What Is Depressive Realism?

By Julia Thomas|Updated August 23, 2022

Depression is a type of mental illness marked by feelings of sadness and negative thinking. It not only affects the way you think and feel, but it can have serious effects on a person’s entire life, including their self-esteem, work and productivity, family life, and ability to take care of themselves. In short, it’s a challenging condition to have. But what if people with depression see things the way they are? This is the question behind the hypothesis of depressive realism. It’s a question that has yet to be answered fully, but it’s one that scientists have been exploring for decades.

Theoretical Perspectives: The Definition Of Depressive Realism

Depressive realism is a psychological hypothesis that asserts that depressed individuals tend to be more accurate in their assessments of certain situations. In contrast, people who aren’t depressed tend to have optimistic illusions, commonly referred to as “rose-colored glasses.” They see the world with unrealistic optimism, in a more positive light even when things are going wrong. Research has shown that depressive realism might be a mild or even moderate depression feature, but likely doesn’t happen for those who experience severe depression. The hypothesis was first proposed by L.B. Alloy and L.Y. Abramson in the late 1970s.

Why Does It Matter?

Numerous studies have been conducted since Alloy and Abramson first came up with the idea of depressive realism. Their goal was to test this hypothesis and determine why depressed people are more realistic than others. This is important to understand because most psychologists assume that people with depression are prone to cognitive distortions (a type of self-deception) that make their thinking less realistic – not more so. Furthermore, if the theory of depressive realism is accurate, it calls into question the way therapists treat people who experience depression or depressive symptoms with cognitive therapy.

Cognitive Distortions And Depressive Realism

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A cognitive distortion is a shift in thinking that causes you to believe something that’s true is false or vice versa. More simply stated, they’re inaccurate and sometimes irrational thoughts. Much research and clinical experience points to the conclusion that depressed patients tend to have many cognitive distortions that lead them to believe that things are worse than they actually are. People who have severe depression often engage in these habits of thought. However, if depressive realism is true, people who have mild or moderate depression may not think this way. Here are some of the cognitive distortions common in mental illness and depression.

Polarized Thinking

Polarized thinking, also called “black-and-white thinking,” is a way of seeing people, events, and things as either one way or another. A person who engages in polarized thinking may see someone or something as all good or all bad. They don’t understand that many things are partly good and partly bad. For example, a person who experiences depression may believe that they’re a completely bad person. They find it hard to recognize that they have both faults and strengths. They tend to see things in extremes.

Overgeneralization

With overgeneralization, a person may make a broad generalization about themselves, others, or a situation even though they only have one small amount of information about it. This often shows up in people with depression. They may have only one specific difficult experience, yet they believe it’s an indication that all similar experiences will be just as challenging or that it’s the start of a distressing pattern.

Filtering

People who have depression may filter their thoughts. Instead of viewing all pieces of evidence together, they may pay attention to the negative details and ignore or filter out the positive ones. This can give them a negative view of themselves and life in general.

Catastrophizing

When you catastrophize, you magnify negative events, believing that disaster is about to strike. When one unfortunate thing happens or you make one small mistake, you may start ruminating on the alarming possibilities. You ask yourself, “What if the worst happens?” Or, “What if this mistake ruins me?” You may imagine all kinds of terrifying results when the information you have is really quite minor, unimportant, or ambiguous.

Jumping To Conclusions

Interacting with others when you have depression can be very difficult. Communication problems sometimes happen because you may jump to conclusions or make assumptions about other peoples’ intentions and feelings. Rather than waiting for a response or asking a question, you may try to read the other person’s mind. People who are severely depressed are most likely to jump to the conclusion that the other person doesn’t like them, is holding a grudge, or is judging them harshly.

Personalization

In personalization, the cognitive distortion is that everything that is said or done is a direct and personal statement about you, or a reaction to what you do. You may take things personally when they aren’t meant that way, and this can lead to feelings of guilt if you believe that bad things happen to other people because of you and your actions.

Distortions Of Control

In the research about depressive realism, scientists have often studied distortions of control. If you have distorted thinking about control, you may falsely believe that you have no control over anything or alternatively, that you have complete control over everything and everyone’s happiness. Again, this can lead you to a feeling of hopelessness or self-blame, both of which are symptoms of depression.

Control And Depressive Realism

In the early experiments on depressive realism, the subjects saw a light bulb on a screen. They were asked to push a button to make it come on. In reality, they had no control over whether the bulb turned on or not. Afterwards, they were asked whether they did have control over the lightbulb. Surprisingly, the people with depression correctly assumed that they did not. The people who did not have depression had the error in thinking, believing that they did have control in this situation.

After these experiments, most scientists began to think that people with depression may be more accurate in their thinking than once assumed. Maybe they weren’t so prone to cognitive distortions. In fact, it might be the people who don’t have depression were tricking themselves into believing something positive or impactful was happening.

Because this conclusion didn’t quite fit with cognitive theory, researchers were intrigued and wanted to know more. Additional studies have been carried out in the intervening years, but no clear and universally accepted answer has been found so far.

Some answers have been suggested though. It might be that the people with depression in the experiments assumed they had no control because, in their depressed state, they tended to believe they were powerless. In fact, they may have believed that they have no control when they actually d. Another possibility is that although they guessed accurately about the lightbulb during the experiment, that way of thinking might not carry over to real-life situations.

There’s also been some criticism of the way the depressive realism studies were carried out. For one thing, the group was divided into people with depression and people who didn’t have depression. However, the researchers put people into test groups based on the person’s own report of their condition. The critics say these self-assessments may have been biased and not sufficient to know if they were actually experiencing depression. Alternatively, people could have had depression and were unaware of their own mental health disorder.

Optimistic Illusions – The Flip-Side Of Depressive Realism

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.

Looking at the world through rose-colored glasses may lead you to make some errors in judgment at times. For example, if you optimistically believe the next turn of the slot machine at a casino will bring you good luck, you might lose a lot of money.

The next question might be, “is there any benefit in optimistic illusions?” Scientists believe there just might be. At times, those optimistic illusions may help you succeed by giving you an illusion of control. When you believe negative events are merely temporary setbacks, it’s easier to persevere. These optimistic illusions can help enhance self-esteem and keep going through challenging times in life, which can lead to greater success. The negative occurrences that could have held you back can become minor and temporary at least partly because you believed they were.

How Do Therapists Approach The Concept Of Depressive Realism?

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When scientists can sort out the truth about depressive realism, treatments for depression may need to be revised. Currently, some psychotherapists believe that depressive realism is a real thing. At the same time, others agree with the criticisms and are more skeptical. Yet, regardless of their view on this topic, most therapists conduct sessions in ways that are helpful for a depressed person whether depressive realism may be true or not.

For one thing, skilled therapists listen non-judgmentally to what you have to say. They may even offer recognition that there’s some truth in your negative assessments of things. However, since their goal is to help you improve your mental health, improve symptoms of depression, and reduce anxiety, they may suggest other ways of looking at your life challenges. Often, positive viewpoints are as accurate as the negative ones, and your therapist will likely help you see what they are.

Additionally, in cognitive behavioral therapy, thoughts are usually judged in terms of whether they’re productive or not – not good and bad or better and worse. If you believe something negative is happening, that may be very accurate. At that point, the goal is to see positive steps you can take to improve the situation or to try to understand it in a way that’s more helpful to you in the long run. Cognitive therapy is solution-focused, and its goal is to help prevent you from dwelling on negative thoughts or experiences.

Talking to a therapist about your negative perceptions can help you understand yourself and others better. It can help you see the positives in yourself, in others, and in life. You can go to BetterHelp for online therapy with a mental health counselor to get help with your sadness and emotional distress. The most important thing is that you get the help you need to overcome the symptoms of depression and forge a healthy life path for the future.

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