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05-04-2011

Positive Effects of Depression Found in Research by Clarkson University Prof & Colleagues

[A photograph for media use is available at http://www.clarkson.edu/news/photos/wilke.jpg .]

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. 

Andreas K. WilkeAccording 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.

Read an abstract of the study at http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2011-07962-001.

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.

Clarkson University launches leaders into the global economy. One in six alumni already leads as a CEO, VP or equivalent senior executive of a company. Located just outside the Adirondack Park in Potsdam, N.Y., Clarkson is a nationally recognized research university for undergraduates with select graduate programs in signature areas of academic excellence directed toward the world’s pressing issues. Through 50 rigorous programs of study in engineering, business, arts, sciences and health sciences, the entire learning-living community spans boundaries across disciplines, nations and cultures to build powers of observation, challenge the status quo, and connect discovery and engineering innovation with enterprise.

Photo caption: According to a new study by Clarkson University Psychology Professor Andreas K. Wilke (above) and his colleagues, depressed individuals perform better than their non-depressed peers do in sequential decision tasks.

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Michael P. Griffin, director of News & Digital Content Services, at 315-268-6716 or mgriffin@clarkson.edu.]

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