Positive Illusions Versus Depressive Realism

pink glassesThe Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe argued, essentially, that the human capacities for reason and self-awareness break with nature, giving us more than we, as a part of nature, can carry. So as not to go mad, ‘most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the content of consciousness.’

People not only limit the content of consciousness, but also fill it with less than the truth. In particular, most people think more highly of themselves than is warranted: they have an inflated sense of their qualities and abilities, an illusion of control over things that are mostly beyond them, and a misplaced optimism about their outcomes and prospects.

For example, most people claim to compare favourably to the average road user, citizen, parent… which is, of course, mathematically impossible, since not everyone can be above average. A couple on the verge of tying the knot is likely to overestimate the odds of having a carefree honeymoon or a gifted child, while underestimating the odds of having a miscarriage, falling ill, or getting divorced.

The concept of positive illusions first appeared in 1988, in a paper by Shelley Taylor and Jonathon Brown entitled, Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Still today, it is commonly believed that mental health corresponds to accurate perceptions of the self, the other, and the world, but in their paper Taylor and Brown argued that the evidence suggests otherwise, and that positive illusions are characteristic of normal human thought.

Positive illusions are helpful in so far as they enable us to take risks, invest in the future, and fend off despair and depression. After all, how many people would get married if they had any real sense of what awaited them? But in the longer term, the poor perspective and judgement that come from undue self-regard and false hope are likely to lead to disappointment and failure, to say nothing of the inhibitions and emotional disturbances (such as anger, anxiety, and so on) that can derive or descend from a defended position.

Positive illusions tend to be more common, and more marked, in the West. In East Asian cultures, for example, people are less vested in themselves and more vested in their community and society, and tend, if anything, to self-effacement rather than self-enhancement.

Positive illusions are also more prevalent in unskilled people, possibly because highly skilled people tend to assume, albeit falsely, that those around them enjoy similar levels of insight and competence. This Dunning-Kruger effect, as it has been called, is neatly encapsulated in a short fragment from the introduction to Darwin’s Descent of Man: ‘…ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge…’ And, of course, it may also be that, compared to highly skilled people, unskilled people are more reliant on positive illusions for their self-esteem and broader mental health.

Depressive realism

Just as it is commonly believed that mental health corresponds to accurate perceptions of the self, the other, and the world, so it is commonly believed that depression results in, or results from, distorted thinking.

‘Cognitive distortion’ is a concept from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), developed by psychiatrist Aaron Beck in the 1960s and routinely used in the treatment of depression and other mental disorders. Cognitive distortion involves interpreting events and situations so that they conform to and reinforce our outlook or frame of mind, typically on the basis of very scant or partial evidence, or even no evidence at all.

Common cognitive distortions in depression include selective abstraction, personalization, and catastrophic thinking:

  • Selective abstraction is to focus on a single negative event or condition to the exclusion of other, more positive ones, for example, ‘My partner didn’t call me yesterday. He must hate me.’
  • Personalization is to relate independent events to oneself, for example, ‘The nurse is leaving her job because she’s fed up with me…’
  • Catastrophic thinking is to exaggerate the negative consequences of an event or situation, for example: ‘The pain in my knee is only going to get worse. When I’m reduced to a wheelchair, I won’t be able to go to work and pay the mortgage. So I’ll end up losing my house and dying in the street.’

However, the scientific literature suggests that, despite their propensity for such cognitive distortions, many people with depressed mood can also have more accurate judgement about the outcome of so-called contingent events (events that may or may not occur) and a more realistic perception of their role, abilities, and limitations—a phenomenon that is sometimes, and controversially, referred to as ‘depressive realism’.

The concept of depressive realism originated in 1979, in a paper entitled Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: sadder but wiser? On the basis of their findings, the authors, Lauren Alloy and Lyn Abramson, argued that people with depression make more realistic inferences than ‘normal’ people, who are handicapped by their positive illusions. On the face of it, this suggests that people with depression are able to see the world more clearly for what it is, while normal people are only normal in so far as they are deceiving or deluding themselves.

This is a seductive proposition for someone like me, who has long been arguing that depression can be good for us—for example, in my book, The Meaning of Madness. But here’s the rub: people with depression are pessimistic even in situations in which pessimism is unwarranted, suggesting that, rather than being more realistic, their thinking is merely ‘differently biased’, and just as rigid and distorted as that of normal people with their positive illusions.

Wisdom, it seems, consists in being able to shed our positive illusions without also succumbing to depression, although, for many, depression may be a necessary step along the way.

Growing from Depression, the Audiobook

GFD Audiobook-2

People with depression often lack the energy or concentration to read chapter after chapter, and may experience an audiobook as less of a challenge.

So I’m especially delighted to announce the publication (if ‘publication’ is the word) of an audiobook version of ‘Growing from Depression’, narrated by the very talented Alexander Doddy.

The audiobook is available through Amazon, Audible, and iTunes.

You can listen to a short sample chapter, The Search for Meaning, by clicking here and then on ‘Audible Sample’ under the cover icon.

Feedback and reviews most welcome!

Positive illusions

Most people regard themselves in more positive terms than other people regard them, and have an unduly optimistic outlook on their circumstances and possibilities. Such positive illusions, as they are called, are of three broad kinds, an inflated sense of one’s qualities and abilities, an unrealistic optimism about the future, and an illusion of control over external occurrences. For instance, most people think that they are a better than average driver, citizen, or parent, collectively implying that the average driver, citizen, or parent is in fact not at all average. A couple on the verge of getting married is likely to over-estimate the odds of having a gifted child but underestimate the odds of having a miscarriage, falling ill, or getting divorced. Positive illusions may confer certain advantages such as an ability to take risks, persevere with major undertakings, and cope with traumatic events. In the longer term, however, the loss of perspective and poor judgement that come from undue self-regard and false hope are likely to set us up for failure and disappointment, not to mention the emotional and behavioural problems (such as anxiety and anger) that are associated with a defended position.

It is interesting to note that positive illusions are particularly prevalent in Occidental and Occidentalised cultures; in East Asian cultures, for example, people do not tend to be self-enhancing and may even be self-effacing. Positive illusions are also more marked in unskilled than in highly skilled people, who tend to assume, falsely, that those around them enjoy a similar level of competence. This so-called Dunning-Kruger effect is encapsulated in a short line from Darwin’s Descent of Man: ‘Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.’

In contrast to most, people who might be diagnosed with depression are prone to a number of cognitive biases or distortions that might be thought of as ‘negative illusions’. Three examples of cognitive biases that occur in depression are ‘selective abstraction’, ‘dichotomous thinking’, and ‘catastrophic thinking’. Selective abstraction involves focusing on a single negative event to the exclusion of other, more positive ones. For instance, a depressed student may focus on a test that he has failed at the expense of all his previous academic achievements and all the other good things in his life, his strong physical health, confiding friendships, supportive family, and so on. Dichotomous thinking is a form of thinking in which an outcome is either all good or all bad, with no room at all for shades of grey. A common example of dichotomous thinking in hospital in-patients with depression is, ‘If he doesn’t come to see me today then he doesn’t love me.’ Another, more subtle, one is, ‘If I am not out of hospital by Jack’s birthday, he’ll know that I do not love him.’ Catastrophic thinking involves exaggerating the possible consequences of an event or situation, as in, ‘The pain in my knee is getting worse. When I’m in a wheelchair, I won’t be able to go to work and pay the mortgage. So I’ll end up losing my house and living in the street.’

People who might be diagnosed with depression may be prone to a number of such cognitive biases, but the scientific literature suggests that they can also display more accurate judgement about the outcome of so-called contingent events (events which may or may not occur) and a more realistic perception of their qualities, abilities, and limitations. This phenomenon of so-called depressive realism is most pronounced at the milder end of the depressive spectrum, and it may be that the most accurate perception of self and reality belongs not to the tranquil or joyful but to the mildly discontented.

Criticisms of the Concept of Depression

This crayon drawing by a hospital in-patient with severe depression alludes to her temporary withdrawal from mainstream society. The months that she spent in hospital gave her the time and the solitude to think over her life, and the motivation to make difficult but necessary changes to it. She went on to make a full recovery.

Many a man curses the rain that falls upon his head, and knows not that it brings abundance to drive away the hunger. – St Basil the Great

Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind. – Marcel Proust

Depression around the world

There are important geographical variations in the prevalence of depression, and these can in large part be accounted for by socio-cultural factors. In traditional societies, human distress is more likely to be seen as an indicator of the need to address important life problems, rather than as a mental disorder requiring professional treatment. For this reason, the diagnosis of depression is correspondingly less common. Some linguistic communities do not have a word or even a concept for ‘depression’, and many people from traditional societies with what may be construed as depression present with physical complaints such as headache or chest pain rather than with psychological complaints. Punjabi women who have recently immigrated to the UK and given birth find it baffling that a health visitor should pop round to ask them if they are depressed. Not only had they never considered the possibility that giving birth could be anything other than a joyous event, but they do not even have a word with which to translate the concept of ‘depression’ into Punjabi!

In modern societies such as the UK and the USA, people talk about depression more readily and more openly. As a result, they are more likely to interpret their distress in terms of depression, and less likely to fear being stigmatised if they seek out a diagnosis of the illness. At the same time, groups with vested interests such as pharmaceutical companies and mental health experts promote the notion of saccharine happiness as a natural, default state, and of human distress as a mental disorder. The concept of depression as a mental disorder may be useful for the more severe and intractable cases treated by hospital psychiatrists, but probably not for the majority of cases, which, for the most part, are mild and short-lived, and easily interpreted in terms of life circumstances, human nature, or the human condition.

Another (non-mutually exclusive) explanation for the important geographical variations in the prevalence of depression may lie in the nature of modern societies, which have become increasingly individualistic and divorced from traditional values. For many people living in our society, life can seem both suffocating and far removed, lonely even and especially amongst the multitudes, and not only meaningless but absurd. By encoding their distress in terms of mental disorder, our society may be subtly implying that the problem lies not with itself, but with them. However, thinking of the milder forms of depression in terms of an illness can be counterproductive, as it can prevent people from identifying and addressing the important life problems that are at the root of their distress.

Problems with diagnosis

All this is not to say that the concept of depression as a mental disorder is bogus, but only that the diagnosis of depression may have been over-extended to include far more than just depression the mental disorder. If, like the majority of medical conditions, depression could be defined and diagnosed according to its aetiology or pathology, such a state of affairs could not have arisen. Unfortunately, depression cannot as yet be defined according to its aetiology or pathology, but only according to its clinical manifestations and symptoms. For this reason, a doctor cannot base a diagnosis of depression on any objective criterion such as a blood test or a brain scan, but only on his subjective interpretation of the nature and severity of the patient’s symptoms. If some of these symptoms appear to tally with the diagnostic criteria for depression, then the doctor is able to justify making a diagnosis of depression.

One important problem here is that the definition of ‘depression’ is circular: the concept of depression is defined according to the symptoms of depression, which are in turn defined according to the concept of depression. Thus, it is impossible to be certain that the concept of depression maps onto any distinct disease entity, particularly since a diagnosis of depression can apply to anything from mild depression to depressive psychosis and depressive stupor, and overlap with several other categories of mental disorder including dysthymia, adjustment disorders, and anxiety disorders. Indeed, one of the consequences of the ‘menu of symptoms’ approach to diagnosing depression is that two people with absolutely no symptoms in common can both end up with the same diagnosis of depression. For this reason especially, the concept of depression has been charged with being little more than a socially constructed dustbin for all manner of human suffering.

An adaptive role?

Every person inherits a certain complement of genes that make her more or less vulnerable to developing depression during her lifetime. A person suffers from depression if the amount of stress that she comes under is greater than the amount of stress that she can tolerate, given her vulnerability to developing depression. Genes for potentially debilitating disorders such as depression usually pass out of a population over time because affected people have, on average, fewer children than non-affected people. The fact that this has not happened for depression suggests that the responsible genes are being maintained despite their potentially debilitating effects on a significant proportion of the population, and thus that they are lending an important adaptive or evolutionary advantage.

There are other instances of genes that both predispose to an illness and lend an important adaptive advantage. In sickle cell disease, for example, red blood cells assume a rigid sickle shape that restricts their passage through tiny blood vessels. This leads to a number of serious physical complications and, in traditional societies, to a radically shortened life expectancy. At the same time, carrying just one allele of the sickle cell gene (‘sickle cell trait’) makes it impossible for malarial parasites to reproduce inside red blood cells, and so confers immunity to malaria. The fact that the gene for sickle cell anaemia is particularly common in populations from malarial regions suggests that, in evolutionary terms, a debilitating illness in the few can be a price worth paying for an important adaptive advantage in the many.

What important adaptive advantage could depression have? Just as physical pain has evolved to signal injury and to prevent further injury, so depression may have evolved to remove us from distressing, damaging, or futile situations. The time and space and solitude that depression affords prevents us from making rash decisions, enables us to see the bigger picture, and – in the context of being a social animal – to reassess our social relationships, think about those who are significant to us, and relate to them more meaningfully and with greater understanding. Thus, depression may have evolved as a signal that something is seriously wrong and needs working through and changing or, at least, understanding. Sometimes people can become so immersed in the humdrum of their everyday lives that they no longer have the time to think and feel about themselves, and so lose sight of their bigger picture. The experience of depression can force them to stand back at a distance, re-evaluate and prioritise their needs, and formulate a modest but realistic plan for fulfilling them.

Sorrow’s children

Although the experience of depression can serve such a mundane purpose, it can also enable a person to develop a more refined perspective and deeper understanding of her life and of life in general. From an existential standpoint, the experience of depression obliges the person to become aware of her mortality and freedom, and challenges her to exercise the latter within the framework of the former. By meeting this difficult challenge, the person is able to break out of the mould that has been imposed upon her, discover who she truly is, and, in so doing, begin to give deep meaning to her life. Indeed, many of the most creative and most insightful people in society suffer or suffered from depression. They include the politicians Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln; the poets Charles Baudelaire, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, and Rainer Maria Rilke; the thinkers Michel Foucault, William James, John Stuart Mill, Isaac Newton, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Arthur Schopenhauer; and the writers Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy, Evelyn Waugh, Tennessee Williams, and many, many others.

The curse of the strong

People with depression are often stigmatised as ‘failures’ or ‘losers’. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the sorts of people who are most vulnerable to developing depression are all the opposite of failures or losers. If they are suffering from depression, it is most probably because they have tried too hard or taken on too much, so hard and so much that they have made themselves ill with depression. In other words, if they are suffering from depression, it is because their world was simply not good enough for them. They wanted more, they wanted better, and they wanted different, not just for themselves, but for all those around them. So if they are failures or losers, this is only because they set the bar far too high. They could have swept everything under the carpet and pretended, as many people do, that all is for the best in the best of possible worlds. However, unlike many people, they had the honesty and the strength to admit that something was amiss, that something was not quite right. So rather than being failures or losers, they are just the opposite: they are ambitious, truthful, and courageous. And that is precisely why they got ill. Getting ill is never a good thing, but in the case of depression it can present a precious opportunity to identify and to address some very challenging life problems, and to develop a deeper and more refined understanding and appreciation of one’s life and of life in general.

A note of caution

Depression should not be romanticised, sought out, or left unattended simply because it may or may not predispose to problem-solving, personal development, or creativity. The most severe forms of depression have a strong biological basis and are not related to a person’s life circumstances or aspirations. All forms of depression are drab and intensely painful, and most people who suffer from depression would never wish it on anyone, least of all themselves. In some cases, depression can lead to serious injury or even to death through accident, self-neglect, or self-harm. Even highly successful people who suffered from depression such as Hart Crane and Sylvia Plath ended up committing suicide in the end, and most people who attempt suicide do so because they are suffering with some form of depression.

Adapted from Growing from Depression: A Self-Help Guide


On this day I’ve been diagnosed with depression

On this day I’ve been diagnosed with depression.
It’s a biochemical illness of the brain,
Or so I’m told by the medical profession.

Research proves it’s a serotonin depletion,
And just as physical as chest pain or chilblain.
On this day I’ve been diagnosed with depression.

It has somehow become a common condition,
But popping a pill can make us normal again.
Or so I’m told by the medical profession.

Doctor, please, I think that I may have a question,
I’m afraid that you may find it rather profane.
‘I am a proficient, experienced clinician,
But there is only so much that I can explain.’

On this day I’ve been diagnosed with depression,
Or so I’m told by the medical profession.

– NB