Attributional Style in Multiple Sclerosis: Examining the Learned Helplessness Model in a Chronically Ill Population

Open Access
Vargas, Gray Alexandra
Graduate Program:
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
August 25, 2010
Committee Members:
  • Peter Andrew Arnett, Thesis Advisor
  • depression
  • multiple sclerosis
  • attributional style
  • learned helplessness
If cognitive factors could be identified that explain additional variance in depression in the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) population, they would represent a promising target for treatment and prevention of depression in MS. The learned helplessness model states that in certain individuals, uncontrollable negative events lead to a depressogenic attributional style, which leads to depression after future uncontrollable events. In addition, the specific vulnerability theory states that the attributions and negative events must be in the same domain. This theory has barely been studied in MS. Disease-related helplessness has also been shown to be associated with depression and to interact with attributional style, but there are mixed findings as to whether perceived control over illness is adaptive. The proposed study differentiated MS-related and non-MS-related attributional style, and analyzed them along with disease-related helplessness in an attempt to determine whether the learned helplessness theory or the specific vulnerability theory apply to this population. 52 MS patients and 49 controls were included in this study. Participants were given the Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ) as well as disability and depression measures. The majority of causes listed on the ASQ were non-MS related, and more disabled and helpless participants listed more MS-related events. In patients, non-MS-related attributional style correlated with both stress and depression, but MS-related attributional style did not correlate with either disability or depression. Stress mediated the effect of non-MS-related and overall attributional style on depression. These results suggest that attributional style is an important construct in depression in MS; however, attributional style does not appear to lead directly to depression but instead to more perceived stress, which in turn leads to increased depression. Additionally, attributions seem to operate differently when they are illness vs. non-illness-related.