People who are depressed tend to be vaguer about personal goals and the reasons for success or failure in attaining them, a new study suggests.

Researchers from the United Kingdom reported in the online journal PLOS ONE Wednesday that depression has long been known to be associated with a tendency toward overgeneralized, as well as particularly negative and self-defeating, thoughts about the self. Reduced motivation in life is also a primary symptom of depression, long established in the scientific literature.

But to date, no one had bothered to examine the underlying thoughts and feelings of depressed people muddling their way through life.

In northwestern England, the researchers recruited 21 people with major depression - 13 women and 8 men who met diagnostic criteria for major depression as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fourth Edition. The participants had all reported at least one episode of major depression within the past five years, some of them also experiencing anxiety disorders including panic disorder, social phobia, and generalized anxiety disorder. These people were compared to 24 others, 17 women and seven men, who had no history of major depression or associated anxiety problems.

The participants then were asked to enumerate specific personal goals, outlining a hoped-for future from next week to next month to next year, or years beyond. Afterward, they were asked, with a 90-second time limit for each item, to list reasons why they might or might not attain each of their goals.

"As predicted, depressed individuals reported goals that were less specific," study authors wrote. "Furthermore, depressed individuals gave less specific reasons for and against attainment of approach goals than controls."

Researchers Joanne M. Dickson and Nicholas J. Moberly, of the University of Liverpool and the University of Exeter respectively, wrote that a growing body of cognitive research suggests that the ability to reconstruct specific memories also influences how the mind thinks about the future. In other words, if you think you've been a jerk in the past, chances are likely that's how you see your future self.

Those negative perceptions about past and future derive much from broad overgeneralizations, corresponding with fuzzy conceptions about future goals. Conversely, the authors wrote, previous research showed that undergraduate study subjects reporting hazier, more abstract personal goals were more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression than others.

The formation of personal goals is an essential part of the human's self-regulatory process, according to control theory, the researchers wrote. Thus, "constructing goals at abstract levels" — such as to be a better person — "without the ability to construe them in more concrete ways ... may make it more difficult to pursue goals effectively...."

Abstract conceptions of goals for the future may underlie depressive illnesses, the authors wrote, though more study would be needed to test fuzzy goal-making as a diagnostic indicator.

The study is available online.

Source: Dickson JM, Moberly NJ. Reduced Specificity of Personal Goals and Explanations for Goal Attainment in Major Depression. PLOS ONE. 2013.