depressive realism

Depressive realism is the 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 andoptimism bias.


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

People without depression are more likely to have inflated self-images and look at the world through “rose-colored glasses”, thanks to cognitive dissonance elimination and a variety of other defense mechanisms.

This does not necessarily imply that a happy person is delusional or deny that some depressed individuals may be unrealistically negative (as in studies by Pacini, Muir and Epstein, 1998).


Since there is evidence that positive illusions are 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 andlearning and with low ego involvement in outcomes. They present evidence that self-determined individuals are less prone to these illusions.

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.


  • 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. Abstract
  • 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. Abstract
  • Dykman, B. M., Abramson, L. Y., Alloy, L. B., & Hartlage, S. (1989). Processing of ambiguous and unambiguous feedback by depressed and nondepressed college students: Schematic biases and their implications for depressive realism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 431–445.
  • 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.

About this entry