What Is Depressive Realism?

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Depressive realism is a depressing thought… it dictates that perhaps while none of us want to be depressed – it’s possible that those who suffer from depression may in fact be right. The central conceit here then is that they are depressed not due to a warped view of reality, but due to the fact that they have a more accurate perception of reality and that they don’t possess many of the cognitive biases that the rest of us do which help us to cope with the harshness of reality.

Generally this term is used to describe those with borderline or moderate depression – whereas there is still a level of depression above that which is considered to then be the result of cognitive biases going the other way.

So the question is simple – do we in fact view the world through rose tinted glasses? Do the depressed among us have a valid point? Or do we have more to be happy about than we do to be depressed about? While there is no easy answer to this question we can nevertheless look at the studies and theories that currently exist and use these to make our own mind up. Here we will do just that.

The Cognitive Biases

Our brain works in a specific way. A way that is designed to help us to perceive events in a certain way that is conducive to survival – not necessarily that is accurate. A very simple example of this ‘practicality over reality’ is our perception of ‘edges’. In actual fact edges do not really exist the way we perceive them, and nor do solids. Take a solid rock and the amount of matter compared to the amount of empty space when perceived at an atomic scale is vastly greater. In other words even the most solid objects are in fact mostly empty space. Conversely the empty space that we perceive around us is not as ’empty’ as our brain would have us believe either and is in fact filled with tiny particles – particles of oxygen, particles of dust and even bacteria. Thus the contrast between a solid object and the air around us is very slight. At the same time ‘edges’ don’t really exist at all as they are full of holes as well.

The way our eyes have evolved to work though is such that we perceive edges and we perceive a great contrast between solid objects and the space between them and what we are actually seeing is the difference between what we can pass through and what we cannot. Our visual ‘resolution’ is set at this level not through accident, nor because it can’t be any higher, but in fact because this is the most efficient way for us to view the world so we know what we can move through and what we cannot intuitively.

Such cognitive biases exist in our conscious thoughts though too and we are designed to make certain assumptions and interpretations regarding events that are not necessarily true principally because they help us to survive. There are many cognitive biases then that can help us to see a more positive view of reality. Some of those are described here…

Positive Illusions: Positive illusions are those that unrealistically favor attitudes that people would prefer to be the case. These include inflated beliefs in one’s own abilities as well as unrealistic optimism about the future. The exact extent to which people regularly exhibit positive illusions is something that is highly controversial, however it is fair to say that most of us tend to expect the best for ourselves in a range of scenarios. For instance if someone were to imagine their future grandchildren or children then they would likely imagine them to be above averagely attractive, academically gifted and well mannered. Likewise it is normal to imagine yourself doing well in your career and rarely do we anticipate the likelihood of illness or death befalling us or anyone close to us.

Illusory Superiority: We also tend to overestimate our own abilities and qualities in relation to others. This extends to many areas of life, and the majority of people who do not suffer from some form of depression believe themselves to be superior or at least better than they in fact are when it comes to skills and abilities. Even more common is to believe yourself to be superior in your honesty, compassion and conscientiousness.

Illusion of Control: In the illusion of control individuals believe themselves to be in control of events over which they in fact have no influence on them. It is normal and healthy to have an ‘internal locus of control’ which dictates that you are more in control of your life than you are not. It is obvious to see the evolutionary value of trying to alter events even when there is no obvious way that you would be able to affect them rather than just giving up entirely.

Defense Mechanisms

Another way in which depressive realism could operate is via ‘defense mechanisms’. These defense mechanisms were proposed by Sigmund Freud as part of his psychodynamic theory of psychology. His belief was that you could separate the ‘psyche’ into three distinct parts – the ego, the superego and the ID. The role of the super-ego is to protect the ego – which is essentially our conscious mind. The superego thus would use the defense mechanisms such as repression and reaction formation in order to disguise the truth from us and make us hold more positive beliefs.

Repression for instance occurs when something is so damaging to our psyche that it is ‘forgotten’ and rendered inaccessible to the conscious mind. This then essentially edits out the worst parts of life almost like a cut version of a movie. Likewise reaction formation protects you from your own thoughts and feelings that you find repulsive. For instance if you were to be unsure of your sexuality you might act homophobic as a way to ‘prove’ to yourself that you were not gay. Similarly projection involves attributing your own characteristics onto someone else – so if you were very short tempered you might accuse those around you of being bad tempered. Fantasy simply refers retreating into fantasy and creating fallacious events to help you to avoid the reality.

Remove all of these defense mechanisms then and you would have a far more depressing view of your own personality and of your reality.

Media

It’s also true that the media and many other sources are constantly giving us positive versions of the world around us. Films and television programs always have happy endings and they always involve attractive people and straight forward problems. Likewise we are constantly being told by advertizing, by our teachers, by our parents and more that we can ‘achieve anything’, that the ‘world is wonderful’ and that we are all neighbors. Of course all this is objective, but when so much of the stimulus around us is overwhelming positive and optimistic it becomes the social norm to be optimistic as well.

Studies

There are many studies that have been done on these cognitive biases in order to discern whether depressive realism has anything going for it. Some of these studies seem to suggest that our view of reality may indeed be seen through ‘rose colored glasses’.

Studies have found for instance that people tend to overestimate their own abilities more often than they underestimate them and that they tend to overestimate their performance in exams and tests when compared to other people. Other studies have shown that we tend to have more positive expectations for our life than reality subsequently shows to be the case.

That said, the majority of more recent studies seem to show that the opposite is true – that psychologically unhealthy individuals are more likely to hold illusory beliefs than are healthy individuals.

For instance in one study by Colvin et al. 1995, found that self-enhancement biases tended to correlate with poor social skills and other psychological maladjustment rather than with any depression. Likewise in another study men and women were videotaped having normal conversations (unaware of being filmed) and the tapes were then assessed by independent observers to identify those with positive biases – and these were revealed to be those with various psychological issues. Compton 1992 also managed to demonstrate how it was completely possible to have high levels of self-esteem without exhibiting any psychological issues or illusory beliefs. Other studies showed that even those with depression still often held strong positive illusions.

Overall however, a meta-analysis that compared the results of 118 studies found that the just over half of the studies did support depressive realism as correct.

Conclusion

Although the studies lean slightly towards depressive realism, there are problems with the methodology of these studies in many cases, and the evidence is not really strong enough to draw any concrete conclusions.

Part of the problem with analyzing such a concept is that many of the terms are hard to define or even arbitrary. For instance Knee and Zuckerman have challenged the definition of mental health that some studies have used. Likewise it’s impossible for a test to definitively prove or disprove views that you hold about yourself.

In general it’s also hard to say what perception of reality would warrant depression. Often it’s less about how you perceive something and more about what aspects of that perception you choose to focus on. Our views of our own performance, of what matters in life, and of whether something should be celebrated or lamented are subjective and in many cases completely arbitrary.

If you can take anything from the studies and theories regarding depressive realism then it should be that life is what you make of it… but then again that right there is undoubtedly an example of a positive illusion…

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Stanley C Loewen

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