People With Depression Tend To Seek Negative Feedback

*APA Press Release*

New Study Contributes to Understanding Why Depression
Is So Difficult For Some People To Shake Off

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Someone who is "down in the dumps" or feeling "blue" might welcome and be cheered by a kind word. Someone with clinical depression, however, not only might not welcome such a gesture, but might prefer to hear something negative. That's the finding of a new study published in the August edition of the American Psychological Association's (APA) Journal of Abnormal Psychology which suggests that depressed people not only avoid favorable feedback, they actively seek negative feedback.

The authors note that other studies have found that people with depression tend to engage in behaviors that "create around themselves the very environments that sustain their negative self- views." Those behaviors, which tend to alienate people who might otherwise try to help, include excessive self-disclosure, hostile speech, negative self-evaluation, lack of responsiveness, reduced eye contact, negative facial displays and slowed or monotonic speech. With this study, the authors provide evidence suggesting that people with depression sometimes enact these behaviors in service of eliciting negative feedback.

For their study the authors recruited three groups of participants: people who were clinically depressed (28), those who were not depressed and had high self-esteem (20) and those who were not depressed but who had low self-esteem (25). Each participant was asked to complete a packet of questionnaires and was told that their answers would be the basis for a personality assessment by each of two graduate students. They were also asked to rank five of their own attributes (such as intellectual ability and social competence) in the order of how much they wanted to receive feedback on each one.

Later, the participants were given what they thought were summaries of the graduate students' assessments of them. But, actually, everyone got the same two summaries, one of which was positive ("this person seems well adjusted, self-confident, happy, etc."); the other was negative ("this person seems unhappy, unconfident, uncomfortable around others, etc."). They were then asked to choose which of the full versions of the positive and negative assessments they most wanted to read. They were also asked to rate the accuracy of the two summaries.

Only 25 percent of the high self-esteem group chose the unfavorable assessment over the favorable one. Sixty-four percent of the low self-esteem group chose the negative assessment. In contrast, 82 percent of the depressed participants chose the unfavorable assessment over the favorable one. Of the three groups, only the depressed participants rated the negative assessment as more accurate (i.e., self-descriptive) than the positive assessment.

There were also marked differences between the groups regarding on which personal attribute they said they most wanted feedback. While 58 percent of the high self-esteem group listed their best attribute first, only 36 percent of the depressed participants listed their best attribute first, suggesting depressed individuals fail to pursue evaluations that are likely to be favorable as aggressively as non-depressed people.

But, the authors caution, these data should not be taken to mean that depressed people should be blamed for their own depression. Seeking feedback that is consistent with one's own self-views, they note, is part of the process we all employ to maintain or restore feelings of prediction and control. People with depression, then, are doing what people with high self-esteem do: looking for confirmation of their own self-views. Unfortunately, because depressed people tend to possess negative self-views, seeking feedback that confirms those views produces the added and unwanted effect of maintaining their depression.

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Article: "Self-Verification in Clinical Depression: The Desire for Negative Evaluation" by R. Brian Giesler, Baylor College of Medicine and Houston Veterans Affairs Medical Center; Robert A. Josephs, Ph.D., and William B. Swann, Jr., Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin, in Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Vol. 105, No. 3, pp 358-368.

(Full text available from the APA Public Affairs Office.)

5/21/98

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The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 142,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 49 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 58 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

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