Depression is Irrationality

Response to How has Rationality Helped You?

Zach muses:

At an Overcoming Bias meetup group I went to a couple weeks ago, several people claimed that learning how to think rationally has helped them get ahead in life. My instinct is that this is probably true, but it doesn’t seem to me that rationality enthusiasts are statistically better off than irrational folk.

First: we all make rational and irrational decisions on a daily basis. That is, although we often so not always behave ideally to maximize expected utility, a lot of what we do is good enough. Second, I would call rationality enthusiasts only “aspiring rationalists”—there’s no guarantee that they’ve actually achieved what they claim to value, though I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.

I can see how Zach might have seen the people at the meetup as overemphasizing the benefits of studying rationality. But they wouldn’t be too different from fitness enthusiasts who go on about how running, swimming, or weightlifting have improved their lives.

Overstated benefits? Likely.

But there are areas where understanding and counteracting failures of rationality don’t experience diminishing returns as sharply. On a larger scale almost anything with high payoff and sufficient complexity qualifies. War, politics, global catastrophic risks are all examples.

photo by mescon on Flickr

photo by mescon on Flickr

On an individual basis, I have an easy example: clinical depression.

Cognitive therapy, which has since been incorporated into more comprehensive Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is centered around the idea that depression always manifests as dysfunctional thought. The approach is to stop depressive thought. This is regardless of the etiology: effectively counteract the manifestation of dysfunctional thought, and you are effectively treating the symptoms of depression. Hinder the occurrence of the dysfunctional thoughts, and you limit the onset of depression.

A key part to this is the idea that depressive thoughts are the result of errors of thinking. Sound familiar? For a sad or frustrating occurrence to form become a depression instead of temporary grief or anger, depression-prone people must succumb to a false piece of reasoning about whatever is bothering them.

David Burns, M.D., psychiatrist and important figure in the development of Cognitive Therapy

David Burns, M.D., psychiatrist and important figure in the development of Cognitive Therapy

David Burns, M.D., a prominent proponent of cognitive therapy, and lists categories of errors which he calls “cognitive distortions”:

Many cognitive distortions are also logical fallacies; related links are suggested in parentheses.

  1. All-or-nothing thinking – Thinking of things in absolute terms, like “always”, “every” or “never”. Few aspects of human behavior are so absolute. (See false dilemma.)
  2. Overgeneralization – Taking isolated cases and using them to make wide generalizations. (See hasty generalization.)
  3. Mental filter – Focusing exclusively on certain, usually negative or upsetting, aspects of something while ignoring the rest. For example, focusing on a tiny imperfection in a piece of otherwise useful clothing. (See misleading vividness.)
  4. Disqualifying the positive – Continually “shooting down” positive experiences for arbitrary, ad hoc reasons. (See special pleading.)
  5. Jumping to conclusions – Assuming something negative where there is no evidence to support it. Two specific subtypes are also identified:
    • Mind reading – Assuming the intentions of others.
    • Fortune telling – Predicting how things will turn before they happen. (See slippery slope.)
  6. Magnification and minimization – Inappropriately understating or exaggerating the way people or situations truly are. Often the positive characteristics of other people are exaggerated and negative characteristics are understated. There is one subtype of magnification:
    • Catastrophizing – Focusing on the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or thinking that a situation is unbearable or impossible when it is really just uncomfortable.
  7. Emotional reasoning – Making decisions and arguments based on how you feel rather than objective reality. (See appeal to consequences.)
  8. Making should statements – Concentrating on what you think “should” or ought to be rather than the actual situation you are faced with, or having rigid rules which you think should always apply no matter what the circumstances are. Albert Ellis termed this “Musturbation”. (See wishful thinking.)
  9. Labeling and mislabeling – Explaining behaviors or events, merely by naming them; related to overgeneralization. Rather than describing the specific behavior, you assign a label to someone or yourself that puts them in absolute and unalterable terms. Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.
  • Personalization (or attribution) – Assuming you or others directly caused things when that may not have been the case. (See illusion of control.) When applied to others, blame is an example.
  • (from Wikipedia)

    Another form of therapy based on careful examination of cognitive processes is (incidentally named) Rational emotive behavior therapy.

    As a formerly severely depressed person, learning successful strategies for dealing with my own thoughts has been the primary vehicle to recovery.

    But, in the end, I agree with Zach’s general perspective: learning about rationality (and its failures) does not greatly or immediately make us capable of making better decisions. It’s general knowledge, after all. Applying rationality to the complex situations we face still remains the more important undertaking.


    1. Zachary Kurtz says:

      i understand your point, but maybe I’m missing something.

      You might be claiming that depression is people responding irrationally to a bad situation – they come to fallacious conclusions about the severity of their situation.

      But this doesn’t seem to include (and correct me if I’m wrong) people who’s situations are truly hopeless. Why is it considered irrational for there to be no light at the end of the tunnel, and be truly depressed about it?

      My grandfather is experiencing severe depression after his wife, my grandmother, died last year. Is he irrational for believing that his life will never be the same again, and that my grandmother is never coming back? Is he irrational for believing that his own life is not worth living and his own health will deteriorate (he’s a severe and unhealthy diabetic) without his wife to take care of him?

      While the depressive response may not help solve his situation, I don’t think its stemming out of fallacious reasoning.

      I’m wondering if you know of an evolutionary explanation for depression… how could depression improve one’s fitness? (or is it a modern expression of some other trait that expresses itself more helpfully in nature?)

      • olimay says:

        Yes, this was actually a major difficulty for me—and one that recurs. It is really hard to see the situation we are facing as something separate from our response.

        Suffering may not be something we can choose to avoid outright. Things happen which can cause us to suffer. Nevertheless, there is no rational basis for suffering.

        I am not saying it is easy, and I am absolutely not blaming people for their own suffering. It is hard, and sometimes it seems almost impossible.

        We empathize with people who suffer, and sometimes situations are almost hopelessly depressing.

        Do you think it is correct for your grandfather to feel depressed and hopeless about his situation? Is it right from any moral standpoint? Other elements of his situation being constant, would it improve his situation if he were not depressed?

        • Zachary Kurtz says:

          While I don’t think its helping him, I don’t think he’s wrong to feel depressed… maybe its even right from a moral standpoint. There’s nothing immoral about feeling depressed… unless it affects other people and your obligations, I suppose.

          • olimay says:

            Depression is pretty much pure antiutility from a rational choice perspective: it’s suffering that infects and withers everything that was previously pleasurable, it strikes at the very roots at happiness.

            Going back to your grandfather, yes, it is rational to expect that life will never be the same again after we lose someone who’s been part of out lives for many years. Yes, it’s rational to believe that those who have passed away are gone for good. And it may be rational to infer that with no one to take of him, his health will rapidly deteriorate.

            It might, just might be a rational calculation that says, “Given these things, it might be better for me to die than to continue to live a life in physical pain.”

            But: depression. What justifies feeling bad now? Depression espouses an implicit assumption that given a very bad future, present disposition must also be proportionally negative. Yes, I’m implying that is a link that can be broken.

            But it is hard. To ask your grandfather to be completely rational on his own about how he forms his subjective attitudes towards reality is akin to asking him to become a Zen or Stoic master overnight.

            Depression always, always impairs rationality. Facts themselves are neutral. Our basic attitudes about reality may be based on sound reasoning from values. Despair and depression requires *something* that manifests as an extra inferential step in order to modify utility terms it has no business touching.

            Depression and the distortions that give rise to them are, for very present, prominent parts of the human condition. This is an awful fact that I hope in the future we are able to change.

      • olimay says:

        Oh sorry: I didn’t answer your second question.

        The closest thing I’ve heard to an evolutionary explanation of depression is an evolutionary explanation of sadness: sadness signals to other members of our tribe that we are injured and need help. Furthermore, when we sympathize with someone else’s suffering, we are actually simulating it in our own minds, to a certain extent, which causes is to be more likely to help others.

        Depression, though, strikes me as either a pathological expression of that tendancy (similar to genetic predisposition towards morbid obesity) or something completely different.

        You might know more about this–what is the evolutionary explanation of individuals in animal populations starving themselves to death?

        Evolution, though is not morality and I am pretty committed to opposing depression.

        • Zachary Kurtz says:

          what animal populations starve themselves to death?

          • olimay says:

            Not populations–individuals. Sometimes animals become lethargic and refuse to eat under different situations: I think this might be analogous to depression in human begins. I know this happens, but don’t know much about it.

            • Zachary Kurtz says:

              ah yes. I’ve heard about such things like when a mother loses offspring.

              I’m not sure how common it is though. I’ll do more research.

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