The Symptom Perception Hypothesis Revised: Depression and Anxiety Play Different Roles in Concurrent and Retrospective Physical Symptom Reporting

  • Howren M
  • Suls J
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According to the classic symptom perception hypothesis (Costa & McCrae, 1987; Watson & Pennebaker, 1989), the global predisposition to frequently experience a variety of negative emotions-that is, neuroticism (N) or trait negative affectivity (NA)-is associated with inflated physical symptom reporting. We tested a revision of this hypothesis, which posits distinctive roles for depression and anxiety in the physical symptom experience. Three studies tested predictions from the revised symptom perception hypothesis: (a) that depressive affect should be related to inflated retrospective physical symptom reports and (b) that anxious affect should be related to inflated concurrent, or momentary, physical symptom reports. Study 1 assessed the relations among N/NA, depressive affect, and recall of physical symptoms experienced in the previous 3 weeks. Depressive affect was uniquely and positively associated with recalling more symptoms. When entered with depressive affect in multiple regression analyses, neuroticism was not associated with level of symptoms recalled. In Study 2, participants were randomly assigned to anxious, depressed, angry, happy, or neutral mood inductions and then reported about concurrent symptom experience. Participants in the anxious mood condition reported significantly more concurrent physical symptoms than did those in the other 4 conditions. In Study 3, anxious, depressed, or neutral mood was induced, followed by assessment of both concurrent and retrospective physical symptoms. Those assigned to the anxious mood induction reported more concurrent symptoms, while those in the depressed mood condition reported having experienced more symptoms in the past. These findings are consistent with the idea that encoding and retrieval processes, which are differentially associated with anxious versus depressed affect, influence different aspects of physical symptom reporting. The results have implications for self-diagnosis, medical treatment-seeking, and care, and potential insights about other complex social and interpersonal behaviors are discussed.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Health psychology
  • Neuroticism
  • Physical symptom perception

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  • M. Bryant Howren

  • Jerry Suls

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