Anxiety and depression have been associated with adverse early life experience, perceived lack of control, negative thoughts, and avoidance. In this talk I will present a **rational model** that aims to provide causal links between these phenomena, and a planned **eye-tracking experiment** to test the hypothesized mechanisms.
The model agent makes decisions by sampling possible outcomes of their choices, biasing the sampling probability based on an estimate of their degree of control (perceived control → negative thinking). A bias towards sampling negative outcomes leads the agent to avoid risky opportunities (negative thinking → avoidance). The agent estimates their degree of control by comparing the outcomes they receive against counterfactual alternative outcomes—under avoidant behavior, attained outcomes tend to be worse than alternatives (avoidance → perceived control). Finally, we find that this vicious cycle can be kicked off by just a few adverse early experiences, leading to a persistent understimate of control and the associated patterns of negative thought and avoidance.
The eye-tracking experiment tests the key model predictions that (1) reducing control over the environment should push attention from positive to negative outcomes and (2) receiving bad outcomes should lower perceived control (below true environment controllability). We also predict that (3) participants with more severe anxiety and depression symptomology will show an overall bias towards low perceived control. We begin data collection next week, so feedback on the design will be highly appreciated!


Dr. Frederick Callaway
Postdoc in Psychology
NYU & Harvard
Frederick Callaway – A rational model of perceived control, negative thinking, and avoidance