What Is Depressive Realism?

Man with depression contemplating life.

Getty / DjelicS

Depressive realism is a psychological term describing the tendency of people with depression to have a more accurate assessment and perception of reality than those without depression. While people without depression tend to overestimate their successes, capabilities, and control over the world around them, people with depression generally have a more realistic view.

Depressive realism is based on an overall tendency among depressed people to focus on negative aspects of reality. Because the world can be a difficult, unpredictable place, and because it is likely that bad events will happen at some point in life, depressive realists may be more prepared for those eventualities than people who overestimate their control and capability.

History of Depressive Realism

The concept of depressive realism was first introduced in 1988 as part of a study led by psychologist Lauren Alloy and her colleagues. The study results showed that individuals with depression were better able to accurately judge their current performance on a task than individuals who did not have clinically significant levels of depression.

This finding suggested that individuals with depression may be better able to assess their abilities and flaws when compared to non-depressed individuals, who tend to view themselves in an overly positive light.

Since then, numerous additional studies have been conducted to investigate the potential implications of depressive realism. These studies have looked at questions such as whether people with depression are more accurate when predicting future events, or if they may also be more accurate in perceiving social situations and relationships.

Overall, the research into depressive realism has shown that individuals with depression may see reality more clearly than non-depressed people and this may lead them to make more accurate decisions and judgments. This can be both an advantage and a disadvantage, as it can help people with depression take more appropriate actions but may also lead to increased feelings of hopelessness or pessimism.

How Depressive Realism Works

The exact mechanisms behind depressive realism are still being investigated, but some theories suggest that it could be due to the fact that people with depression often spend more time ruminating over negative experiences and events. This in turn may lead them to have a better understanding of reality, as they become more aware of the potential for failure or disappointment.

Another possible explanation is related to altered reward processing. Studies suggest that people with depression tend to have lower reward sensitivity, which may lead them to perceive the world more objectively than those without depression who may focus on immediate gratification at the expense of long-term rewards.

Finally, it has also been proposed that individuals with depression have decreased levels of cognitive control. This means that they may have negative biases in attention and long-term memory. In addition, they may be unable to switch off rumination about negative outcomes. As a whole, this may lead to more accurate predictions of negative outcomes because of the tendency to focus on the possibility of them happening.

Overall, further research is needed in order to fully understand how depressive realism works. However, it is clear that individuals with depression may have a more realistic view of situations than those without depression and this can lead to both advantages and disadvantages. Understanding how depressive realism works can help us better appreciate the unique perspective of people with depression.

Benefits of Depressive Realism

The implications of depressive realism are still being studied, but some suggest that it could be beneficial in certain contexts. For example, individuals with depression might be more likely to approach situations realistically and thus make more cautious decisions. On the other hand, though, depressed individuals may also be more prone to viewing everything negatively and not taking action when needed.

In a sense, depressive realism may be helpful to avoid the risks of the opposite end of the spectrum. A realistic outlook on life can help people manage risk, identify potential stressors, and avoid the pitfalls of overconfidence.

Additionally, individuals with depression may be more likely to acknowledge their flaws and weaknesses, which may make them more likely to seek help than someone with an overly optimistic view of themself or their life.

Drawbacks of Depressive Realism

Despite the potential benefits of depressive realism, there are also drawbacks that should not be ignored.

People with depression are prone to viewing everything negatively and become pessimistic about their prospects. This can lead to increased feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, which can worsen symptoms of depression.

People with depression are prone to viewing everything negatively and become pessimistic about their prospects. This can lead to increased feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, which can worsen symptoms of depression.

Additionally, an overly realistic outlook on life could lead to an underestimation of one’s own capabilities and skills, leading to low self-esteem and difficulty achieving goals.

Depressive realism may also lead individuals to avoid taking risks or trying new things because they are afraid of failure. This can limit opportunities for growth and limit one’s ability to reach their full potential.

A Word from Verywell Mind

Overall, depressive realism is an intriguing concept that has been studied extensively in recent years. Understanding how it works and its implications can help us better appreciate the nuances and complexities of the depressed mind.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Arlin Cuncic, MA
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.