What Is Depressive Realism?

Medically reviewed by Krista Klund, LCSW
Updated January 4, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Depression is a mental health condition often marked by sadness and negative thinking. It may not only affect how someone thinks and feels but also affect a person’s life, including their self-esteem, productivity, family life, or ability to take care of themselves. 

Because depression may affect how a person sees themselves and the world around them, some scientists hypothesized whether what a depressed person is seeing is a distorted image or a heightened sense of reality. This question sits behind the hypothesis of depressive realism. Although there may not be a defined answer to the debate, psychologists have been researching depressive realism for decades. 

Theoretical Perspectives: The Definition Of Depressive Realism

Depressive realism is a psychological hypothesis that asserts that depressed individuals may be more accurate in their assessments of certain situations. This belief is in contrast to what is known as “optimistic bias,” in which some people may see the world in a more positive light when things are going wrong. 

The depressive realism hypothesis was first proposed by L. B. Alloy and L. Y. Abramson in the late 1970s. Their initial experiment aimed to test this hypothesis and determine whether depressed people might have a more realistic outlook than others.

Numerous studies have been conducted since Alloy and Abramson first developed the idea of depressive realism. This area of investigation may go against modern psychology, as many psychologists believe that people with depression are prone to cognitive distortions (a type of self-deception) that make their thinking less realistic. Understanding the degree to which people experiencing depression think realistically may give therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists vital information to help better treat their patients.

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Cognitive Distortions And Depressive Realism

cognitive distortion is a type of biased thinking that may lead someone to have thoughts or beliefs that are inaccurate or not based on reality. Those living with depression may engage in these habits of thought, although not only those with mental health conditions experience cognitive distortions. There are several cognitive distortions recognized in modern psychology, including the following. 

Polarized Thinking

Polarized thinking, also called “black-and-white thinking,” may be a way of seeing people, events, and things on one end of the spectrum or another. A person who engages in polarized thinking may see something as all “good” or all “bad.” 

Individuals with this distortion may have difficulty understanding a grey area or middle ground. For example, a person who experiences depression may believe that they’re not a good person and have no redeemable qualities. They might find it hard to recognize their faults and strengths because they 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 a small amount of information about it. They may have one specific challenging experience. Yet, they believe it’s an indication that all similar experiences will be just as difficult or that it’s the start of a distressing pattern.

Filtering

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

Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing is a process where someone might magnify their belief that an adverse event could happen, sometimes to the point where they might convince themselves that disaster is about to strike. 

When one unfortunate thing happens, or they make one small mistake, they may start ruminating about potential adverse consequences. They may ask themselves, “what if the worst happens?” or “what if this mistake ruins me?” 

Those with this distortion may imagine terrifying results that haven’t happened yet, even when they don’t have the information to assess what could happen accurately. 

Jumping To Conclusions

Interacting with others may feel difficult for people who are living with depression. Communication problems might happen because they may jump to conclusions or make assumptions about other people’s intentions and feelings. 

Rather than waiting for a response or asking a question, a person with this distortion may try to read the other person’s mind. For example, they may believe a friend dislikes them because they sent a short text message. 

Personalization

Personalization often leads someone to assume that anything said or done by someone else is a direct and personal statement about them or a reaction to what they do. 

Someone who engages in personalization may take things personally when they might not be meant that way. This distortion may lead to feelings of guilt if they believe that bad things happen to other people because of them and their actions.

Distortions Of Control

Suppose a person has distorted thinking about control. In that case, they may believe that they have no control over anything or completely control everything, and any adverse outcomes are their fault. This way of thinking may lead to feelings of hopelessness or self-blame, which can be symptoms of depression.

Control And Depressive Realism

Part of the theory about depressive realism has to do with perceptions of control. Experiments testing the hypothesis about depressive realism have often focused on whether depressed people have a more realistic sense of what is within their control than people who are not depressed.

Several experiments on depressive realism have asked subjects to push a button to make a light bulb come on. The scientists knew that the people in the experiment had no control over whether the bulb was turned on, but the subjects didn’t know. 

After they pushed the button, the subjects were asked whether they felt they had control over the lightbulb. The people with depression correctly assumed that they did not. The people who did not have depression believed they had control over this situation.

After these experiments, many scientists began to think that people with depression may be more accurate in their thinking than once assumed. They believed that it might be the people who don’t have depression who trick themselves into believing something is happening when it isn’t. 

Because this conclusion didn’t fit with cognitive theory, researchers were intrigued and wanted to know more. Additional studies have been carried out, but with a certain amount of variability in the results. Some research has shown that non-depressed subjects are sometimes more accurate in their thinking than depressed subjects, depending on the circumstances.

However, concerning the perception of control, there seems to be some consistency in what studies have found. One 1992 study suggested that depressed subjects assumed they had no control because, in their depressed state, they tended to believe they were powerless and felt that lack of power during the experiment more than the subjects who weren’t depressed. 

Later studies have shown that depressive realism might not be as realistic as it seems. An experiment in 2010 showed that depressed subjects were accurate in their self-assessments when they were wrong but had difficulty assessing their abilities when they were correct. A study completed in September of 2022 concluded that depressive realism cannot be replicated and may not be a scientific conclusion. 

Optimistic Illusions: The Opposite Of Depressive Realism

Those who believe in depressive realism have suggested that when depressed subjects see the things in life that are sad, distressing, or uncomfortable, they may see them correctly and not through a lens of cognitive distortion. 

It may be a different response in those without depression. Instead of seeing the negative things as they are, a non-depressed person may interpret them as temporary, insignificant, or positive events. 

These responses of positivity may be referred to as “optimistic illusions.” At times, those optimistic illusions may help you succeed by giving you an illusion of control. When you believe adverse events are temporary setbacks or that your actions have a real and positive impact on your life and the world around you, it may feel easier to continue.  

These optimistic illusions may help enhance self-esteem and keep us going through challenging times, which could lead to more success. The negative occurrences that could have held you back may feel minor. Optimism may also have other benefits, such as increasing marital satisfaction

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Depression, Depressive Realism, And Therapeutic Approaches

Although psychologists are still debating whether depressive realism is a phenomenon or not, the goal of therapy may be somewhat different. In addition to exploring whether a patient’s view of themselves and life is realistic, therapy may also guide the patient toward a healthier mindset, regardless of what someone perceives as reality.  

A therapist may offer recognition that there could be some truth to negative assessments. 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. 

Positive viewpoints might be just as accurate as negative ones, so your therapist may help you see the positive side of things while not judging the difficult things themselves or you for seeing them.

In cognitive behavioral therapy, thoughts may be judged in terms of whether they’re productive or not, not whether they’re “good” or “bad” or “better” or “worse.” If you believe something negative is happening, it may be occurring. At that point, the goal could be 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 often to help prevent you from dwelling on negative thoughts or experiences.

Trying Online Therapy 

Talking to a therapist about your negative perceptions may help you understand yourself and others better. It might help you see the positives in yourself, others, and your life. Some people prefer to meet with their therapist in person, but qualified, licensed therapists are available for those who prefer online appointments.

Online therapy may be more convenient than in-person meetings because you can meet with your therapist wherever you can have an Internet connection. Studies have shown that online therapy can be as effective as in-person treatment, and many prefer it to leaving home for an appointment. 

If you’re considering reaching out for support with depression or another concern, you might try an online therapy platform like BetterHelp to assist you in dealing with any thoughts or feelings that arise. 

Takeaway

Depression can be a serious condition that may distort how we see ourselves, others, and the world around us. There may be evidence that depressive realism could exist. However, the most recent studies show that many past studies on this matter are not replicable.

Investigating how depressed people see the world can be a potential tool for understanding depression. Treating depression and understanding that it is a mental health condition may be one of the most important ways to help individuals live happier lives. 

If you want to reach out for support or discuss your thoughts on this matter with a professional, consider sending a message to a counselor to get started.

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