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Social Contagion: Living with a Person at Risk of Depression May Increase Your Risk As Well

At certain periods in life, living with a person who uses maladaptive thinking styles increases your risk of depression. Fortunately, the opposite is also true.

Trying to avoid depression? Well be careful who you live with…

Certain thinking styles increase your risk for depression. For example, people who blame themselves for negative and stressful events beyond their control and those who imagine they have little control over their fate are at greater risk of depression than people with more adaptive thinking styles.

  • At certain periods of life, such as when we first attend university, we are strongly influenced by our peers and research shows that we even tend to adopt some of the thinking styles of those around us.
  • So if you get close to a person who makes use of thinking strategies that increase the risk of depression, you are more likely to also experience an increased depression risk.

The Study

Once past adolescence, most people don’t change their thinking strategies much – you’re just either a glass half-empty kind of person, or you’re not.

But in times of major transition, such as when moving away from home for the first time to a university dorm room, do such thinking styles then become contagious?

That’s what researchers at the University of Notre Dame wanted to know, and to find out they enlisted 103 pairs of randomly assigned college roommates to participate in a study.

  • Each student was given a questionnaire to fill out within a month of arriving on campus and then two more, at 3 and 6 months later.
  • The questionnaires measured for cognitive vulnerability to depression and indices of depression

The Results

  • Students who got randomly assigned a roommate with maladaptive thinking styles (someone who was at risk of developing depression) were likely to ‘catch’ some of this negative thinking, and you could see this increase in cognitive vulnerability at both 3 and 6 months.
  • Conversely, students with higher vulnerability scores assigned to live with students exhibiting very little negative thinking actually reduced their risk of depression by 3 and 6 months of co-habitation
  • Students who ‘caught’ negative thinking patterns by 3 months exhibited twice the level of depressive symptoms by 6 months as students who had not increased their negative thinking patterns.


The study authors write, "Our findings suggest that it may be possible to use an individual's social environment as part of the intervention process, either as a supplement to existing cognitive interventions or possibly as a stand-alone intervention. Surrounding a person with others who exhibit an adaptive cognitive style should help to facilitate cognitive change in therapy."

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