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Study Debunks Theory That Depressed People Are Just More 'Realistic'
  • Cara Murez
  • Posted October 14, 2022

Study Debunks Theory That Depressed People Are Just More 'Realistic'

Some people believe in the idea of “depressive realism” — that depressed people are just more realistic than others about how much they control their lives. But a new study upends that theory.

The idea has been around for about four decades, ever since a 1979 study of college students that seemed to support the theory.

That study looked at whether students could predict how much control they would have over a light turning green when they pushed a button. The researchers back then found that students who weren't depressed overestimated their own level of control and that depressed students were better at identifying when they had no control over the lights.

In the current study, researchers tried to replicate those findings but were unable to do so.

The original depressive realism study is cited more than 2,000 times in later studies or research. It is infused into science, culture and potential mental health treatment policy, said study co-author Don Moore. He's chair of leadership and communication at the University of California, Berkeley School of Business.

The study's widespread acceptance in both the scholarly and popular literature is a reason to revisit it, Moore said. That means a lot of people are building theories or policies with the belief that this is true, making it important to know if it is or not. (For more on research into depressive realism, click here.)

Researchers in the new study worked with two groups of participants. The first group included 248 people from Amazon's Mechanical Turk, an online service that provides paid survey-takers. The other group of 134 volunteers were college students who participated in return for college credit.

Similar to the 1979 study, participants did a task with 40 rounds, each choosing whether to press a button, after which a lightbulb or a black box appeared.

Participants had to figure out whether pushing or not pushing the button affected whether the light came on. They reported how much control they had over the light after each of the rounds.

The researchers added a mechanism to measure bias to the original study measurements. They also experimentally varied the amount of control participants actually had over the light.

People in the online group with a higher level of depression overestimated their control, which directly contradicts the original study. That finding may be driven by anxiety rather than depression, the researchers said. This merits further study, Moore noted in a university news release.

In the student group, depression levels had little impact on how the students viewed their control.

Depression also had no impact on overconfidence when asking study participants to estimate their scores on an intelligence test, the investigators found.

Moore said the results of this new study undermined his belief in depressive realism. He added that the study does not suggest that there are benefits to being depressed.

How to accurately gauge a person's level of control in various situations does have broader implications in life, Moore said. To make good choices, it can be helpful to know what people do and don't control.

The findings were published online recently in the journal Collabra: Psychology.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more on depression.

SOURCE: University of California, Berkeley School of Business, news release, Oct. 10, 2022

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