Positive effects of depression

Sadness, apathy, preoccupation. These traits come to mind when people think about depression, the world's most frequently diagnosed mental disorder. Yet, forthcoming research in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology provides evidence that depression has a positive side-effect.

According to a new study by Bettina von Helversen (University of Basel, Switzerland), Andreas Wilke (Clarkson University), Tim Johnson (Stanford University), Gabriele Schmid (Technische Universität München, Germany), and Burghard Klapp (Charité Hospital Berlin, Germany), depressed individuals perform better than their non-depressed peers in sequential decision tasks.

In their study, participants -- who were healthy, clinically depressed, or recovering from -- played a computer game in which they could earn money by hiring an applicant in a simulated job search.

The game assigned each applicant a monetary value and presented applicants one-at-a-time in random order. Experiment participants faced the challenge of determining when to halt search and select the current applicant.

In addition to resembling everyday decision problems, such as house shopping and dating, the task has a known optimal strategy. As reported, depressed patients approximated this optimal strategy more closely than non-depressed participants did.

While healthy participants searched through relatively few candidates before selecting an applicant, depressed participants searched more thoroughly and made choices that resulted in higher payoffs.

This discovery provides the first evidence that clinical depression may carry some benefits. For decades, psychologists have debated whether depression has positive side-effects.

While researchers have recognized that most symptoms of depression impede cognitive functioning, scholars such as Paul Andrews of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics and Andy Thomson of the University of Virginia have proposed that depression may promote analytical reasoning and persistence -- that is, qualities useful in complex tasks.

Past research provides some evidence in support of this possibility, but it focuses on individuals with low levels of non-clinical depression.

The forthcoming article shows that even severe depression might yield some beneficial side effects. Fully understanding the consequences of depression may help uncover its evolutionary roots and thus opening avenues for treatment.

More information: psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2011-07962-001

Related Stories

Obesity and depression may be linked

date Jun 02, 2008

A major review in Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice reveals that research indicates people who are obese may be more likely to become depressed, and people who are depressed may be more likely to become obese.

Measuring Depression

date Sep 05, 2007

It's hardly surprising that clinically depressed people act differently than healthy people. Quantifying the difference, however, can be difficult. Now a collaboration of physicists and psychiatrists in Japan has found a ...

Recommended for you

Doing good deeds helps socially anxious people relax

date 15 hours ago

Being busy with acts of kindness can help people who suffer from social anxiety to mingle more easily. This is the opinion of Canadian researchers Jennifer Trew of Simon Fraser University and Lynn Alden of the University ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

May 05, 2011
Any emotional (effective) state that persists has negative effects that eventually overwhelm any positive effects that normally occur in the short term. The genesis of depression is most probably found in the state of quiescence accompanying physical disease or injury and that facilitates recovery via temporary inactivity.

The deep thought, self reflection and willingness to change direction at the most profound level follow on (evolutionarily) and provide an opportunity to avoid the source of (transient/normal) depression in the future.

Persistent depression soon exhausts the normal response which yield no benefit (excluding transient benefits which may see the depressed individual cycle through a range of strategies, often centering on health and/or religious/spiritual strategies) and may cause a downward spiral.

Thus any benefit in the depressive state will be most likely found in the normal (transient) form and far less so in the persistent (clinical) form.
May 06, 2011
Robert should have dealt a bit more with the spectrum between transient and persistent depression - the fuzzy logic nodes would probably provide valuable info on who and how can benefit most from the positive sides of depression.
But he's probably right about the way deep thought, self-reflection, and willingness to change are related to the condition. Dissatisfaction, frustration and scepticism linked with a desire for change for the better make for a more critical and thorough search process.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.