What is Depressive Realism?


Depressive realism is the hypothesis developed by Lauren Alloy and Lyn Yvonne Abramson that depressed individuals make more realistic inferences than non-depressed individuals.

Although depressed individuals are thought to have a negative cognitive bias that results in recurrent, negative automatic thoughts, maladaptive behaviours, and dysfunctional world beliefs, depressive realism argues not only that this negativity may reflect a more accurate appraisal of the world but also that non-depressed individuals’ appraisals are positively biased.

Refer to Defensive Pessimism.

Evidence (For)

When participants were asked to press a button and rate the control they perceived they had over whether or not a light turned on, depressed individuals made more accurate ratings of control than non-depressed individuals. Among participants asked to complete a task and rate their performance without any feedback, depressed individuals made more accurate self-ratings than non-depressed individuals. For participants asked to complete a series of tasks, given feedback on their performance after each task, and who self-rated their overall performance after completing all the tasks, depressed individuals were again more likely to give an accurate self-rating than non-depressed individuals. When asked to evaluate their performance both immediately and some time after completing a task, depressed individuals made accurate appraisals both immediately before and after time had passed.

In a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study of the brain, depressed patients were shown to be more accurate in their causal attributions of positive and negative social events than non-depressed participants, who demonstrated a positive bias. This difference was also reflected in the differential activation of the fronto-temporal network, higher activation for non self-serving attributions in non-depressed participants and for self-serving attributions in depressed patients, and reduced coupling of the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex seed region and the limbic areas when depressed patients made self-serving attributions.

Evidence (Against)

When asked to rate both their performance and the performance of others, non-depressed individuals demonstrated positive bias when rating themselves but no bias when rating others. Depressed individuals conversely showed no bias when rating themselves but a positive bias when rating others.

When assessing participant thoughts in public versus private settings, the thoughts of non-depressed individuals were more optimistic in public than private, while depressed individuals were less optimistic in public.

When asked to rate their performance immediately after a task and after some time had passed, depressed individuals were more accurate when they rated themselves immediately after the task but were more negative after time had passed whereas non-depressed individuals were positive immediately after and some time after.

Although depressed individuals make accurate judgments about having no control in situations where they in fact have no control, this appraisal also carries over to situations where they do have control, suggesting that the depressed perspective is not more accurate overall. Note, however, that this finding alone does not imply depression as a cause; researchers did not control for philosophical factors such as determinism which could affect responses.

One study suggested that in real-world settings, depressed individuals are actually less accurate and more overconfident in their predictions than their non-depressed peers. Participants’ attributional accuracy may also be more related to their overall attributional style rather than the presence and severity of their depressive symptoms.

Criticism of the Evidence

Some have argued that the evidence is not more conclusive because no standard for reality exists, the diagnoses are dubious, and the results may not apply to the real world. Because many studies rely on self-report of depressive symptoms and self-reports are known to be biased, the diagnosis of depression in these studies may not be valid, necessitating the use of other objective measures. Due to most of these studies using designs that do not necessarily approximate real-world phenomena, the external validity of the depressive realism hypothesis is unclear. There is also concern that the depressive realism effect is merely a byproduct of the depressed person being in a situation that agrees with their negative bias.

What is Defensive Pessimism?


Defensive pessimism is a cognitive strategy identified by Nancy Cantor and her students in the mid-1980s.

Individuals use defensive pessimism as a strategy to prepare for anxiety-provoking events or performances. When implementing defensive pessimism, individuals set low expectations for their performance, regardless of how well they have done in the past. Defensive pessimists then think through specific negative events and setbacks that could adversely influence their goal pursuits. By envisioning possible negative outcomes, defensive pessimists can take action to avoid or prepare for them. Using this strategy, defensive pessimists can advantageously harness anxiety that might otherwise harm their performance.

Defensive pessimism is utilised in a variety of domains, and public speaking provides a good example of the process involved in this strategy. Defensive pessimists could alleviate their anxiety over public speaking by imagining possible obstacles such as forgetting the speech, being thirsty, or staining their shirts before the event. Because defensive pessimists have thought of these problems, they can appropriately prepare to face the challenges ahead. The speaker could, for instance, create note cards with cues about the speech, place a cup of water on the podium to alleviate thirst, and bring a bleach pen to remove shirt stains. These preventive actions both reduce anxiety and promote superior performance.

Refer to Depressive Realism.

Strategy Effectiveness

Though defensive pessimists are less satisfied with their performances and rate themselves higher in “need for improvement,” they do not actually perform worse than people with a more optimistic strategy. Norem and Cantor (1986) investigated whether encouraging defensive pessimists, and thereby interfering with their typical negative thinking, would result in worse performances. Participants in the study were in either encouragement or non-encouragement scenarios as they prepared to complete anagram and puzzle tasks. In the encouragement condition, the defensive pessimists were told that, based on their GPA, they should expect to do well. Defensive pessimists performed worse when encouraged than the defensive pessimists whose strategy was not manipulated. Defensive pessimism is an adaptive strategy for those who struggle with anxiety: their performance decreases if they are unable to appropriately manage and counteract their anxiety.

Key Components

Prefactual Thinking

Prefactual (i.e. “before the fact”) thinking is an essential component of defensive pessimism. Synonymous with anticipation, it denotes a cognitive strategy in which people imagine possible outcomes of a future scenario. The term prefactual was specifically coined by Lawrence J. Sanna, in 1998, to denote those activities that speculate on possible future outcomes, given the present, and ask “What will be the outcome if event E occurs?”

The imagined outcomes are either positive/desirable, negative/undesirable, or neutral. Prefactual thinking can be advantageous because it allows the individual to prepare for possible outcomes of a scenario.

For defensive pessimists, prefactual thinking offers the primary and critical method to alleviate anxiety. Usually, this prefactual thinking is paired with a pessimistic outlook, resulting in negative/undesirable imagined scenarios. With regard to the earlier example, the public speaking defensive pessimist anticipates forgetting the speech or becoming thirsty as opposed to giving an amazing speech and receiving a standing ovation.


As defensive pessimism is motivated by a need to manage anxiety, it is unsurprisingly also correlated with trait anxiety and neuroticism. Negative mood states promote defensive pessimists’ goal attainment strategy by facilitating the generation of potential setbacks and negative outcomes that could arise during goal pursuit, which can then be anticipated and prevented. When defensive pessimists are encouraged into positive or even just neutral mood states, they perform worse on experimental tasks than when in a negative mood state. They are more anxious because they are prevented from properly implementing their preferred cognitive strategy for goal attainment.


Defensive pessimism is generally related to lower self-esteem since the strategy involves self-criticism, pessimism, and discounting previous successful performances. Indeed, Norem and Burdzovic Andreas (2006) found that, compared to optimists, defensive pessimists had lower self-esteem entering college. At the end of four years of college, however, the self-esteem of the defensive pessimists had increased to nearly equal levels as optimists. The self-esteem of optimists had not changed, and the self-esteem of pessimists who did not employ defensive pessimism had fallen slightly by the end of college. While defensive pessimism may have implications for self-esteem, it appears that these effects lessen over time.

Compared to Pessimism

Unlike pessimism, defensive pessimism is not an internal, global, and stable attribution style, but rather a cognitive strategy utilised within the context of certain goals. Pessimism involves rumination about possible negative outcomes of a situation without proactive behaviour to counteract these outcomes. Defensive pessimism, on the other hand, utilizes the foresight of negative situations in order to prepare against them. The negative possible outcomes of a situation often motivate defensive pessimists to work harder for success. Since defensive pessimists are anxious, but not certain, that negative situations will arise, they still feel that they can control their outcomes. For example, a defensive pessimist would not avoid all job interviews for fear of failing one. Instead, a defensive pessimist would anticipate possible challenges that could come in an upcoming job interview – such as dress code, stubborn interviewers, and tough questions – and prepare rigorously to face them. Defensive pessimism is not a reaction to stressful events nor does it entail ruminating on events of the past, and should therefore be distinguished from pessimism as a trait or a more general negative outlook. Instead, defensive pessimists are able to stop using this strategy once it is no longer beneficial (i.e. does not serve a preparatory role).

Compared to Other Cognitive Strategies


Elliot and Church (2003) determined that people adopt defensive pessimism or self-handicapping strategies for the same reason: to deal with anxiety-provoking situations. Self-handicapping is a cognitive strategy in which people construct obstacles to their own success to keep failure from damaging their self-esteem. The difference between self-handicapping and defensive pessimism lies in the motivation behind the strategies. Beyond managing anxiety, defensive pessimism is further motivated by a desire for high achievement. Self-handicappers, however, feel no such need. Elliot and Church found that the self-handicapping strategy undermined goal achievement while defensive pessimism aided achievement. People who self-handicapped were high in avoidance motivation and low in approach motivation. They wanted to avoid anxiety but were not motivated to approach success. Defensive pessimists, on the other hand, were motivated to approach success and goal attainment while simultaneously avoiding the anxiety associated with performance. Although it was found that defensive pessimism was positively correlated with goals related to both performance-avoidance and anxiety-avoidance, it was not found to be a predictor of one’s mastery of goals.

Strategic Optimism

In research, defensive pessimism is frequently contrasted with strategic optimism, another cognitive strategy. When facing performance situations, strategic optimists feel that they will end well. Therefore, though they plan ahead, they plan only minimally because they do not have any anxiety to face. While defensive pessimists set low expectations, feel anxious, and rehearse possible negative outcomes of situations, strategic optimists set high expectations, feel calm, and do not reflect on the situation any more than absolutely necessary. Strategic optimists start out with different motivations and obstacles: unlike defensive pessimists, strategic optimists do not have any anxiety to surmount. In spite of their differences in motivation, strategic optimists and defensive pessimists have similar objective performance outcomes. For both strategic optimists and defensive pessimists, their respective cognitive strategies are adaptive and promote success.