BY: T. Franklin Murphy | April 15, 2022 (modified January 15, 2023)
What is Depressive Realism?
The concept of depressive realism threw me for a loop early in my psychological research. I championed, and continue to promote, realistic optimism—being positive but keeping grounded in reality. As it turns out, this realistic thinking has a mild depressing affect, dampening moods rather than lifting them.
According to the theory of depressive realism, mild to moderate depression is associated with shedding "the Pollyanna optimism and rose-tinted spectacles that shield us from reality, to see life more accurately, and to judge it accordingly" (2012).
Depressive Realism is a psychological theory that people with mild to moderate depression tend to be more realistic in their perceptions than nondepressed people.
Positive Optical Illusions
Julia Thomas wrote, "people exhibiting depressive realism tend to see the things in life that are actually sad, distressing, or uncomfortable as being that way. However, something quite different happens with people who don’t have depression. Instead of seeing the bad things as they are, they may interpret them as if they are temporary, insignificant, or even positive" (2022).
Positive illusions have a place in wellness psychology. While we don't want to walk around with our heads so high above the clouds, we miss the obvious and crash ignorantly into reality, positive illusions may "may confer certain advantages such as an ability to take risks, see through major undertakings, and cope with traumatic events (2012).
Positive illusions create a self-serving bias, protecting the ego, and preventing depression. The concept is simple. For example, when John's relationship with Mary fails, instead of seeing the reality of his weaknesses, he protects his ego by blaming Mary for the break-up. He marches on, looking for a new partner, maintaining his confidence in his ability to love and be loved. John maintains a positive self-serving bias about himself although it may be quite different than reality.
Is John better off by denying reality?
The answer to this simple question is more complicated than a clear "yes" or "no." Certainly, if the reality of his personal flaws create intense feelings of inadequacy that knock him into isolation and depression than smashing into the hard cliffs of reality may no be helpful. On the other hand, if ignoring reality leads to a string of failed relationships and a constant unfulfilled yearning for belonging that teases by remaining just beyond his grasp, then denial is also not the answer.
The Depressive Realism Research Motivated a Plethora of Opposing Research
Lauren B. Alloy and Lyn Y. Abramson shook up the positive psychology circles with their 1979 published findings on depressive realism. Alloy and Abramson's findings cast doubt on some of the growing literature of optimism, learned helplessness, and other warm and fuzzy psychological findings.
Naturally, budding new psychologists and established positive psychology theorist wanted to disprove Alloy and Abramson's findings. Over the next several decades new papers flooded the psychology field contesting the findings. Perhaps, the flurry of research to contest depressive realism is more of a testament than the original research to the hold self-serving positive illusions has our desired realities.
Over Exaggerated Meanings and Implications of Depressive Realism Findings
Like any finding that makes its way from scientific research to the lay population, interpretations of depressive realism became exaggerated and overreaching.
First, Alloy and Abramson's investigated only a specific type of realistic thinking associated with contingency judgments between behaviors and outcomes. Second, the original study involved only mildly or moderately depressed students compared to non-depressed students.
While these findings may support some realistic thinking, such as a mildly depressed person may realistically attribute their investment portfolio increase to the wide spread growth in the stock market, and the non-depressed person attributing their stock holding success to their own genius, the theory does not suggest depressed people have a better grasp on reality.
Depression creates its own thinking biases, distorting reality, and clouding moods with self-confirming interpretations of experience.
Alloy and Abramson's Experiment
In the experiments, depressed and nondepressed students were presented with one of a series of problems varying in the actual degree of contingency. In each problem, subjects estimated the degree of contingency between their responses (pressing or not pressing a button) and an environmental outcome (onset of a green light). Performance on a behavioral task and estimates of the conditional probability of green light onset associated with the two response alternatives provided additional measures for assessing beliefs and contingencies.
Depressed students' judgements of contingency were surprisingly accurate in all four experiments. Nondepressed students, on the other hand, overestimated the degree of contingency between their response and outcomes when noncontingent outcomes were frequent and/or desired and underestimated the degree of contingency when contingent outcomes were undesired.
(Alloy, L. B., & Abramson, L. Y. 1979, p. 441)
I believe that at the heart of Seligman's learned optimism and Alloy and Abramson's depressive realism is the concept of contingency judgements—evaluating
the linkage between response and outcome.
In Seligman's helplessness studies, his dogs were not making objective contingency judgements about their ability to escape the shocks, their contingency judgment was subjective, based on their past.
When past experience is lacking, then, according to this study, it appears that depressed individual's subjective evaluation of probabilities are closer to reality than non-depressed individuals. "The depressive realism account proposes that the perceptions and inferences of depressed individuals about self-referent events are more accurate and realistic, that is, they tend not to over- or under-estimate the subjective probability of events" (Fu, et al. 2005)
However, if we tweaked the original Alloy and Abramson experiment by randomly and often adding shocks for pushing the button, the students, depressed or not, would likely opt out of pushing the button (learned helplessness), even if future experiments removed the shock. Protective responses would reign over probability predictions, throwing accuracy of predicted reality out the window.
When Reality is More Important than Positive Optical Illusions
Even Martin Seligman agrees, positive self views may do harm when misguided. He wrote in his popular book Learned Optimism that the self-esteem movement has some nasty unintended side effects. He explains, "if unwarranted self-esteem is taught to children, problems will ensue. When these children confront the real world, and it tells them they are not as great as they had been taught, they will lash out with violence" (2006).
We don't need to subscribe to cynical thinking to benefit from more objective contingency judgments. Barbara Ehrenreich attacks the positive thinking movement, warning of the dangers of positive thinking when a more objective view would protect. She explains, "a vigilant realism does not foreclose the pursuit of happiness; in fact, it makes it possible" (2010).
Ehrenreich warns that realistic evaluation of danger is a fundamental survival skill. "In its insistence that we concentrate on happy outcomes rather than on lurking hazards, positive thinking contradicts one of our most fundamental instincts, one that we share not only with other primates and mammals but with reptiles, insects, and fish" (Kindle location 3,032).
Paul Dolan, a Professor of Behavioral Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science, is a little softer with his words, suggesting "when facing an uncertain future, the rose-colored glasses of optimism serve us just fine, as long as we can take them off from time to time for a dose of realism" (2015, Kindle location 1,770).
George J Bradley in his book on being a better human illuminates the power of realistic thinking, explaining that realistic contingency judgements provide facilitate "our ability to understand what situations we control and what situations we do not control (and the correlation that follows with where to direct our precious time and effort) then we arrive at and refine strategies for how to go about living well, now, in this world" (2017, p. 141).
T. Franklin Murphy wrote, "the mind’s power to twist experience into logical excuses protects the ego. This practice is hurtful. The further we drift from normalcy, the more distorted the excuses". He continued, "this dull grasp on reality conceals opportunity for escape, inviting continued languishing and accumulating defeats. A imaginary claim to innocent victimhood may temporarily ease the psychological burden of failure; but until explanations lead to corrective action, the explanations only frustrate progression" (2016).
A realistic view of probabilities may serve us well if an optimistic view will keep us pursuing a major goal likely to "result in danger, loss, bodily damage, or wasted effort." Randolph Nesser MD argues that depression may have a fitness advantage by "inhibiting certain actions, especially futile or dangerous challenges to dominant figures, actions in the absence of a crucial resource or a viable plan" (2000).
Suffering and Depressive Realism
We avoid suffering. We try to avoid situations that make us suffer and thoughts that stir pain. Freud was on to something with his pleasure principle. Positive illusions certainly help with our appetite for pleasure and aversion of pain.
Suffering has some benefits. Perhaps, it may even provide a passing opportunity for a more realistic view of ourselves. David Brooks wrote that suffering "creates what modern psychologists call 'depressive realism,' an ability to see things exactly the way they are. It shatters the comforting rationalizations..." (2015, Kindle location 1910).
People need that occasional jolt of reality to open our minds "to painfully and carefully examine the basement of their own soul" (Kindle location 1,910).
Complexity and Depressive Realism
The goal, as I see it, is to engage in activities that enhance our lives and the lives of people around us. Our subjective interpretations of reality are not "positive" or "negative." We vary from moment to moment, mood to mood. Context plays a massive role in these interpretations along with our pasts.
Sometimes our interpretations will be closer to reality and other times optimistically biased, perhaps this is influenced by the emotions present at the moment. Other times, more salient motivators may override the emotion when determining probabilities moving us closer or further from reality.
In the end, we must take a few steps back to review the impact on our lives. Are we moving forward? Are we stagnating? Are our dreams continually failing to materialize? These questions and honest accompanying answers may enlighten our relationship with reality, giving us direction on whether or not we need to address our subjective interpretations, or let them continue to do their job.
Alloy, L. B., & Abramson, L. Y. (1979). Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: Sadder but wiser?. Journal of experimental psychology: General, 108(4), 441.
Bradley, George J.(2017). A Better Human: The Stoic Heart, Mind, and Soul. Bradley Publishing Inc.
Brooks, David (2015) The Road to Character. Random House; 1st edition
Burton, Neal (2012) Depressive Realism. Wisdom or Madness. Published 7-5-2012. Accessed 4-14-2022
Dolan, Paul (2015). Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think. Plume; Reprint edition
Ehrenreich, Barbara (2010) Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. Picador; First edition
Fu, T., Koutstaal, W., Fu, C., Poon, L., & Cleare, A. (2005). Depression, Confidence, and Decision: Evidence Against Depressive Realism. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 27(4), 243-252.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2016) Self-Deceptions. Flourishing Life Society. Published 11-2016. Accessed 4-15-2022.
Nesse, R. (2000). Is Depression an Adaptation?. JAMA Psychiatry, 57(1), 14-20.
Seligman, Martin (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage; Reprint edition
Thomas, Julia (2022) What is Depressive Realism? Better Help. Published 4-1-2022. Accessed 4-14-2022