Depressive Realism

Wisdom or madness?

People with depression can suffer from cognitive distortions about everyday events. Examples of such cognitive distortions are ‘selective abstraction’, ‘dichotomous thinking’, and ‘catastrophic thinking’. Selective abstraction is to focus on a single negative event or condition to the exclusion of other, more positive ones. For instance, a person may be preoccupied by the fact that she is not currently in a relationship, but neglect the fact that she has a supportive family and many good friends. Dichotomous thinking involves ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking. A common example of this in hospital inpatients with depression is, ‘if he doesn’t come to see me today then he doesn’t love me’. Lastly, catastrophic thinking involves exaggerating the possible consequences of an event or situation: ‘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 bills. So I’ll end up losing my house, living in the street, and dying of cold.’

In contrast, most non-depressed people have an unduly rose-tinted perspective on their attributes, circumstances, and possibilities. 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—which is obviously a statistical impossibility! A couple on the verge of getting married is likely to overestimate the odds of having a sunny honeymoon or a gifted child but underestimate the odds of having a miscarriage, falling ill, or getting divorced. Such positive illusions, as they are called, are quite the norm, and the poisoned well of much of our self-esteem.

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