Mild depression enhances 'mind reading'

Dr Harkness’s research suggests that mildly depressed people may be especially motivated to understand the minds of others.

“Our findings indicate that individuals in a persistent negative mood may be especially motivated to understand the mental states of others. This hypersensitivity may have evolved as a strategy to try to solve interpersonal problems or minimize social risk, and may be driven more by a motivation to maintain interpersonal relationships than an altered cognitive ability,” explains Kate Harkness, a professor in the Department of Psychology.

Dr. Harkness, along with research colleagues Jill Jacobson and Mark Sabbagh, found that individuals with very mild depression performed best on a task designed to measure sensitivity to others’ mental states when they were led to believe that their performance had implications for their interpersonal relationships. In contrast, non-depressed individuals only improved their accuracy on the task when a monetary reward was at stake.

However, this enhanced ‘mind-reading’ skill that accompanies mild depression may come with a cost. Dr. Harkness notes that people with mild depression often have profound deficits in their day-to-day social functioning.

“This research raises an intriguing paradox,” notes Dr. Harkness. “How can a strong motivation to understand other people’s minds, and greater accuracy in decoding others’ mental states, go along with poor functioning in these people’s actual social relationships?”

Dr. Harkness and her colleagues hope to address this paradox in their future work, but they hypothesize that decoding every emotional state of relationship partners can be problematic, especially if mildly depressed individuals make negative attributions about those emotional states.

“If I attached meaning to every fleeting emotion you experienced, over time that would likely wear on our relationship,” explains Dr. Harkness. “It might be better to live in blissful ignorance of these subtle and fleeting emotional shifts that we all undergo, but which ultimately may be meaningless.”

This research was published recently in Cognition and Emotion.