Fighting the allure of depressive realism

Epistemic tragic back­story: Per­sonal.

Ear­lier this week, on my first post on this site, shminux com­mented to the value of cog­ni­tive-be­hav­ioral ther­apy to get out of what I called “de­pres­sion philosophis­ing”.

I was wor­ried about try­ing it. One claim of CBT is that de­pressed peo­ple are nega­tively bi­ased and by cor­rect­ing their think­ing er­rors they are grad­u­ally brought to be­ing both hap­pier and more ac­cu­rate about the world around them.

How­ever this may not ac­tu­ally be the case. The phe­nomenon known as “de­pres­sive re­al­ism” sug­gests that the or­di­nary per­son might be pos­i­tively bi­ased and that de­pressed peo­ple might need to cor­rect their “er­rors” by form­ing less ac­cu­rate, but hap­pier pat­terns of cog­ni­tion. Sort of like a re­ally, re­ally weak Noz­ick ma­chine.

Now, this ques­tion doesn’t ac­tu­ally un­der­mine CBT it­self that much. A move­ment from (de­pressed, in­ac­cu­rate) to (not de­pressed, ac­cu­rate) is pretty much as good, in terms of what any anti-de­pres­sion ther­apy is try­ing to do, as one from (de­pressed, ac­cu­rate) to (not de­pressed, in­ac­cu­rate).

But if it’s the lat­ter, our least con­ve­nient likely world, we face the clas­sic ques­tion: “Should we op­ti­mize more for epistemic or in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity?” This was a hur­dle I had to get over be­fore I could con­vince my­self to use CBT. I had a few false starts, but even­tu­ally came up with some good con­vinc­ing ar­gu­ments that even if this is the case CBT is well worth it.

I de­cided to treat it as a de­ci­sion on the mar­gin, re­mem­ber­ing my Econ 101. That turned out to be such an ob­vi­ously right fit to the prob­lem that I felt ridicu­lous for not hav­ing thought of it in­stantly. The trade­off of a small amount of epistemic ra­tio­nal­ity (= los­ing the benefit of de­pres­sive re­al­ism) for a high chance of a mod­er­ate, po­ten­tially large amount of in­stru­men­tal ra­tio­nal­ity (= all the time, en­ergy, and gen­eral life plea­sure I get from treat­ing my de­pres­sion) is one al­most any sane per­son should make.

After that I also re­al­ized that there was an ar­gu­ment from sym­me­try here. Would I ad­vise some­one look­ing to im­prove their epistemic ra­tio­nal­ity to be­come de­pressed? Of course not. We have all of these tools already to im­prove our epistemics—the wis­dom of crowds, pre­dic­tion mar­kets, good old fash­ioned ed­u­ca­tion and reach­ing out to ex­perts on what­ever top­ics seem per­ti­nent. But you will very likely lose at least some of the en­ergy and mo­ti­va­tion to pur­sue these much bet­ter strate­gies if you take the nu­clear op­tion first. Even peo­ple as already suc­cess­ful as Rob Wiblin think this is a good idea. The costs far, far out­weigh the benefits.

Then we move to the spe­cific case: Would I ad­vise some­one who is already us­ing CBT suc­cess­fully to treat their de­pres­sion who wants to im­prove their epistemic ra­tio­nal­ity to stop us­ing it and slip back into de­pres­sion? Again, no, for all the rea­sons above.

And that gen­eral → spe­cific move makes me re­al­ize: Th­ese ar­gu­ments are more about de­pres­sion in gen­eral, not CBT in par­tic­u­lar. While my fear started from think­ing about start­ing CBT speci­fi­cally, that’s not where it ac­tu­ally was. It was in los­ing the benefits of de­pres­sive re­al­ism.

I was never scared about start­ing ther­apy. I was scared of los­ing part of my iden­tity.

Through­out my life I’ve felt keenly aware that most peo­ple seem happy for no good rea­son. That they make de­ci­sions with­out hav­ing good ev­i­dence for why they do it. And I felt that I had to serve as some sort of coun­ter­bal­ance to that, that I had to be the per­son to bring ev­ery­one back down to re­al­ity. That was part of who I was. But those two things don’t go hand in hand nearly as much as I’ve been tel­ling my­self. You can be happy most of the time, and you can also be aware of the hu­man ten­den­cies to over­es­ti­mate and ad­just ac­cord­ingly in your­self. Life doesn’t have to be this zero sum game where only the sad are wise and only the wise know enough to be sad.

I re­mem­bered a post by Natália Men­donça. I re­mem­bered that I had a whole com­mu­nity of peo­ple I could turn to for ad­vice about when I was over­es­ti­mat­ing my chances on any­thing large enough to be worth more than 2 or 3 min­utes of thought. I re­mem­bered that let­ting my­self be de­pressed so I could be more re­al­is­tic is mak­ing the clas­sic mis­take of try­ing to change hu­man na­ture it­self, rather than try­ing to change the en­vi­ron­ment to suit im­perfect hu­man na­ture. And, go­ing off of that, I re­mem­bered that hu­mans don’t owe so­ciety any­thing. We were here first.

I had let my de­sire to think ac­cu­rately in ev­ery sin­gle do­main in my life over­power me, and iron­i­cally cause me to think very in­ac­cu­rately about the na­ture of my men­tal ill­ness.

So I picked up a pen, and I printed out some ABC forms, and I got to work.