The cognitive approach assumes that OCD is a consequence of faulty and irrational ways of thinking taken to an extreme. Patients with OCD have different thinking patterns and more intrusive thoughts. The cognitive explanation stresses that everyone has unwanted thoughts from time to time, but OCD sufferers cannot ignore these thoughts and they are often misinterpreted, leading to self-blame and the obsessive symptoms of OCD. So that the negative thoughts and concerns associated with a particular anxiety do not come to pass, compulsions arise in an attempt to ‘neutralise’ the anxiety. The sufferer becomes more wary of having intrusive thoughts and their fear of them increases. As these ideas are constantly thought about, they become obsessive and a pattern of ritualistic, repetitive behaviour begins.
A strength of this theory is that there is supporting evidence. For example, Wegner found that a group of students asked not to think of a white bear were more likely to do so than a group allowed to think about it. Salkoius found that when asking participants to suppress thoughts and on other days not to, the participants kept a diary of more intrusive thoughts when they had to be suppressed these findings support the idea that a deliberate attempt to suppress thoughts leads to an increase in these thoughts; supporting the main ideas of the approach.
This is a strength because the two studies have found similar findings and are therefore externally reliable. This makes the cognitive approach reliable as a whole because it can be checked and verified and the theory has sound foundations for further research.
However, a weakness of this theory is that there are problems with the evidence. For example, Salkoius used self-report methodologies in order to measure the thoughts of the participants. This means that the results may have been subjected to social desirability bias. For example, the amount of intrusive thoughts may not have all been recorded in the diaries in order to please the experimenter; they may not want them to know how bad their symptoms are due to feelings of embarrassment. This is an issue because it means the study lacks internal validity; the intrusive thoughts in the diary are not caused solely by supressing them, but there are other extraneous variables such as embarrassment. We therefore cannot prove cause and effect to show that suppressing thoughts lead to symptoms in OCD, so there are other factors the cognitive approach needs to consider in order to offer a causal explanation.
However, although there are issues with self-report methodologies, they can provide a greater insight into the participant’s thoughts and a greater level of detail. They are allowing the participants to describe their own experiences rather than inferring this from observing participants. It therefore provides access to a high level of quantitative data.