The fallacy behind ‘depressive realism’

97557-94199Some friends and I were talking the other day (yesterday) about depressive realism, which is the demonstrably true fact that clinically depressed people have a better understanding of life’s odds than non-depressed people. That’s because human beings have a tough time with probability and we tend to consistently overestimate the probability of low-probability events and to discount the possibility of failure in cases where there is a small, but real, likelihood of failure.

For instance, most marriages succeed, but some of them fail. However, few people who get married ever think, “Oh, there’s a chance that this is going to fail.”

The depressed person, on the other hand, allows allows the possibility for failure. In fact, they’re obsessed with it.

Similarly, very few aspiring writers will ever sell a story, much less a book. And even fewer will make any sort of career out of writing. However, while most aspiring writers know that things are hard, they do not have any idea how low the probabilities actually are, or they wouldn’t do it. If anyone really understood what it meant to have a one in a hundred chance of success, they’d go and do something else. Depressed people understand that a one percent chance of success is pretty close to zero. Basically, the odds of success are usually pretty bad, and depressed people intuitively understand that because they think most things are bad.

However, the thing that depressed people underestimate is human resilience. In fact, we all do. How many times have you read a story or watched a movie that ended with the implied conclusion that nothing was ever the same for this person: the conclusion that their life was, basically, over.

We see that movie and read that story all the time.

But it’s not true. People bounce back from most things. Really terrible stuff can happen. Your loved ones can die, you can lose limbs, or you can experience shame and dishonor on an epic scale…and even with that, it’s more likely than not that you’ll eventually find some level of contentment.

So, really, non-depressed people are the beneficiaries of their ignorance. They might underestimate the odds of failure, but it’s alright because the consequences of that ignorance–they’ll suffer more failures in life than they would if they were more cautious–are actually not that terrible.