Depressive Symptoms and Biased Interpersonal Perceptions
By Nickola Overall and Matthew Hammond (University of Auckland, New Zealand)
Is the glass half full or half empty? This common phrase recognizes that people can view the same situation differently. Imagine struggling with an important task at work. You go to your partner or friend for some reassurance and encouragement, but instead of the emotional support you wanted he or she offers advice on how to complete the task. You can view their attempt to help as very caring or supportive despite originally wanting emotional reassurance—akin to perceiving the glass as half full. Or, you could focus on what your partner or friend did not do, and view the act as only mildly caring or even neglectful—seeing the glass as half empty. Not surprisingly, holding a negatively biased view of partner behavior can trigger feelings of rejection and relationship dissatisfaction (Fletcher & Kerr, 2010). Unfortunately, our research suggests that this type of negative bias may be standard for people who are experiencing depressed mood, those who ironically need faith in their partner’s love and support the most.
For a long time psychologists have recognized that depression produces biases in interpersonal perceptions. For example, depressed people view sad or angry facial expressions as more sad or angry than objective ratings of those expressions. Recent theoretical models suggest that these negative biases are an adaptive response to the interpersonal problems that often underpin the development of depressed mood (Andrews & Thomson, 2009). Being vigilant to social threats should help people avoid further social loss by motivating attempts to prevent rejection. Perceptual sensitivity to a partner’s anger or lack of support, for example, will increase the opportunity for people to engage in remedial action, such as apologizing or seeking further reassurance. However, this threat-based perceptual sensitivity should also mean that people who are depressed perceive their partners more negatively than is justified, particularly when they face potentially rejecting behavior, such as when their partner is being unsupportive or critical. Moreover, negative partner perceptions trigger feelings of insecurity and depressed mood, and so negative biases should exacerbate the low mood of people who are depressed.
We tested these predictions in a study of romantic couples recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Overall & Hammond, 2013). Both members of 91 heterosexual couples completed a measure of depressive symptoms. Then, every day for the following 3 weeks, participants reported on their perceptions of their partner’s behaviors, such as the degree to which the partner had been critical and withdrawn or supportive and affectionate. To assess whether people’s perceptions of their partner were biased, we compared the judgments each person made about their partner’s behavior to the partner’s own reports of their behavior (West & Kenny, 2011). This allowed us to test whether individuals who were experiencing depressed mood perceived their partner’s behavior to be more negative, including more critical and less affectionate and supportive, than the behavior actually reported by their partner. We also assessed participants’ daily feelings of insecurity and depressed mood to test whether negatively biased perceptions perpetuated or produced increases in depression and insecurity.
A key pattern of results that supported our predictions is shown in Figure 1. In this graph negative bias is represented by a score over zero. The higher the score, the more people were overestimating the negativity of their partner’s behavior. Shown on the right side of the figure, when people faced potentially hurtful behavior by the partner, such as criticism or lack of affection, participants with elevated depressive symptoms perceived that behavior as more negative than was intended by the partner. So, for example, when partners reported a mildly critical comment or some desire to spend time alone, this was viewed by people with elevated depressive symptoms as the partner being very disparaging and withdrawing from the relationship. Moreover, on days when participants demonstrated these negative biases, they felt more insecure in their relationship, they were less confident that their partner loved them, and they felt more sad, hopeless and discouraged.
These findings highlight the powerful impact depression can have on the way people “see” their relationships and show how perceptual biases can lock people into feelings of depression and hopelessness. Even very satisfied and loving partners behave in ways which can be viewed negatively – at times all partners can be critical, fail to provide the right kind of support, or be busy with other activities. Sadly, people who are experiencing depressed mood, and thus really need love and support from their partner, are also the people who are less likely to see their partner’s behavior as loving and supportive. Instead, by reading too much into criticism or overlooking their partner’s affection, people with depressive symptoms will experience increasing feelings of insecurity and dissatisfaction, which simply reinforce their depressed mood and pessimistic outlook of the world.
Nickola Overall is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her research interests focus on interpersonal processes and personal wellbeing, including how individual differences and social attitudes shape perceptions, communication and support in close relationships.
Matthew Hammond is a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. His research interests are sexist attitudes, gender and statistical research methods, and his current projects focus on how sexism influences processes within intimate relationships.
Andrews, P.W., & Thomson, Jr., J.A. (2009). The bright side of being blue: Depression as an adaptation for analyzing complex problems. Psychological Review, 116, 620-654.
Fletcher, G. J. O., & Kerr, P. S. G. (2010). Through the eyes of love: Reality and illusion in intimate relationships. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 627-658.
Overall, N.C. & Hammond, M.D. (2013). Biased and accurate: Depressive symptoms and daily perceptions within intimate relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 636-650.
West, T. V., & Kenny, D. A. (2011). The truth and bias model of judgment. Psychological Review, 118, 357-378.