Depressive realism: Why depressed people can be more realistic


Kevin Mangelschots

Depression and realism seem to be connected.

Multiple studies suggest that depressed people tend to be more realistic and are often better at estimating themselves and others more truthfully than non-depressed individuals can. They tend to have a more accurate representational view of themselves, others, and the world.

While depression is for the most part a negative experience for the individuals suffering from it, depressive realism provides an interesting take that there are some small, albeit possibly significant advantages to depression and possessing a depressive temperament.

Depressive realism explained

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One of the reasons why this phenomenon exists is that depressed people are often not desperately trying to maintain and protect their positive self-image.

More so, individuals suffering from depression are frequently more capable of analyzing and noticing the bad things and what could be improved in life. Due to this increased sensitivity to noticing the negative stuff in life, it might be that they do not necessarily search for just the positives in life. Thus, they are not positively biased like a lot of non-depressed individuals are.

A lot of people desperately try to confirm their thought patterns, no matter whether they’re true or false. Thus, some people are biased from the very start. Some will only search out positive things, and will even try to twist and warp information about themselves and others in a manner that’s convenient and suits them. Which is oftentimes changing it in a way that’s protective of their positive self-image, even if untrue.

Most healthy individuals are willing to go to great lengths to protect and maintain that positive self-image. I guess this is because we identify and base our personality on our thoughts and personal views of the world. Thus, a lot of healthy individuals are positively biased. This might even be an example of cognitive dissonance.

What is cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance illustration.

Cognitive dissonance is a term used to describe the uncomfortable tension that comes along from holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or from engaging in behavior that contradicts an individual’s personal beliefs.

It can be explained as the perception of incompatibility between two understandings. This cognition can be defined by knowledge which includes emotions, beliefs, attitude, and/or behavior.

This incompatibility between two cognitions drives the mind to invent and acquire new thoughts and beliefs. Or, to change already existing beliefs in such a manner that it serves the purpose to reduce the amount of cognitive dissonance between those two understandings.

Criticism against depressive realism is that instead of having a more realistic view of the world and belief system, individuals suffering from depression are simply negatively biased. The other criticism is that depressive realism is simply an accidental consequence of the depressed individual being in a situation that agrees with their negative bias, rather than thinking more accurately in general.

Studies about depressive realism

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One meta-analytic study about 75 relevant depressive realism studies representing 7305 participants from across the US and Canada, as well as from England, Spain, and Israel indicates a small depressive realism effect.

Overall, however, both dysphoric/depressed individuals (d=.14) and nondysphoric/nondepressed individuals evidenced a substantial positive bias (d=.29), with this bias being larger in nondysphoric/nondepressed individuals.[1]

Another study examined the relationship between metacognition and depression. More specifically, the depressive realism hypothesis. It concluded the following:

Consistent with the depressive realism hypothesis, mild depression was associated with better calibration than nondepression.

However, this “sadder but wiser” phenomenon appears to only exist to a point, as moderate depression and nondepression showed no calibration differences.

Thus, the level-of-depression account of depressive realism is supported.[2]

As shown in the conclusion, it seems to suggest that depressive realism does exist, but the severity of depression matters a lot if it holds true or not.

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Another study supported the notion that people suffering from a major depressive disorder did not make more accurate judgments of control than their non-depressed counterparts. They came to the following conclusion:

Depressed patients were no more likely to use the appropriate logical heuristic to generate their judgments of control than their nondepressed counterparts and each appeared to rely on different primitive heuristics.

Depressed patients were consistently more negative than their nondepressed counterparts and when they did appear to be more “accurate” in their judgments of control (as in the noncontingent situation) it was largely because they applied the wrong heuristic to less accurate information.

These findings do not support the notion of depressive realism and suggest that depressed patients distort their judgments in a characteristically negative fashion[3]

The literature seems to propose that depressed people are more realistic, although there are also studies that seem to indicate no differences in accurate judgment between depressed and non-depressed individuals.

More and larger scientific studies will need to be conducted in the future to come to a conclusive answer.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is depressive realism?

Depressive realism is a psychological hypothesis that was developed by Lauren Alloy and Lyn Yvonne Abrahamson.

It suggests that depressed individuals have more realistic views and reasoning than non-depressed people do.

It proposes that the negative cognitive bias of depressed individuals results in a more accurate assessment of the world and that non-depressed people might simply be positively biased and, thus, wrongfully appraising the world.

Yet, one of its main criticisms is that depressed people tend to possess a negative cognitive bias. This negative cognitive bias is the reason they have negative automatic thoughts, maladaptive behaviors, and dysfunctional world beliefs.

Are people with depression realists?

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Although the hypothesis of depressive realism suggests that people with depression are more realistic, not all individuals suffering from depression are realists.

We must always take into account that each individual is different, regardless of whether they’re depressed or not.

Is depressive realism advantageous?

Although depression is by and large a negative experience and detrimental to our overall mental and physical health, some studies propose that there is some hidden benefit due to being depressed in certain situations.

Individuals suffering from depression might be more likely to approach and handle situations more realistically, which leads to better, more careful choices.

This might be related to the depression itself, or that people suffering from depression might be more realistic on average.

Final note

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Depression and realism seem to be intertwined.

Even though there’s controversy about whether depressive realism exists or not, we can conclude that going through life with either a positivity bias or a negativity bias is not beneficial for making good decisions. As both will contribute to a less accurate assessment of the world.

Whether you believe in this particular phenomenon or not, I think it’s up to every one of us to try to eliminate biases and to look at life as rationally as possible without prejudices.

This is something even the most rational of people have trouble doing, as all individuals are subject to emotions. Emotions, as well as people, are not always rational.



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