Are depressed people just more realistic? New study says that’s not true

BERKELEY, Calif. — Are depressed people just more realistic about the futility of life? A new study says this long-held belief in “depressive realism” may be incorrect.

Sad or cynical people are not necessarily wiser or less confident than their optimistic counterparts, according to researchers at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. New findings contradict a 1979 study which found depressed students were better at identifying when they have little control over an outcome. Conversely, scientists believed non-depressed students overestimated their control over a task, ultimately setting themselves up for greater feelings of failure.

However, UC Berkeley’s modern recreation of that famous 40-year-old study reveals the opposite: depressed students have grander illusions of control, perhaps driven more by anxiety than depression.

Participants in both studies dealt with the decision of whether to press a button which may or may not turn on a green light. After each of the 40 rounds, participants were asked whether they believe their decision had any control over the light coming on or a black box appearing. Regardless of the participants’ perceptions, some people had no actual control over the light’s appearance but would still see it come on either 25 or 75 percent of the time, respectively. Others in a third group had some control over the light but were guaranteed to have it come on 75 percent of the time they pushed the button.

What changed in these studies?

In the 1979 study, the researchers concluded that depression prevented an undeserved illusion of control and that depressed individuals felt more of a sense of responsibility.

This latest study, however, reveals “no evidence that depressive symptoms relate to illusory control or to overconfidence. Our results suggest that despite its popular acceptance, depressive realism is not replicable.”

“The good news is you don’t have to be depressed to understand how much control you have,” says UC Berkeley business Professor Don A. Moore in a university release. “The study does not suggest that there are benefits to being depressed, so no one should seek depression as a cure to their cognitive biases.”

Moore notes that levels of depression had little impact on participants’ view of their control. Moreover, the online group with higher levels of depression had actually overestimated their control during the experiment. The researchers say this direct contradiction to the 1979 study findings “may be driven by anxiety rather than depression,” a piece of data which requires more research.

The UC Berkeley researchers reiterate that a person who is depressed may still exert overconfidence in decision-making and lack judgment. While depression may not improve one’s judgment, a person’s self-awareness about their levels of control has much wider implications in life, the researchers say.

“We live with a great deal of uncertainty about how much control we have—over our careers, our health, our body weight, our friendships, or our happiness,” Moore adds. “What actions can we take that really matter? If we want to make good choices in life, it’s very helpful to know what we control and what we don’t.”

The study is published in the journal Collabra:Psychology.

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About the Author

Benjamin Fearnow

Mr. Fearnow has written for Newsweek, The Atlantic & CBS during his New York City-based journalism career. He discusses tech and social media topics on cable news networks.

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