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: focusing on a single negative event or condition to the exclusion of other, more positive ones
- Dichotomous thinking: involves ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking
- Catastrophic thinking: involves exaggerating the possible consequences of an event or situation
In contrast, most non-depressed people have an unduly rose-tinted perspective on their attributes, circumstances, and possibilities. 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.
Positive illusions may confer certain advantages such as an ability to take risks, see through major undertakings, and cope with traumatic events. In the longer term, however, the loss of perspective and poor judgment that come from undue self-regard and false hope are likely to lead to disappointment, failure, and even tragedy, not to mention the emotional and behavioral problems (such as anger, anxiety, and so on) that can be associated with a defended position. Positive illusions are a bit like a pair of crutches: useful to those with a handicap, but those without are much better off for not needing them.
While people with depression can suffer from cognitive distortions, the scientific literature suggests that those with only mild-to-moderate depression can also have more accurate judgment about the outcome of events which may or may not occur, and a more realistic perception of their role, abilities, and limitations. This so-called “depressive realism” may enable a person with depression to shed the Pollyanna optimism and rose-tinted spectacles that shield us from reality, to see life more accurately, and to judge it accordingly.