with major depressive disorder and 20 matched healthy controls. In contrast to healthy individuals, depressed patients did not show approach-avoidance tendencies, i.e., there was no dominant behavioral tendency and they reacted to happy and angry expressions likewise. These results indicate that behavioral adjustments to different emotional expressions, gaze directions or motivational demands were lacking in depression. Crucially, this distinguishes depressed patients not only from healthy individuals, but also from other clinical populations that demonstrate aberrant approach-avoidance tendencies, e.g., patients with social anxiety or psychopathy. As responding flexibly to different social signals is integral to social interactions, the absence of any social motivational tendencies seems maladaptive, but may also provide opportunities for modifying action tendencies in a therapeutic context.

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