Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Depressive Realism: Wiser or Quieter?

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Depressive Realism: Wiser or Quieter?

Article excerpt

Under certain conditions, people tend to overestimate the relationship between their actions and reinforcers, even if these events occur noncontingently. Langer (1975) called this phenomenon the illusion of control, because it consists of people believing that they have personal control over uncontrollable events. The idea that sometimes people perceive contingencies in a nonrealistic way had been proposed long ago (e.g., Ward & Jenkins, 1965), and since Langer's seminal article on the illusion of control, many researchers have replicated this effect under very different conditions (e.g., Alloy & Abramson, 1979; Matute, Vadillo, Vegas, & Blanco, 2007; Rudski, Lischner, & Albert, 1999). A very influential article was Alloy and Abramson's; they found that college students who were mildly depressed tended to show less illusion of control than nondysphoric students. This new effect was called depressive realism and it is of much theoretical and practical importance: Traditional theories of depression had often associated perceptual distortions with depressed personality (Beck, 1967), but the finding that depressed individuals are more realistic in their detection of noncontingency contradicts this view.

In addition to depression, studies in the area of contingency judgments have detected many other variables that modulate the illusion of control. Some interesting examples are the percentage of reinforcement, also called outcome density (Alloy & Abramson, 1979; Matute, 1995; Rudski et al., 1999), skill-related factors (Thompson, Armstrong, & Thomas, 1998), valence of outcomes (Aeschleman, Rosen, & Williams, 2002; Alloy & Abramson, 1979), length of the intertrial intervals (Msetfi, Murphy, & Simpson, 2007; Msetfi, Murphy, Simpson, & Kornbrot, 2005), number of trials (Shanks & Dickinson, 1987), delay of reinforcement (Rudski, 2000), and probability of responding (Matute, 1996). The present research is concerned with this latter factor. In Matute's (1996) experiment, instructions given to participants made them more or less likely to respond in order to produce the outcome, which was response independent. According to Matute (1996), in order to be able to detect that an outcome occurs with the same probability regardless of whether participants respond or not, participants must respond with a probability of 0.5 or close to it. That is, only by responding in 50% of the trials can participants be exposed to (and detect) what happens both when they respond and when they do not respond. By contrast, as the probability of responding approaches 1, it becomes more difficult to notice that the events could have occurred with the same probability in the absence of responding. Matute's (1996) results confirmed this prediction: The variations in the probability of responding that were induced through instructions in a regular student sample positively correlated with the illusion of control. Although she did not study differences between depressed and nondepressed participants, a straightforward prediction of this approach is that the passivity and low probability of responding that is usually associated with depression (Lewinsohn, Sullivan, & Grosscup, 1980) could be responsible for the accuracy of depressed individuals in detecting the absence of control (see also E. Skinner, 1985). The present research provides a direct test for this hypothesis.

Let us illustrate this mechanism with an example. Imagine an athlete who always performs his or her personal "magical ritual of victory" the night before taking part in a competition. Like almost anyone, this athlete sometimes obtains a good result and sometimes a bad result. Obviously, no connection between performing the ritual and winning or losing the competition exists. However, if the ritual is performed at every opportunity, it is impossible to know whether the ritual has any effect, because the athlete will lack a critical piece of information: the probability with which the reinforcer would have occurred if the ritual had not been performed. …

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