Depressive realism is a hypothesis that people with depression are more likely to accurately assess certain situations than those without depression.

Two professors of psychology, Lauren Alloy and Lyn Yvonne Abramson, developed the depressive realism hypothesis in the 1970s.

The hypothesis claims that people with mild to moderate depression have a more realistic and accurate view of themselves and the world around them than people without depression.

Alloy and Abramson based their theory on evidence from a contingency learning study. The study showed that participants who were mildly depressed were significantly more accurate in judging how much control they had over the appearance of a green light when they pushed a button than participants without depression.

In this article, we will discuss the evidence for and against the theory of depressive realism and the limitations of the evidence and theory. Additionally, we will discuss the cognitive changes that can occur with depression and when it is necessary to seek help.

A man with his hands clasped together sitting at his desk.Share on Pinterest
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

A 2018 study investigated the link between situations people cannot control and mental well-being using a mobile phone app. Around half of the 106 participants had a diagnosis of mild depression, while the others did not.

The researchers did not allow the participants to control a low or high frequency stimulus from the mobile app. The participants with depression were more accurate in determining they had no control over this stimulus than those without depression.

A 2018 study tested Alloy and Abramson’s theory on a group of participants. 28 of the participants had a diagnosis of clinical depression and 38 did not.

The researchers gave both groups either a rumination exercise or a distraction exercise. Later, the participants completed a task where there was no relationship between their responses and the outcome.

When reporting how much control the participants believed they had over the outcome, neither of the groups showed signs of depressive realism.

An older review highlights the possibility of a link between realism and level of cognitive activity rather than depression.

Some older initial research supported Alloy and Abramson’s depressive realism theory. However, researchers concluded that some participants with depression were more passive, which may have affected the results.

A 2016 analysis highlights the following limitations of the theory and evidence behind depressive realism:

  • Findings: Studies on depressive realism have inconsistent results.
  • Accuracy: Some studies have shown that people with depression are more accurate in their judgment than those without depression.
  • Biases: Some people with depression may underestimate the positive feedback given to them by researchers. There is also a theory that people without depression may be biased by positivity in certain situations.
  • Self-assessments: Some research sorts people into test groups based on self-reports, which can be inaccurate.
  • Setting: Most of the experiments took place in clinical settings. Researchers may get different results in more true-to-life settings.
  • Number of participants: Most of the studies focused on a small number of participants. Studying larger groups may lead to different results.

Cognitive distortions are negative or illogical patterns of thinking that can make a person’s perceptions less accurate or realistic. They can be a factor in depression.

Some types of cognitive distortion include:

  • Mindreading: This is when a person jumps to conclusions or makes assumptions about other people’s intentions and feelings.
  • Catastrophizing: This is when a person makes negative predictions with little or no evidence.
  • Polarized thinking: This is when a person sees people, events, and things as either wholly good or wholly bad, with no middle ground.
  • Emotional reasoning: This refers to believing something is true based on emotional reasoning rather than objective evidence.
  • Mental filtering: This involves focusing on negative information and ignoring positive information.
  • Overgeneralization: This occurs when a person assumes that one negative event means that all similar experiences will be just as challenging, or that it is the start of a pattern.
  • Personalization: This is when a person believes that everything people say or do is a direct and personal statement about themselves or a reaction to what they have done.
  • “Should” statements: This involves thinking that things must or should be a certain way.
  • Minimizing or ignoring the positive: This is when someone views the positive things that have happened to them or that they have achieved as an anomaly, rather than giving themselves credit for it.

Depression is more than feeling unhappy. It can affect people in different ways and cause a variety of symptoms, such as:

  • a general feeling of hopelessness
  • losing interest in hobbies or activities a person once enjoyed
  • feeling tired all the time
  • sleeping poorly
  • changes in appetite

Severe depression may also lead to suicidal ideation. People who feel suicidal should immediately contact a mental health professional or a suicide helpline.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

Was this helpful?

Depressive realism is a hypothesis that claims that people with depression have a more accurate assessment of certain situations than those who do not have depression.

Researchers have conducted experiments to test this hypothesis, with mixed results.

Depression may cause the person to experience a variety of or increase in cognitive distortions and physical symptoms. Treatment is available and may help relieve symptoms.