Self-processing in relation to emotion and reward processing in depression

Catherine Hobbs, Jie Sui, David Kessler, Marcus R Munafò, Katherine S Button

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BACKGROUND: Depression is characterised by a heightened self-focus, which is believed to be associated with differences in emotion and reward processing. However, the precise relationship between these cognitive domains is not well understood. We examined the role of self-reference in emotion and reward processing, separately and in combination, in relation to depression.

METHODS: Adults experiencing varying levels of depression (n = 144) completed self-report depression measures (PHQ-9, BDI-II). We measured self, emotion and reward processing, separately and in combination, using three cognitive tasks.

RESULTS: When self-processing was measured independently of emotion and reward, in a simple associative learning task, there was little association with depression. However, when self and emotion processing occurred in combination in a self-esteem go/no-go task, depression was associated with an increased positive other bias [b = 3.51, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.24-5.79]. When the self was processed in relation to emotion and reward, in a social evaluation learning task, depression was associated with reduced positive self-biases (b = 0.11, 95% CI 0.05-0.17).

CONCLUSIONS: Depression was associated with enhanced positive implicit associations with others, and reduced positive learning about the self, culminating in reduced self-favouring biases. However, when self, emotion and reward processing occurred independently there was little evidence of an association with depression. Treatments targeting reduced positive self-biases may provide more sensitive targets for therapeutic intervention and potential biomarkers of treatment responses, allowing the development of more effective interventions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1924 - 1936
Number of pages13
JournalPsychological Medicine
Issue number5
Early online date7 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - 30 Apr 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was funded by a GW4 BioMed MRC Doctoral Training Partnership award to Catherine Hobbs.


  • Depression
  • affective biases
  • emotion
  • reward
  • self
  • self-schema

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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