Depressive realism describes the way that people with depression make more accurate judgments about situations. Research is conflicted about whether this is a real phenomenon.

Depressive realism was initially defined as the accuracy with which a person assesses the things they can’t control. Now the concept encompasses a wide range of things, from making decisions about money to perceiving people’s intentions.

The basic premise of depressive realism is that people with mild or moderate depression are better at making accurate judgments. Their perception isn’t clouded by optimism or denial.

But there may be other factors that influence how a person assesses a situation, like how passive they are.

Depression can also cause cognitive distortions, which may influence a person to think in an overly negative way, rather than with realism.

Psychology professors Lyn Yvonne Abramson and Lauren Alloy introduced the concept of depressive realism in their 1979 study.

The study assessed participants’ ability to estimate contingency, which is the dependence of one thing for another to happen.

In the study, the contingency was whether a student pressing a button was the cause for a green light to turn on. The light came on sometimes when the students pressed the button, but it’d also come on when they didn’t press it.

It was the depressed students who were more accurate than their nondepressed peers in assessing the level of control they had over the light.

A 2015 review examined some of the ways in which people experiencing depression may have more realistic views.

The review discussed several areas in which depressive realism seemed to exist, leading to improved performance or abilities in studies.

They include:

  • assessments of whether your partner understands your feelings or thoughts
  • realistic insight about illness and the impact it has on you
  • analytic reasoning
  • perception of time

Older research from 2007 suggested that study participants with a clinical depression diagnosis were able to describe some of the people important to them with greater accuracy and less distortion than participants in the control group.

The study authors indicated that there was some evidence to support the concept of depressive realism, but only in certain contexts.

Research from 2012 has since added new insight to Alloy and Abramson’s original contingency learning task study.

The research suggests that a depressed participant’s passivity to a learning task, not the depression itself, makes it easier for them to gauge contingency. This is because when they’re passive, they spend more time observing and less time participating than nondepressed controls.

Researchers conducted a new contingency experiment, and this time told all the participants how frequently they could respond. It was the reduced response frequency, not the presence of depression, that predicted how accurate participants’ assessments were.

A 2018 contingency task study also found no evidence of depressive realism. The accuracy of the participants’ judgment of their own control was similar between those with depression and the control group.

People who live with depression tend to be more likely to experience cognitive distortions, or negative thinking biases.

There are ten common cognitive distortions associated with depression.

  1. Mindreading: Mindreading is when you assume that others are thinking negatively about you.
  2. Catastrophizing: Catastrophizing involves having overly negative expectations about future events even without evidence to support your opinion.
  3. All-or-nothing thinking: All-or-nothing thinking is seeing the world in either-or absolutes, without allowing for some gray areas or moderate thinking.
  4. Disqualifying the positive: Disqualifying the positive is when you ignore the good things that have happened.
  5. Should statements: This is when you fixate on the idea that things should be a certain way, and variations of that way aren’t acceptable.
  6. Overgeneralization: Overgeneralization is when you assume that other negative things will happen because of one bad event.
  7. Mental filtering: Mental filtering is when your mind filters out evidence of positive things so all you notice is the negative.
  8. Emotional reasoning: Emotional reasoning is when you decide whether something is true based on how you feel, rather than by assessing objective evidence.
  9. Labeling: This is when you describe yourself in a negative way after an unwanted event.
  10. Personalization: Personalization is when you assume that it’s your fault when something bad happens.

When a person exhibits signs of depressive realism, they may be experiencing a depression cognitive distortion.

You might feel grounded with a realistic view of your life and the world. If your outlook is persistently pessimistic though, you may be experiencing something other than just ordinary realism.

You may benefit from support for depression if you:

If you have thoughts of suicide, you should seek immediate help. You can dial 988 on your phone to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

You can also reach out to your doctor, or explore Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support page for information and resources.