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Self regulatory executive function theory

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Self regulatory executive function theory, also called the SREF model and developed by Wells and Matthews (1994;; Wells & Matthews, 1996), demonstrates how metacognitive factors--that is, beliefs about cognition, emotion, and behavior--can provoke and maintain various psychological disorders. Specifically, these metacognitions or beliefs predispose individuals towards coping strategies that might be maladaptive, ultimately compromising their psychological wellbeing.

Taxonomy of maladaptive meta-cognitive beliefs

Positive beliefs about worry

Proponents of this theory have developed an instrument, called the metacognitions questionnaire, that characterizes five beliefs or factors that could foster maladaptive coping strategies (Cartwright-Hatton & Wells, 1997;; Wells & Cartwright-Hatton, 2004). The first factor relates to positive beliefs about worry. That is, many individuals assume that persistent ruminations about some issue or predicament can be useful. This belief promotes rumination, which in turn can amplify the unpleasant emotions associated with some issue. That is, such rumination can elicit recyclical thinking patterns.

Numerous studies have shown that such beliefs coincide with psychological disorders. Watkins and Moulds (2005), for example, showed that individuals who are prone to depression are more likely than peers to believe that reflecting upon their past problems or emotions is beneficial to their future. These individuals feel that such deliberations might prevent other problems in the future as well as provide some insight and understanding into previous issues.

Similarly, research indicates that any interventions that preclude these ruminations can improve mood. Unfavorable feedback is less likely to provoke depression or dejection when the room is noisy (Silva & Brehm, 2001). Noisy environments seem to obstruct ruminations, which can amplify the repercussions of unfavorable information or feedback.

Worries are uncontrollable or dangerous

The second factor relates to the extent to which individuals feel that negative thoughts and worries are uncontrollable or dangerous (Cartwright-Hatton & Wells, 1997;; Wells & Cartwright-Hatton, 2004). Some individuals feel their worries and feelings cannot be controlled, for example, and this belief has been shown to coincide with emotional difficulties.

Cognitive confidence

The third factor relates to whether individuals are confident in their attention and memory. As confidence dissipates, individuals can direct their attention unduly to themselves, called self-focussed attention.

Need to control thoughts

The fourth factor concerns the tendency of some individuals to feel they need to control or suppress any negative thoughts or feelings. Individuals who adopt this belief strive to suppress, inhibit, or avert any negative thoughts or emotions--an inclination that has been shown to exacerbate these unpleasant cognitions. Specifically, after individuals suppress some thought, this cognition tends to be inhibited transiently, but generally returns later, often more intensely than before (e.g., Borton, Markovitz, & Dieterich, 2005;; see also Ironic rebound effect).

Cognitive self consciousness

Finally, some individuals believe they should monitor their own thoughts, which also amplifies self focussed attention. Such attention can provoke a sequence of problems. Individuals, for example, can become more sensitive to their worries, which can translate mild anxieties into severe panic (see Levitt, Brown, Orsillo, & Barlow, 2004).

This proposition is consistent with the argument that emotional intensity diminishes after individuals distance themselves from some event or context. After they conceptualize an event from the perspective of someone else--or ask themselves why rather than how some event unfolded--the intensity of negative emotions diminishes. These exercises shift the focus of attention to distant or abstract concepts, which alleviates emotional intensity (Kross, Ayduk, & Mischel, 2005).

The problems with self consciousness could also explain the benefits that arise when individuals reflect upon their core values. This exercise, called self affirmation, shifts attention from personal needs to broader issues (Crocker, Niiya, & Mischkowski, 2008). Furthermore, this exercise also enhances wellbeing and resilience (Koole, Smeets, van Knippenberg, & Dijksterhuis, 1999;; see Self affirmation theory).

Measures of maladaptive metacognitions

The metacognitions questionnaire 30 (MCQ-30), validated and substantiated by Wells and Cartwright-Hatton (2004), is often utilized to assess these maladaptive beliefs, judgments, and tendencies. Items assess five factors: positive beliefs about worry, such as "Worrying helps me cope"& beliefs that thoughts can be uncontrollable and dangerous, such as "When I start worrying I cannot stop"& cognitive confidence, such as "My memory can mislead me at times"& beliefs about the need to control thoughts, such as "Not being able to control my thoughts is a sign of weakness"& and cognitive self-consciousness, such as "I pay close attention to the way my mind works". Participants specify the extent to which they agree or disagree with the various statements.

Practical implications

McEvoy and Perini (2009) examine whether attention training can be applied to challenge the repercussions of these maladaptive metacognitions (see Mohlman, 2004;; Papageorgiou & Wells, 1998, 2000;; Valmaggia, Bouman, & Schuurman, 2007;; Wells, 1990, 2005, 2007, for discussions on attention training). Specifically, this form of training is intended to enhance the flexibility and control of attention, which can ultimately obstruct maladaptive ruminations. Nevertheless, attention training with CBT was no more effective than attention training without CBT in curbing these metacognitive beliefs. Regardless of whether attention training was included, CBT did improve metacogntive beliefs as well as alleviate symptoms of depression and social anxiety.


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Last Update: 6/28/2016