Those With Depression May Be More Empathetic and Selfless, Study Finds

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Depression is an unmistakably taxing illness that presents what may feel like insurmountable difficulties for the 264 million people of all ages, around the world, dealing with the disorder, as per the World Health Organization.

As the American Psychiatric Association explains, "depression causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease a person’s ability to function at work and at home." Of course, there are degrees of depression that range from mild to severe, and symptoms can include (but aren't limited to) changes in appetite, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and suicidal thoughts.

Links to Depression

And while depression is an insidious disorder that can be both inherited and brought on by one's circumstances, perhaps it's no surprise then, that the illness is also said to be linked to economic inequity. In 2017, three Japanese scientists set out to further explain this association in a study that tested the brain's responses to unfairness via a "take-it-or-leave-it" money-based game designed to predict participants’ present, and future, depressive episodes (aka the "ultimatum game"). What might surprise you, however, is one of their findings: Those who were more susceptible to depression tended to also be more selfless and empathetic—ostensibly positive character traits. Here are the study's findings, as reported by Michael Byrne, of Vice's Motherboard blog.

The 'Prosocial' Study

Researchers split participants into two groups—the "prosocials" and the "individualists"—who played a money-based game with a strong element of unfairness. As Byrne explains, "People with depression commonly demonstrate increased concern for others, or for the perspectives of others. More precisely, prosocial attitudes predict depression, which is in contrast to individualist attitudes. Individualist here basically just means selfish, or relatively selfish."

The game boils down to this: Subjects were hooked up to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines and offered a series of monetary rewards, ranging in amounts, to be shared among their groups. Each offer, however, became increasingly unfair in that if the subject accepted it, then other group members would receive lesser amounts than the subject.

'Prosocial' Empathy Correlated to Depression

The prosocials rejected money from unfair offers that didn't promote equality for all (and without the expectation of a reward) while the individualists were more willing to accept the money despite obvious inequities. Those who showed elevated brain activity in brain centers associated with depression (specifically, the amygdala and hippocampus) were also more likely to demonstrate signs of clinical depression down the line.

Byrne cites commentary by Megan Speer and Mauricio Delgado, two psychology researchers who further explored the study: "Prosocials have an almost unrivaled capacity to give up their time and energy for others, even at a cost to themselves." They go on to say, though, that "deep, empathetic concern for disadvantage" is also one of the prominent hallmarks of depression.

Unfortunately, as the years pass, increased economic inequality, both worldwide and in the U.S., is only becoming more prevalent. It's "an increasing concern for society and has been implicated as a source of several psychiatric diseases including depression," they continue.

Know the warning signs: If you (or someone you know) are currently suffering from depression, it's important to seek treatment immediately.

Article Sources
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  1. World Health Organization. Depression. January 2020.

  2. American Psychiatric Association. What Is Depression? October 2020.

  3. Tanaka T, Yamamoto T, Haruno M. Brain Response to Economic Inequity Predict Present and Future Depression Indices. Nat Hum Behav. 2017;1:748-756. doi:10.1038/s41562-017-0207-1

  4. Institute for Policy Studies. Facts. Global Inequality. 2020.

  5. Pew Research Center. Trends in Income and Wealth Inequality. January 9, 2020.

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