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Popular culture has occasionally touched on the idea that people with depression are more objective judges of the world around them, but research has shown that’s not necessarily true.

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[INTRO ♪].

I think I’m above average in a lot of ways—. I’m a better driver than most.

I’m pretty, like, hilarious, for example. Right? But that just can’t possibly be true of everyone who thinks so.

In fact, psychologists have shown that humans tend to be a little bit mistaken about themselves—usually they think that they’re a bit better at things than they actually are. But some people with depression are less likely to have this bias. And for a long time, that fueled the idea that people with depression were more accurate judges of reality—a concept dubbed depressive realism.

In popular media, it’s been used to claim that people with depression don’t have a negative worldview, they’re just more objective and ‘see the world as it really is’. But as psychologists looked further into this idea, it’s become clear that depressed people aren’t necessarily more realistic or objective in their assessments of things. The phenomenon only happens under certain circumstances—ones where people who aren’t depressed are generally positively-biased.

Depressive realism was first proposed in the late 1970s when researchers had 96 students try to guess whether a button they could press controlled a green light. People who self-reported fewer symptoms of depression rated themselves as having more control over the light than they actually did, while those who reported more symptoms were more spot-on. And since then, a lot of other research has found similar results.

For example, a 1987 study had 80 people pair up and have brief conversations. Then, afterward, they had each person rate their own social competence. The conversations were also viewed by outside observers, and it turned out the self-ratings from the people with depression were closer to the ratings of these observers, while everyone else rated themselves much higher.

And that’s a pretty common thing people do. Basically, we look at ourselves and our abilities with rose colored glasses. But pulling off those glasses doesn’t necessarily mean people with depression are actually seeing the world more objectively.

Lots of studies also support the cognitive distortion model. That’s the idea that depression distorts reality, so that people view themselves and their future prospects more negatively than they actually are. You can see this in a study that gave 19 depressed patients and 12 without depression an identical sheet of feedback about a conversation they’d had.

Both groups thought the feedback was equally accurate, but a few minutes later, the group with depression remembered it being a lot more negative than it actually was. As scientists dig deeper into depressive realism, they’re finding that depressed people aren’t super objective observers. People with depression tend to be more biased about other people's abilities, for example—thinking everyone else is better at things than they actually are.

They aren’t always more accurate about the world, or even themselves. For example, in a 1991 study, researchers asked hundreds of their students to make predictions about what would happen to them over the next semester—things like whether they’d get an A, or be the victim of a crime. In the end, fewer of the predictions made by students which scored high on a depression scale came true, even though they were just as confident as their peers when they made them.

A 2012 meta-analysis was able to find 75 studies on depressive realism to suss out when it happens and when it doesn't. And they found that you’re more likely to see depressive realism if there's no objective standard for reality, for example. Like, in the study where people observed conversations, it's not like those observers were infallible.

Their ratings of social competence were just their opinions. In studies where researchers can control the truth, the effect is usually smaller. And it also makes a difference whether people self-report their symptoms or have a clinician perform a structured interview.

You’re more likely to see the effect if people self-report their symptoms as opposed to have a clinician diagnose them. And that’s a bit weird, because clinicians should be better able to distinguish who really has depression from who doesn’t. So some psychologists think it may indicate there’s something else at play— something other than depression that both leads to people to report more symptoms and dials down their positivity bias, though it’s not clear what that something would be.

All these caveats make it seem like the few cases of accuracy are a side effect of the cognitive distortions that typically appear with depression. Like, most people think they have more control over the world than they really do — that’s why, when asked about whether some button controls a light, people without depression weren’t as accurate as those with depression. But researchers have found that they can make this effect go away by shortening the time participants have in between each test of the button, or by changing their expectations about whether it's going to work.

Depressed patients are only more accurate when they have time to think about it. And giving them information that should lower their expectation of control—like, that they’re testing old lab equipment—doesn’t change their judgements. That suggests that people with depression are actually not paying attention to all the relevant information rather than more objectively assessing the world as it is.

In the end, there isn’t really evidence that being depressed gives you some reality-seeing superpower. It just makes you see things a little more... depressingly. And, on occasion, that view of things is more accurate.

But other times—a lot of the time—it’s really not. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! If you liked learning about how depression affects the brain, you might be interested in our episode on 3 lesser-known symptoms of depression.

And to keep up to date with all of our psych episodes, be sure to click on that subscribe button! [OUTRO ♪].