York study finds feelings of inferiority cause recurring depression

A study co-authored by a York University professor has found evidence that students who perceive themselves as inferior to others and feel trapped by their circumstances are at greater risk for recurring depression.

“We found that students with high levels of involuntary subordination were more likely to experience recurring episodes of major depression – even after controlling for a lifetime history of major depression and current depressive status,” says study co-author Myriam Mongrain, a psychology professor in York’s Faculty of Health.

Involuntary subordination is characterized by low perceived social status, unfavourable social comparisons and feeling unable to escape from negative circumstances. An initial sample of 146 graduate students underwent a diagnostic interview to confirm a history of major depression and also completed measures of entrapment and social comparison. After 16 months, participants were assessed for a recurrence of major depression. Participants who experienced a recurrence of depression had significantly higher levels of involuntary subordination.

The study’s findings support an evolutionary theory of depression, in which people feel there is no escape from negative circumstances or feelings and adapt by withdrawing in order to avoid further emotional harm. Mongrain believes the results from grad students could be extrapolated to the general population.

“This is further evidence that there are adaptive aspects which trigger recurrences of depression,” Mongrain says. “It’s similar to the ordering of weakest to strongest that we see in the animal kingdom.”

Evolutionary models propose that depression is the result of defeat in social competition. In the animal kingdom, losers in status contests are thought to become demotivated and withdrawn as the inevitability of defeat becomes apparent. In humans, researchers believe the failure to accept defeat leads to a prolonged state of involuntary subordination, which in turn leads to depression.

”It was crucial to show that involuntary subordination was itself causing depression and not vice versa,” says Mongrain.

To eliminate this possibility, the study controlled for the number of depressive episodes in its prediction model. It found that the lifetime history of depression did not significantly predict future recurrences when involuntary subordination was included in the model. Similarly, major depression itself was not a significant predictor of depressive relapse.

The study also found that participants who experienced a recurrence of depression came into the study with significantly higher entrapment scores, but not poorer social comparisons. Yet, social comparison and entrapment showed a similar relationship to past depressive episodes.

“In future research, we’ll need to clarify the specific vulnerability to depression [that entrapment and social comparison pose],” Mongrain says. She notes it will also be important to assess involuntary subordination at several points in time, and in relation to different types of defeating events.

The study, titled "Entrapment and Perceived Status in Graduate Students Experiencing a Recurrence of Major Depression," was co-authored by Edward D. Sturman, assistant professor at the State University of New York at Plattsburg. It appeared in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science in July 2008.