What Is Depressive Realism?

Reviewed by Laura Angers, LPC

Published 07/14/2022

Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses globally, affecting over 264 million people worldwide. Women are almost twice as likely to develop depression, and those between the ages of 18 and 25 were more likely to have a depressive disorder. Although two out of three people with depression do not get treatment, 80% do show improvement within four to six weeks.  

Silhouette of Person Sitting Beside Body of Water

10 Different Types Of Depression

Depression can cause all sorts of issues, like feeling sad all the time, losing interest in life, and chronic fatigue. If you think you may have Depression, you can take an online depression test. It only takes a few minutes. What makes Depression even more complicated to treat is that there are so many different types. The most common types of depression include.

  • Major Depression(Clinical Depression or Major Depressive Disorder) is the most common type of Depression, lasts longer than two weeks, and affects feelings, thoughts, and behaviors.
  • Dysthymia(Chronic Depression or Persistent Depressive Disorder) is the same as major Depression, only lasts for more than two years.
  • Manic Depression(Bipolar Disorder) is a condition that causes fluctuations between Depression and manic behavior.
  • Postpartum Depression(Peripartum Depression or PPD) is a serious condition that affects women who have recently had a baby.
  • Seasonal Depression(Seasonal Affective Disorder) typically affects people during the winter when there is less natural sunlight.
  • Psychotic Depression is an uncommon type of Depression that causes psychosis, delusions, and hallucinations.
  • Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder(PMDD) is similar to premenstrual syndrome (PMS) but is more severe and disabling.
  • Atypical Depression is one of the most common types with fewer symptoms that are not as severe as Major Depression.
  • Situational Depression(Reactive Depression or Adjustment Disorder) is a temporary depression triggered by some kind of life change.
  • Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder(DMDD) causes children to have trouble regulating their moods.

Depressive Realism

Depression can drastically affect your life; however, those who have any type of depression may be more accurately in touch with the real world. This is referred to as depressive realism. It has been studied for years, and although experts are still not totally in agreement, many studies show that people with Depression are more realistic than others.

This hypothesis was discovered in a study by Alloy and Abramson in 1979, when a group was found to make more realistic inferences than those who were not depressed. Even though many people infer that those with depression have a negative bias, their look at the world may be more accurate than others.

Woman Facing Sideways in Shallow Photo

In the study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the participants were tested by their accuracy of perceiving their control over certain things. The depressed individuals were more accurate in rating themselves than those who were not depressed. Also, depressed individuals were better able to assess their performance than non-depressed individuals.

Cognitive Illusions

The participants who were not depressed were found to have cognitive illusions, meaning they were more likely to see things in a falsely positive light. In another study, depressed college students were found to recall things more accurately than non-depressed students. In other words, those who were not depressed tended to see themselves as more competent than they were.

The overall decision in the study by Alloy and Abramson was that those who were depressed were sadder but wiser. This was true even after the participants were treated and had fewer symptoms of Depression. They just seemed to have a more realistic way of looking at things. The study was reproduced many times with similar results.

On The Other Hand

Other studies and experts disagree with the sadder but wiser hypothesis. There have been quite a few studies that were unable to develop the same or similar results, finding that both depressed and non-depressed participants were inaccurate at rating their performance and accuracy.

Surprisingly, non-depressed individuals often rated others with no bias but were more positive toward themselves. Conversely, those who were depressed showed just the opposite. In addition, the individuals in the studies were not classed as having a major depression. Rather, the participants were mildly depressed with fewer symptoms than the typical depressed individual.

The APA Agrees

Alternatively, the American Psychological Association (APA) agreed with the findings of Alloy and Abramson. They found that those who were not depressed were more likely to believe they controlled a light bulb during the experiment than those who were depressed. The fact was that nobody had any control over the light bulb.

In the study, each of the students performed a task to press a button, and the light would (or would not) come on. After 40 different trials with random samples, more non-depressed students believed that they had control even when they did not. The results of depressed people being more realistic were, therefore, agreed to be true. However, more studies are needed to be certain.

What Does It Mean?

The importance of depressive realism is that it goes against the assumptions of mental health professionals' ideas of how those individuals with Depression think and see the world. The cognitive impairment theories in Depression have become second nature to listing the symptoms in the past three decades. However, it is now thought that the opposite may be true.

Up until now, experts have thought that people living with Depression were not good at judging themselves or others and are unrealistic or illogical. These thoughts were what brought about the treatment of cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT. But this type of therapy may not be good for depressed patients since they already are viewing themselves realistically.

Two Women Holding Pen

Under these impressions, if Depression does not cause cognitive perception alteration, CBT is not the best treatment choice. It may be good therapy for constructing optimism but does not help teach them to think more realistically. This goes against many thoughts on cognitive therapy for Depression, which can help therapists learn better treatment.

Aaron Beck And Depressionogenic Thinking

According to Aaron Beck, an American psychiatrist in the 1960s, Depression is caused by depressionogenic thinking or a negative thinking style. Beck insisted that people who are depressed see themselves as worthless, useless, and doomed to live a sad life existence. These distorted thoughts are what created the CBT treatment program to "fix" these thoughts. But these depressionogenic thoughts do not necessarily have to be wrong.

What If They Are Right?

What if it is the positive thoughts that were biased and that those who think everything is great are just thinking unrealistically? Does that mean Depression is our new normal? Does Depression help us break out of that unrealistic thought that nothing can go wrong? Is the depressing view of the world wrong even though studies are finding otherwise?

Psychologists and other mental health professionals are not ready to agree with that assessment even though many studies found that up to 80% of those who do not have Depression saw themselves as being above average in abilities, performances, and happiness, even when they were not.

Past Thinkers And Experts Agree

In the past, famous thinkers and mental health experts agreed with the idea of depressive realism. Peter Zapffe, a famous thinker from the early 1900s, believed that human nature had developed a need that is impossible to fulfill. He also named human defense mechanisms that we as humans have developed.

  • Sublimationis a way of turning negative urges into more positive ones. For example, humans tend to ignore or avoid negative experiences and use art, literature, and philosophy to express our awareness.
  • Distractioninvolves concentrating our energy and thoughts on a task or idea to keep our mind from self-reflecting.
  • Anchoringis establishing a higher ideal or meaning out of our life. It provides us with the illusions that help us feel better.
  • Isolation includes repressing destructive and disturbing feelings and thoughts.

What About Sigmund Freud?

Sigmund Freud also insisted that we, as humans, always tried to make everything positive even when it is not. By seeing things through "rose-colored glasses" and thinking everything is always great, we ignore the real world. These experts agree with those who say everything is not always going to be okay.

Woman Standing in Front of Carousel

Although positivity is a good thing, Freud thought that we all have to experience other feelings. He believed that we do not need to be happy all the time. It is just not realistic to think that happiness is the only thing that we should feel. His goal was to help his patients understand and accept that things can, and do, go wrong in life but that they can be handled.

Tragedies Can Be Helpful

After all, many tragedies were turning points for us as people and taught us important lessons. For instance, rather than postponing important things because you can "do it tomorrow," losing someone we love teaches us that time should not be taken for granted. And that we should appreciate those who are important to us.

Other times, a tragedy can help you find your true purpose in life. Having something tragic happen in your life can point you to what you were meant to do. And even though you may think you cannot handle a certain painful tragedy, you will realize that you are stronger than you think.

If you are experiencing symptoms of what we know as Depression, take an online depression test to find more.