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Depressive realism

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Depressive realism is the (contested) proposition that people with depression have a more accurate view of reality. Specifically that they are less affected by the positive illusions of illusory superiority, the illusion of control and optimism bias. It must be understood that this refers specifically to people with borderline or moderate depression — while normal people see things in too positive a light and severely depressed people see things in too negative a light, the "grey" area in between leads to the most accurate perceptions of reality.[How to reference and link to summary or text]


Studies by psychologists Alloy and Abramson (1979) and Dobson and Franche (1989) suggested that depressed people appear to have a more realistic perception of their importance, reputation, locus of control, and abilities than those who are not depressed.

Dobson and Franche, (1989) have shown that depressed people appear to have a more realistic perception of their importance, reputation, locus of control, and abilities. People without depression are more likely to have inflated self-images and look at the world through rose-colored glasses, thanks to cognitive dissonance and a variety of other defense mechanisms. This does not necessarily imply that a happy person is delusional. Also, depressed individuals can be unrealistically negative (e.g. Pacini, Muir and Epstein, 1998).

Since there is evidence that positive illusions may be more common in normally mentally healthy individuals than in depressed individuals, Taylor and Brown (1988) argue that they are adaptive.

However, Pacini, Muir and Epstein (1998) have shown that the depressive realism effect may be because depressed people overcompensate for a tendency toward maladaptive intuitive processing by exercising excessive rational control in trivial situations, and note that the difference with non-depressed people disappears in more consequential circumstances. Knee and Zuckerman (1998) have challenged the definition of mental health used by Taylor and Brown and argue that lack of illusions is associated with a non-defensive personality oriented towards growth and learning and with low ego involvement in outcomes. They present evidence that self-determined individuals are less prone to these illusions.

Knee and Zuckerman (1998) have challenged the definition of mental health used by Taylor and Brown and argue that lack of illusions is associated with a non-defensive personality oriented towards growth and learning and with low ego involvement in outcomes. They present evidence that self-determined individuals are less prone to these illusions.

Colvin and Block (1995) have criticised the logic and empirical evidence used by Taylor and Brown to link mental health and positive illusions together. They argue that there are fair number of studies that fails to replicate the findings, and that a closer examination of their evidence doesn't support their thesis.

Dykman et al. (1989) argued that, although depressive people make more accurate judgments about having no control in situations where in fact they have no control, they also believe they have no control when in fact they do; and so their perceptions are not more accurate overall.

Dunning and Story (1991) have shown that when applied to real world settings, depressed individuals are less accurate in their predictions about the future and more overconfident than their nondepressed counterparts.

Some recent studies argue the contrary to the hypothesis, suggesting that mentally healthy people actually have less positive illusions and illusions in general than depressed ones. For example, studies by Msetfi et al. (2005, 2007) found that when replicating Alloy and Abramson's findings the overestimation of control in nondepressed people only showed up when the interval was long enough, implying that this is because they take more aspects of a situation into account than their depressed counterparts, and other studies such as Joiner et al. (2006) or Moore et al. (2007) found that all forms of illusion, positive or not, were associated with higher depressive symptoms. It might also be that the pessimistic bias of depressives results in "depressive realism" when, for example, measuring estimation of control, as proposed by Allan et al. (2007). Various other recent studies[1] such as Fu et al.(2003), Carsona et al.(2009) and Boyd-Wilson et al. (2000) reject the idea of depressive realism by showing no link between positive illusions and mental health, well-being or life satisfaction maintaining that accurate perception of reality is compatible with happiness.

A longitudinal study (Colvin et al. 1995) found that self-enhancement biases were associated with poor social skills and psychological maladjustment. In a separate experiment where videotaped conversations between men and women were rated by independent observers, self-enhancing individuals were more likely to show socially problematic behaviors such as hostility or irritability. A 2007 study (Sedikides et al.) found that self-enhancement biases were associated with psychological benefits (such as subjective well-being) but also inter- and intra-personal costs (such as anti-social behavior).

When studying the link between self-esteem and positive illusions, Compton (1992) identified a group which posessed high self-esteem without positive illusions, and that these individuals weren't depressed, neurotic, psychotic, maladjusted nor personality disordered, thus concluding that positive illusions aren't necessary for high self-esteem. Compared to the group with positive illusions and high self-esteem, the nonillusional group with high self-esteem was higher on self-criticism and personality integration and lower on psychoticism.

A meta-analysis of 118 studies including 7013 subjects by Moore et al. (2007) found that slightly more studies supported the depressive realism hypothesis (Cohen’s d = -.24, SD = .72). Studies that were more generalizable were more likely to produce depressive realism effects, but both depressed and nondepressed participants were found to be strongly positively biased, which does not go in line with the hypothesis. Studies that used self-reports instead of clinical interviews found the effects more strongly, and studies using student samples found mild depressive realism effects whereas clinical samples found results contrary to depressive realism. There also was a significant moderation to the effect by the method which was used to measure depressive realism, as studies of attentional bias supported depressive realism the most, followed by judgement of contingency studies, whereas recall of feedback and evaluation of performance studies produced results mildly counter to depressive realism. Study quality was also a significant factor in moderating the effect, as studies lower in methodological quality supported depressive realism more.

See alsoEdit


  1. (2010). Depressive Realism: Happiness or Objectivity. Turkish Journal of Psychiatry 21 (1): 60-67.


  • Alloy, L. B., & Abramson, L. Y. (1979). Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: Sadder but wiser?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 108, 441-485.
  • Cummins, R. A., & Nistico, H. (2002). Maintaining life satisfaction: The role of positive cognitive bias. Journal of Happiness Studies 3, 37-69.
  • Dobson, K. & Franche, R. L. (1989). A conceptual and empirical review of the depressive realism hypothesis. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science 21, 419-433.
  • Pacini, R., Muir, F., & Epstein, S. (1998). Depressive realism from the perspective of cognitive-experiential self-theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(4), 1056-1068.
  • Taylor, S. E., & Armor, D. A. (1996). Positive Illusions and Coping With Adversity. Journal of Personality, 64(4), 873-898.
  • Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and Well-Being - a Social Psychological Perspective On Mental-Health. Psychological Bulletin, 103(2), 193-210.
  • Zuckerman, M., Knee, C. R., Kieffer, S. C., Rawsthorne, L., & Bruce, L. M. (1996). Beliefs in Realistic and Unrealistic Control - Assessment and Implications. Journal of Personality, 64(2), 435-464.
  • Thomas E. Joiner, Janet A. Kistner, Nadia E. Stellrecht, Katherine A. Merrill (2006). On Seeing Clearly and Thriving: Interpersonal Perspicacity as Adaptive (Not Depressive) Realism (Or Where Three Theories Meet). Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Volume: 25 Issue: 5 Pages: 542-564 Abstract
  • Richard C. Carsona, 1, Steven D. Hollonb, Richard C. Sheltonc (2009). Depressive realism and clinical depression Behaviour Research and Therapy Volume 48, Issue 4, April 2010, Pages 257-265 Abstract
  • Tiffany Fu, Wilma Koutstaal, Cynthia H. Y. Fu, Lucia Poon and Anthony J. Cleare (2003). Depression, Confidence, and Decision: Evidence Against Depressive Realism Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment Volume 27, Number 4, 243-252, DOI: 10.1007/s10862-005-2404-x Abstract
  • Michael Thomas Moore, David Fresco (2007). Depressive realism and attributional style: implications for individuals at risk for depression. Behavior Therapy 38 Pages: 144-154 [1]
  • Belinda M. Boyd-Wilson Frank H. Walkeyb, John McClureb and Dianne E. Greenb (2000). Do we need positive illusions to carry out plans? Illusion: and instrumental coping. Personality and Individual Differences, Volume: 29 Issue: 6 Pages: 1141-1152 Abstract
  • Moore MT, Fresco DM (2007) Depressive realism: A meta-analytic review [2]
  • Msetfi RM, Murphy RA, Simpson J, Kornbrot DE (2005) Depressive realism and outcome density bias in contingency judgments: the effect of the context and intertrial interval. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General, Volume: 134 Issue: 1 Pages: 10-22. [3]
  • Msetf RM, Murphy RA, Simpson J (2007) Depressive realism and the effect of intertrial interval on judgements of zero, positive, and negative contingencies. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Volume: 60 Issue: 3 Pages: 461-481.
  • Rachel Adelson. Probing the puzzling workings of 'depressive realism' (2005) [4]
  • Allan LG, Siegel S, Hannah S. (2007) The sad truth about depressive realism. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, Volume: 60 Issue: 3 Pages: 482-495 [5]
  • Dunning D, Story AL. (1991) Depression, realism, and the overconfidence effect: are the sadder wiser when predicting future actions and events? Journal of personality and social psychology, Volume: 61 Issue: 4 Pages: 521-532 [6]
  • Colvin, C. Randall; Jack Block, David C. Funder (1995). "Overly Positive Self-Evaluations and Personality: Negative Implications for Mental Health". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (American Psychological Association) Volume: 68 Issue: 6 Pages: 1152–1162. [7]
  • Sedikides, Constantine; Robert S. Horton, Aiden P. Gregg (2007). "The Why's the Limit: Curtailing Self-Enhancement With Explanatory Introspection". Journal of Personality (Wiley Periodicals) Volume: 75 Issue: 4: Pages: 783–824. [8]
  • C. Randall Colvin, Jack Block (1994) "Do positive illusions foster mental health? An Examination of the Taylor and Brown Formulation". Psychological bulletin Volume: 116 Issue: 1 Pages: 3-20 (American Psychological Association) [9]
  • William C. Compton (1992) Are positive illusions necessary for self-esteem: a research note. Personality and Individual Differences Volume 13, Issue 12, December 1992, Pages 1343-1344
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