Accentuate the Positive *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

If you know anything about depression, you are aware that depressed people view themselves and the world very negatively. They are self-critical and expect to fail rather than succeed. They magnify failures and minimize sucesses in evaluating their performance. They are pessimistic about the future. An ironic twist is that their view may be closer to reality than those of nondepressed (normal) individuals. In other words, those of us who are not depressed may be suffering from illusions we may look at the world and ourselves through "rose-colored glasses."

In support of this view, many studies have found that most people have:

1. unrealistically positive views about themselves,

2. exaggerated perceptions of how much control they have over events, and

3. unrealistic optimism about the future.

For example, a 1986 study asked people to indicate how accurately positive and negative personality adjectives described themselves. Normal subjects judged positive traits to be overwhelmingly more characteristic of themselves than negative traits. In addition, most people:

1. recall positive information about themselves more easily than negative information,

2. recall successes more often than failures,

3. tend to recall their performance on task as being better than it actually was, and

4. attribute positive outcomes to their own ability and negative results to chance factors.

When college students (who were interacting on a group tasks) rated themselves on a number of personality traits (e.g., friendly, assertive), their ratings were significantly more positive than the ratings of observers who had watched their interaction.

There seems to be a massive tendency to see oneself as better than others. Individuals judge positive traits to be more descriptive and negative traits to be less descriptive of themselves as compared to the average person. For example, most people believe that they are better than the average driver. In fact, each semester in my General Psychology classes, over 90% of my students predict that they will earn an "A" or "B", but less than one-third actually do so. Logically, most people cannot be better than average. So, for some of these people, the positive views of oneself are an unrealistic illusion.

In contrast, depressed people are more balanced in their perceptions. For example, they:

1. recall positive and negative data about themselves with equal frequency,

2. have self views that correspond more closely with appraisals of objective observers, and

3. are more balanced in their attribution of positive and negative results.

Psychological studies have shown that most people believe they have more control over situations than they actually do. People overestimate their degree of control over events that are largely controlled by chance. In the lottery, people feel they are more likely to win if they pick their numbers rather than having it done by the computer or another person. If they win, they often overestimate their role in bringing about the results. In contrast, depressed people are less likely to have this illusion of control. When predicted outcomes occur, they are more accurate in the estimate of personal control than nondepressed people.

Depressed people emphasize the negative,
while many "normal" people have unrealistically positive beliefs.

Most people are more optimistic about the future than reality indicates. For example, when college students were asked about their future, they reported four times as many positive as negative possibilities. Typically, people view pleasant events (getting a high-paying job, having a gifted child) to be more likely for them than their peers and negative events (car accident, illness) to be less likely. In contrast, depressed people have a more balanced estimate of their future.

Traditional views of mental health indicate that well-adjusted people have accurate perceptions of themselves and their ability to control their lives. In fact, one criterion to distinguish between a normal and abnormal person is the efficient perception of reality. Possibly this criterion needs to be modified.

We need to perceive what is going on in the world and what other people say and do with some degree of accuracy. Even so, positive illsions about our personal qualities and our ability to control events seem to make us happier, more optimistic, and more willing to undertake challenges. Such illsions may be especially helpful under conditions that would tend to cause depression. The belief in oneself as a competent, effective person whose future looks bright helps us to overcome setbacks and blows to our self-esteem.

In summary, most of us have unrealistically positive views of ourselves, an exaggerated belief in our ability to control our environment, and a belief that our future will be better than that of the average person. These positive illusions help us cope with an uncertain and sometimes frightening world. They provide the motivation to persist in the face of obstacles, and they help us to avoid depression.

For some of you, it may be very disappointing to view yourself as having "positive illusions." However, many people including myself have another label for this phenomenon. We call it "hope."

* Adapted from Atkinson, Atkinson, Smith & Bem's Introduction to Psychology, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1990, pages 616-617.

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