How are humans' subjective judgments of contingencies related to objective contingencies?
Work in social psychology and human contingency learning predicts that the greater
the frequency of desired outcomes, the greater people's judgments of contingency will
be. Second, the learned helplessness theory of depression provides both a strong and
a weak prediction concerning the linkage between subjective and objective contingencies.
According to the strong prediction, depressed individuals should underestimate the
degree of contingency between their responses and outcomes relative to the objective
degree of contingency. According to the weak prediction, depressed individuals merely
should judge that there is a smaller degree of contingency between their responses
and outcomes than nondepressed individuals should. In addition, the present investigation
deduced a new strong prediction from the helplessness theory: Nondepressed individuals
should overestimate the degree of contingency between their responses and outcomes
relative to the objective degree of contingency. In the experiments, depressed and
nondepressed students were present with one of a series of problems varying in the
actual degree of contingency. In each problem, subjects estimated the degree of contingency
between their responses (pressing or not pressing a button) and an environmental outcome
(onset of a green light). Performance on a behavioral task and estimates of the conditional
probability of green light onset associated with the two response alternatives provided
additional measures for assessing beliefs about contingencies. Depressed students'
judgments of contingency were surprisingly accurate in all four experiments. Nondepressed
students, on the other hand, overestimated the degree of contingency between their
responses and outcomes when noncontingent outcomes were frequent and/or desired and
underestimated the degree of contingency when contingent outcomes were undesired.
Thus, predictions derived from social psychology concerning the linkage between subjective
and objective contingencies were confirmed for nondepressed students but not for depressed
students. Further, the predictions of helplessness theory received, at best, minimal
support. The learned helplessness and self-serving motivational bias hypotheses are
evaluated as explanations of the results. In addition, parallels are drawn between
the present results and phenomena in cognitive psychology, social psychology, and
animal learning. Finally, implications for cognitive illusions in normal people, appetitive
helplessness, judgment of contingency between stimuli, and learning theory are discussed.