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UC Berkeley study finds no correlation between depression and individual control

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GAVIN SAGASTUME | STAFF

While the new research found no association between depression and perception of control, it did suggest anxiety may play a factor.

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A new study conducted by UC Berkeley affiliates contradicted decades-old research that depressed individuals are more realistic in determining how much control they have over their lives.

The Oct. 6 study sought to replicate a 1979 study that had college students predict the amount of control they had over whether a light turned green when they pushed a button. In the original study, the researchers determined that students without depression seemed to overestimate how much control they had whereas students with depression were more often able to identify when they had no control. They coined the phenomenon “depressive realism.” After replicating the experiment, however, the findings of the new study contradicted those of the original.

“What surprised me the most was our failure to replicate the original results,” said Don Moore, the associate dean for academic affairs and the chair of leadership and communication at the Haas School of Business. “We find that it’s so widespread, not just in popular culture, but also in the academic literature, cited and repeated so often. We really find no evidence for it.”

Alongside campus psychology professor Sheri Johnson, former campus undergraduate student researcher Karin Garrett and current Ph.D. student at the University of Miami and campus alumna Amelia Dev, Moore studied two groups of participants. According to the study, 248 participants were paid survey-takers who participated online and 134 were college students.

After conducting a test similar to that of the original study, the researchers found that those with depression in the online group overestimated their control in relation to those without depression, the study reads. The results of those in the college group revealed little association between depression and perception of control.

What they did find, however, was a possible connection to anxiety, according to Dev.

“People with anxiety were more likely to endorse more control than they have in reality, and because people with depression are also often anxious, it wasn’t until we looked at those things separately that we found that effect that was surprising,” Dev said.

Moore noted that the team also conducted tests to measure overconfidence. Regardless of age, race or gender, people who have depression weren’t overconfident either.

Though the findings undermined Moore’s belief in depressive realism, he said that further research on other variables and their possible connections to depression is warranted.

“There must be some situation where depressive realism is true. Our paper can’t confirm nor deny that (because) we can’t test all universal situations,” Dev said. “But we think there was a need to continue to make improvements in the methodology.”

Veronica Roseborough also contributed to this article. 

Contact Jacqueline Valdez Monroy at 

LAST UPDATED

OCTOBER 15, 2022