Morning Read: Clarkson prof says depression has upside

Another non-conventional Morning Read today.  This morning we point to a paper co-written by Clarkson University psychology professor Andreas Wilke in Potsdam.

His research, which will appear in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, concluded that “depressed individuals perform better than their non-depressed peers do in sequential decision tasks.”

You can read an abstract of the study here.  And I’m including the full text of Clarkson University’s press release below, so you can get more of the context.

According to the study, people who were depressed were more thorough and made better choices.

Past research has suggested that feeling blue might improve your analytical reasoning skills.  This study found that even severely depressed people enjoy some advantages over their colleagues.

So what do you think? Are you sourpusses out there more productive than your chipper colleagues?

Do you grumble your way through more work — and do a better job — than the thumbs-up guy in the cubicle next door?

And what if our bosses decided that we will be better employees if we’re miserable?  Maybe capitalism works best if we’re all clinically depressed?

And then, of course, there’s the question of whether the researchers were depressed while conducting their study?  If not, can we really trust their analytical reasoning skills?

(See?  Never a dull moment here at the In Box.)

Here’s how Clarkson describes the study:

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 Clarkson University Psychology Professor Andreas K. Wilke, along with Bettina von Helversen (University of Basel, Switzerland), 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 do in sequential decision tasks.

In their study, participants — who were healthy, clinically depressed, or recovering from depression — 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 Wilke and his colleagues report, 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 by Wilke and his colleagues 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.

13 Comments on “Morning Read: Clarkson prof says depression has upside”

  1. Jim Bullard says:

    The recent disaster in the financial industry demonstrates that “irrational exuberance” results in poor decisions. That the converse might be true should not be surprising.

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  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Given the realities of the economy, climate change, politics, and on-going wars maybe being depressed simply means you pay attention to the world around you.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  3. mary says:

    “Fully understanding the consequences of depression may help uncover its evolutionary roots and thus opening avenues for treatment.”

    Why bother to treat it? Sounds like depression is a really good thing overall.

    I hope the professor is depressed so he can enjoy this superior state himself.

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  4. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    It isn’t hard to picture the scenarios where feeling a bit blue might be advantageous for passing along your genes.

    “Hey guys, I’m just not feeling up to hunting mastodons or cave bears today. I’m gonna hang with the cave chicks and pick berries for a while.”

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  5. Pete Klein says:

    I’m depressed that people actually get paid for publishing silly studies.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  6. PNElba says:

    This guy is probably an “intellectual” and should be ignored.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  7. Peter Hahn says:

    There have been many politicians and leaders who were manic and I always thought that if there is a selection advantage for bipolar disease its from the manic phase. Depression leads to suicide. If there is any useful side to depression it is probably coincidental.

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  8. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Abraham Lincoln

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  9. Mervel says:

    I lot of people who have cancer are successful.

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  10. oa says:

    I’m with Knuck. The thoughtfulness that depressives exhibit can be a very good thing. And studies like this are useful. We should definitely treat severe depression, but giving antidepressants like candy to anyone and everyone who has the blues might not only be wasteful, but literally counterproductive.
    You go, Debbie Downer!

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  11. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I am disturbed by the anti-intellectual comment. Sure I’m snarky sometimes, or maybe most of the time but usually when people ridicule some sort of scientific study it isn’t because there is no scientific value in the work, it is because that individual hasn’t the imagination to understand how the study might be useful.

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  12. PNElba says:

    Or, it could just be that the person is tired of anti-intellectual comments and snarkism is all they have left.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  13. Mervel says:

    I don’t think the article is saying not to treat depression I think it is just pointing out this possible characteristic of depression. Which is not the same as saying clinical depression is good, it is not, it is never good and the world would be better without it. However it is also not the same as situational depression or just feeling a little down or having the blues for a variety of reasons which is normal and certainly does not need to be treated.

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