11:14am Saturday 30 May 2020

Depression: why life can feel out of control

Experiments by psychology researchers Dr Rachel Msetfi from the University of Limerick, Ireland, and Dr Robin Murphy at the University of Oxford in the UK, used a computer-based task to explore how healthy as well as depressed volunteers responded to simple tasks in which they had varying levels of control.

They were asked to test the reliability of a remote controller in different rooms of a virtual house. The remote would switch on the hi-fi in each room with a certain level of reliability; sometimes the music would come on immediately, sometimes with a slight delay and sometimes it would start even when the volunteer decided not to use the remote.

The experiment was designed so that in different rooms the volunteers had different levels of control. In some rooms pressing the remote control worked well. In other rooms the remote was less reliable, giving the volunteers less control. After many goes at using the remote controller in a room each participant was asked about how much control they felt they had using the remote, and the extent to which the behaviour of the hi-fi was governed by the room, not them pressing the button.

Dr Msetfi’s analysis showed that when there were longer delays, either between opportunities to press the remote button or between pressing the button and the music turning on, depressed people responded differently than others. Interestingly, with these longer delays, their judgements were actually more realistic than those of the healthy volunteers.

This finding supports other studies which suggest that people with depression experience time as passing more slowly; they also tend to process cues from their environment and context differently to people without depression.

“When depressed people have more time to process information about cause and effect, due to their slower perception of time they tend to take more notice of their environment which is often beyond their control, hence their feelings of helplessness,” says Msetfi. “We see that contrary to the cognitive theory of depression, which emphasises the effects of irrational thought, here very subtle changes in perceptions have a strong knock on effect on other cognitive processes and feelings of control.”

Msetfi also suggests that her research may also help to explain why mindfulness therapy is so successful in treating depression and preventing relapse. “Mindfulness is about paying more attention to what is happening right now. If time moves more slowly for people with depression and makes them oversensitive to their surroundings, mindfulness may work because it recalibrates their perceptions to find a better balance.”


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Notes for editors


  1. This release is based on early findings from ‘Feelings of control: The effects of depression, context and contingency learning’ funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and carried out by Rachel Msetfi at the University of Limerick, Ireland and the University of Oxford in the UK.
  2. This part of the project included four experiments that involved 352 volunteers who were asked to participate in a computer simulation to ‘test’ the reliability of the remote controller in different rooms in a house. They could choose to press, or not press, the button on the remote (using the keyboard space bar) and observe the outcome. There were a total of forty such tests (trials) per room. The variables in the study included the inter trial interval (the time between each opportunity to press or not press the remote button) and the inter stimulus interval (the time between pressing the button and the music turning on). Each participant completed the Beck Depression Inventory as well as other measures of mood state to assess their level of depression and categorise them as mildly depressed or not depressed.
  3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.

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