Does Depression Make You More Realistic?


[INTRO ♪] I think I’m above average in a lot of ways— I’m a better driver than most. I’m pretty, like, hilarious, for example. Right? But that just can’t possibly be true of
everyone who thinks so. In fact, psychologists have shown that humans tend to be a little bit mistaken about themselves—usually they think that they’re a bit better at things than they actually are. But some people with depression are less likely to have this bias. And for a long time, that fueled the idea that people with depression were more accurate judges of reality—a concept dubbed depressive realism. In popular media, it’s been used to claim that people with depression don’t have a negative worldview, they’re just more objective and ‘see the world as it really is’. But as psychologists looked further into this idea, it’s become clear that depressed people aren’t necessarily more realistic or objective in their assessments of things. The phenomenon only happens under certain circumstances—ones where people who aren’t depressed are generally positively-biased. Depressive realism was first proposed in the late 1970s when researchers had 96 students try to guess whether a button they could press controlled a green light. People who self-reported fewer symptoms of depression rated themselves as having more control over the light than they actually did, while those who reported more symptoms were more spot-on. And since then, a lot of other research has found similar results. For example, a 1987 study had 80 people pair up and have brief conversations. Then, afterward, they had each person rate their own social competence. The conversations were also viewed by outside observers, and it turned out the self-ratings from the people with depression were closer to the ratings of these observers, while everyone else rated themselves much higher. And that’s a pretty common thing people do. Basically, we look at ourselves and our abilities with rose colored glasses. But pulling off those glasses doesn’t necessarily mean people with depression are actually seeing the world more objectively. Lots of studies also support the cognitive
distortion model. That’s the idea that depression distorts reality, so that people view themselves and their future prospects more negatively than they actually are. You can see this in a study that gave 19 depressed patients and 12 without depression an identical sheet of feedback about a conversation they’d had. Both groups thought the feedback was equally accurate, but a few minutes later, the group with depression remembered it being a lot more negative than it actually was. As scientists dig deeper into depressive realism, they’re finding that depressed people aren’t super objective observers. People with depression tend to be more biased about other people’s abilities, for example—thinking everyone else is better at things than they actually are. They aren’t always more accurate about the world, or even themselves. For example, in a 1991 study, researchers asked hundreds of their students to make predictions about what would happen to them over the next semester—things like whether they’d get an A, or be the victim of a crime. In the end, fewer of the predictions made by students which scored high on a depression scale came true, even though they were just as confident as their peers when they made them. A 2012 meta-analysis was able to find 75 studies on depressive realism to suss out when it happens and when it doesn’t. And they found that you’re more likely to see depressive realism if there’s no objective standard for reality, for example. Like, in the study where people observed conversations, it’s not like those observers were infallible. Their ratings of social competence were just their opinions. In studies where researchers can control the truth, the effect is usually smaller. And it also makes a difference whether people self-report their symptoms or have a clinician perform a structured interview. You’re more likely to see the effect if people self-report their symptoms as opposed to have a clinician diagnose them. And that’s a bit weird, because clinicians
should be better able to distinguish who really has depression from who doesn’t. So some psychologists think it may indicate there’s something else at play— something other than depression that both leads to people to report more symptoms and dials down their positivity bias, though it’s not clear what that something would be. All these caveats make it seem like the few cases of accuracy are a side effect of the cognitive distortions that typically appear with depression. Like, most people think they have more control over the world than they really do — that’s why, when asked about whether some button controls a light, people without depression weren’t as accurate as those with depression. But researchers have found that they can make this effect go away by shortening the time participants have in between each test of the button, or by changing their expectations about whether it’s going to work. Depressed patients are only more accurate when they have time to think about it. And giving them information that should lower their expectation of control—like, that they’re testing old lab equipment—doesn’t change their judgements. That suggests that people with depression are actually not paying attention to all the relevant information rather than more objectively assessing the world as it is. In the end, there isn’t really evidence that being depressed gives you some reality-seeing superpower. It just makes you see things a little more… depressingly. And, on occasion, that view of things is more accurate. But other times—a lot of the time—it’s really not. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! If you liked learning about how depression affects the brain, you might be interested in our episode on 3 lesser-known symptoms of depression. And to keep up to date with all of our psych
episodes, be sure to click on that subscribe button! [OUTRO ♪]

99 thoughts on “Does Depression Make You More Realistic?

  1. As someone with dysthymia, I actually found this comforting. I become defeated and suicidal to think that the world is actually just a bleak, terrible, unforgiving place. My "depression voice" likes to tell me that I'm just a hopeless, naive little kid who lives in Lala Land. This video actually made me feel better, as if to say, "the evil little voice inside your head is stupid. Don't listen to it. It doesn't know anything."

  2. Our society isn’t built on “reality”. It’s based on something else. You can call it our “collective reality”. “Reality” may not be real, but our society is.

  3. If most people think that they are above average, then isn’t it realistic to think that you’re below average in some fields?
    Or is it just depression.
    Example: most people think they’re above average in Money, Driving, and video games.

  4. Speaking from my experience: quite the opposite. I usually focus on the negatives out of proportions and ignore/not even remember any positives. I let fear control me. Retraining my brain is tough, but necesary, to accept my fears, and to remember the good things as well

  5. I'm definitely a more realistic person I've never been an "out there" person because l don't like having my head in the clouds.

  6. yeah, as someone with depression this sounds about right. I'm not better at being objective but at being negative '^-^

  7. I usually think of it as a kind of impairment. You know, like being drunk. Or, you know, living with chronic pain. That's a better metaphor, because it's not your fault you're in chronic pain, unlike, say, when you're drunk.

  8. Hey guys, you know what haven't seen in a while? A comment from that stupid "psychology releasing potential" or what ever they are called channel. You know, the one that always leaves reductionist, pseudo-scientific, up-the-ass comments. Maybe the 15 year old who made channel got a girlfriend or something. Wadda yall think?

  9. reality is depressing, there are those that still deal with life and the mentally weak ones that let it consume them and blame their imaginary disorder.

  10. There's actually a fantastic book called A First-Rate Madness where the author explores figures throughout history whose mental illnesses helped them remain empathetic and effective in crises where neurotypical people descend into "every man for himself" mindsets. It's so interesting that we view all mental health issues as "illnesses" when they occasionally provide us with more clarity of thought and effectiveness.

  11. I live in a prison of my own limitations, Deppersion in my case warps my view and puts un needed stress on silly things and provides unhealthy goals. With depression I find that the world functions independentl with me and that's okay and I can work with it but I rarely feel 100 precent in control of my actions

  12. Let's assume a cosmic reality.. of an inevitable death of the universe, how baryonic matter would be just a shred of electro magnetic wave.. disintegrating, dispersing in the spacetime eons and eons apart, of one particle, separated even further than the cosmos as we see it as of now… how is this not objective?

  13. The button green light experiment is a total joke. The only reason the depressed people came out as more realistic is because the design of the study made "believing you have no control over the green light" the correct, therefore the realistic answer. It's neither realistic to be optimist nor to be pessimist about everything. A logical and realistic answer would have been: I don't know. I lack information.

  14. Giving depressed people the notion that they have a finer understanding of reality is a terrible idea. You realize that once you aren't depressed anymore.

  15. Ok not what I thought the video would be about, but cool. Not related, but I also want to recommend the book Capitalist Realism by Marc Fisher.

  16. I expected something else from this. I’ve heard a lot: “how can you be aware of how bad things are in the world and not be depressed?”. But this video seems to be about something entirely different from that statement.

  17. The problem here is that depressed people may think they are realistic when thinking on the polar opposite end of the scale from naive optimism, but have failed to understand what the philosophy of realism actually is.

    The world is not all rainbows and sunshine, but it isn't a gothic nightmare, either. Of course, I can reverse that statement when talking to giddy optimists. The overall point here is that each situation has to be observed on a case-by-case basis.

  18. As a depressed person, I know the problem is that there's a chasm, a tiny little chasm, I'm somehow unable to bridge.

    The talk about "depressive realism" just makes me say "dude, if I told you that you should always just expect to be disappointed, well, you would hardly call me the greatest thinker ever, now would you? I mean, you never should expect you to always be number one? Makes sense, no?" Now there's a dose of coldly depressed philosophy for you! (dodges rotten tomatoes) what did I tell you. Nobody listens.

    If anything, the only superpower depression gives you is that it's easier to adopt a stoic worldview, because frankly it's one of the known ways to stay sane in this world.

  19. Seeing the world for what it really is is what lead me to depression in the first place. When you realize the world is run by Satanic pedophiles that have a perfect understanding of the human psyche and use that understanding to make you HAPPY TO BE A SLAVE and telling people that freedom is better than slavery gets you ostracized, it makes you ask yourself why you care about anything.

  20. I'd like to take a moment to advise future commentors to wait until the end of the video to comment. Just a thought

  21. I think depressions, well is depressing but also makes me slow down and wait before thinking I know everything, the sad truth is we know very little overall

  22. Everyone suffers from depression and anxiety at some point or another. Its not lonely. I got better literally overnight 7 months ago and cant believe how much better life without depression is. 🙂

  23. This, coming from a guy who thinks that the market system can cope with climate change! The optimism bias prevents most people from being anything other than apathetic morons, which is why nothing ever gets done when it comes to solving big issues, like corruption in government, or climate change… IT'S WHY CIVILIZATIONS COLLAPSE.

  24. From what I've seen, depressed people are more accurate about the world 90% of the time, but less significantly less accurate when talking about themselves. For happy people, it's the opposite. In the end, I suppose the question is what causes what? Does depression make you more objective or does the truth simply give people a reason to be depressed? Do people's abilities improve when they believe in themselves thus perpetuating optimism? Or do people become more optimistic only when they succeed? Does that imply optimistic people have it relatively easy? Etc.

  25. The experiment described at 2:46 sounds stupid to me – scoring objectivity by testing people ability to guess the future?
    That's like scoring cars performance by people's impression of it (yes the red ones are the fastest … if you test them this way that is :P)
    Also the green-button experiment in the beginning of the video … I'm not sure if I got it right, but how is this supposed to test objectivity? If I understood correctly all participants (depressed or otherwise) have no information whether their button was connected, so they couldn't possible be objective about it … just lucky.
    It's another aspect if non-depressed people were inclined to believe they're in control, but for that purpose the button doesn't even need to be functional.
    … if I get anything from this video is that happy people hate everyone that might potentially rain on their parade … well at least happy scientists do 😉
    … Perhaps there should be a study on happy vs depressed scientists, and how often for example the happy ones jumped to conclusions just believing they were right 🙂

  26. Haha finally an intelligent understanding of ‘depression’. We don’t have enough naturally occurring drugs in our bodies to give us the nonsensical idea that humanity is good. I can get ‘normal’ with drugs, but it’s only changing the way I view the world, not the world itself. ‘Normal’ people have heightened levels of serotonin, etc in their bodies, it’s evolution’s way of getting people to breed in this shitty world. We the so-called depressed don’t have these drugs in our bodies so we see reality.

  27. I agree that depression causes us to be more realistic because it gives us inner thoughts of what's really around us and the world/universe from pain, cruelity, injustice, and problems of our lives. How I manage my depression, is by trying to be optimistic because there is always a better answer or solution.

  28. Can I say, I think all these studies show that they are related, not to get too "I'm 14 and this is deep", but, what if the issue is that those with the ability to more accurately asses reality or given odds are often depressed as a result? Maybe the cognitive "above-average" bias is related to serotonin levels? I mean, I would be a much happier guy if I thought I kicked ass at everything I did, but I know realisticly that's not the case, so yeah, I'm less thrilled about my skill level and therefore less interested in doing the thing. I don't think that's unreasonable, it just is reality. I think the relationship with depression comes when one becomes too aware of or too focused on the bigger picture of reality and how, uncaring it is. Not that people are heartless, but most other things besides us lack the brain-parts required to care.

  29. As a lifelong suffer, I can confidently say that my depression doesn't include thoughts that others are better at things than they actually are (per Hank's e.g.), but in fact, just the opposite. It's more like realizing that being a self-promoting cheerleader is at best insincere, and speaks volumes to ones desire to hide from themselves. As long as we shake our pom-poms, and squeal ra-ra-ra, no substantive change is going to be possible in ourselves, or the our crippled human species, as we march our species down the path of self-destruction.
    Beside Hank, in May you published a video talking about how trying to get a depressed person to be a self-cheerleader actually does more damage, than good (The Not-So-Silver Lining: When Positive Thinking Backfires). The payoff of my depression is that I see the world more realistically than I would otherwise. I wouldn't be able to function in this world without that clarity of sight. The exchange, of course, is the challenge of learning how to address the the self-condemnation that is also part of the condition. It's an expensive exchange, but the payoff is a clearer insight. It is not a challenge for everyone.
    Plus, it is entirely likely that depression is an effect of depressive realism, not a cause. Why do you imagine that people strive so, to feed themselves positive affirmations? They're trying to avoid a realistic view of the world, because they're afraid it will depress them, which it probably will.

  30. Idk but what’s depressing to me is having to work for money that doesn’t even exist, go to schools that back this phenomenon, then have relationships with people who believe in this monetary concept & on top of that earn this money doing work that doesn’t even matter. That’s depressing. Humanity is trash.

  31. I have social depression but I can't compare my depression to someone else who has social depression. All types of depression are an individual illness. No two types of depression are exactly the same, So there isn't any experiment in depressive objectiveness that can be accurate. We all interpret the world in our own way. Some people with depression may be more objective, While some may see the worst case scenario in everything. What would be more of an accurate experiment would be what traits cause a person to be more depressively objective.

  32. Maybe the depressive effect plus the dunning Kruger effect makes it accurate. Like they give themselves a 6, when the majority of people got a 6, but the 6 means that they did really really bad and that they suck, so it’s an inferiority complex state of mind, because the dunning Kruger bias says the only good scores are 8, 9, and 10

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