Negative beliefs about the future.
The third problem with depressed people's prospection concerns their underlying templates for understanding what the future holds. We propose that a template, which we call pessimistic predictive style, is particularly poignant. This parallels pessimistic explanatory style (PES), a characteristic tendency to explain past and present events with certain patterns of causes (Peterson et al., 1982). A person with PES explains negative experiences with causes that are personal, pervasive, and permanent (Peterson & Seligman, 1984): Bad things happened because of one's own shortcomings, which have poisoned all domains of life and always will. Depressed people tend to have a marked PES (Alloy, Abramson, Metalsky, & Hartlage, 1988; Peterson & Seligman, 1984; Seligman, Abramson, Semmel, & von Baeyer, 1979). In parallel, depressed people explain good events with impersonal, transient, and specific causes.
Explanatory style is the past and present side of the coin, however, and the future side has been neglected. To appreciate the shortcomings of explanatory style theorizing and to appreciate why predictive style is an advance, we must return to the scientific atmosphere of the late 1970s. Behaviorism was just giving way to cognitive psychology, but cognitive psychology was exclusively about memory (past) and perception (present), and it was deliberately silent about expectations of the future. When explanatory style was formulated (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978), theorizing about mental life had just become acceptable, but only if the mental life was about the present and the past. This unstated premise of avoiding future- oriented cognitions plagued both explanatory style theory and Beck's theorizing as well. Why? Essential to behaviorism and to early cognitive theory is that no reference should be made to teleology; its mission was to explain the apparently forward-looking behavior of animals only by the past and the present. Drives and reinforcers might be more varied for humans, and humans might be capable of longer stimulus-response chains and wider stimulus-generalization, but notions such as expectations of as yet nonexistent future events were an invitation to untestability at best, and to obscurantism and incoherence at worst.
Cognitions about past experience and present events would, it was hoped, determine cognitions about the future. So when explanatory style was formulated, it was about past and present events, with the unspoken premise that these would somehow determine cognitions about the future. Even in the 1970s, this premise was dubious, because as Brickman et al. (1982) astutely pointed out, explanations for the cause of a problem do not mandate parallel explanations for its solution: The cause of facial disfiguration might be external, temporary, and local (a madman throwing acid at my face), but the implications for the future (endless surgeries and social rejections) are permanent and pervasive.
Explanatory style needs the other side of the coin fleshed out: predictive style, attributions about the causes of future events. This is a neglected area of research. A pessimistic predictive style should have the same features as PES: Depressive predictions about if-then sequences in the future are likely (a) pervasive, (b) permanent, and (c) personal (i.e., "if I don't perform well on this test, then I'll never succeed and I'll die a failure"), and the predictive style about good events should be the opposite. Explanatory style about the past and present might or might not be strongly correlated with predictive style about the future. This is a good topic for research, and empirical work should compare explanatory style and predictive style as causal of depression: We hypothesize that predictions about the future will influence people's behavior more than their explanations of the past and the present.