Depressive Realism - What's that about?

Medical Reviewer

Is the cup half full or half empty? The question is, of course, designed to elicit whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. People like classification. It makes life easier, and for most of the time the system works reasonably well. That is, until the time it doesn't and it's back to the drawing board.

When it comes to depression, we also like to classify patterns of thinking. The depressed person has a pattern of thinking that emphasizes a negative distortion of facts. It seems to be true, but if depression represents a distortion of reality so too does optimism. Should we therefore be concerned about people with a bias towards optimism? I digress, let's stick with depression and leave those 'infernal optimists' to another day.

It's one of the paradoxes of psychology that depressed people actually appear to have a less distorted picture of the world than the non-depressed. Ever since this proposition was put forward in the 1970s by psychologists Lyn Abramson and Lauren Alloy, psychologists have struggled to reconcile how depressive realism (also called the sadder-but-wiser effect)  can co-exist alongside the inaccurate and distorted thoughts associated with depression. How can a depressed person be right and wrong at the same time?

Confused? You wouldn't be the first. I was drawn to Oliver Burkeman's article in The Guardian newspaper (Nov, 2006) as he summed up his personal dilemma. "If being generally pessimistic is a useful personality trait to have - then isn't that a course for optimism? In which case, is it really a depressing thought at all? Shouldn't it make you happy about being depressed?"

To attempt an answer we need to go back to the 1970s when it all started with a light bulb, a button, some mildly depressed and some non-depressed volunteers. When asked to press a button a light bulb came on - or it didn't - and so on for several attempts. In fact the person pressing the button had no control over the bulb, but they didn't know that. However, non-depressed people were much more likely to believe they had control over events. The results of this simple experiment started the depressive realism debate.

Since the 1970s, several researchers have pitched in with their own proposals to explain the phenomenon. To date, although alternative findings exist, the depressive realism effect remains relatively intact and somewhat elusive. Lyn Abramson makes the point that we need to understand more about the conditions in which depressed people are more accurate than non-depressed people and vice versa. Unpicking the mechanism could help both explain and refine cognitive therapies.