Depression linked with ultra-sensitivity to other people’s emotions

Depressed people are normally thought of as being somewhat disengaged from the rest of the world, but psychologists at Queen’s University in Canada have found that mildly depressed students actually have a heightened ability to detect other people’s emotions.

Kate Harkness and colleagues asked 43 depressed and non-depressed students to identify people's emotions from pictures that showed only the eye region of their faces. The 16 students who were classified as mildly to moderately depressed – based on their score on the Beck Depression Inventory – performed significantly better (78 per cent correct) on this emotion-recognition test relative to the 27 non-depressed controls (69 per cent correct). The depressed students didn’t take any longer over their answers and their superior performance was not due to their being more sensitive to negative emotions only. Also, there was no difference between the groups on two control tests, one of which involved detecting people’s gender just from pictures of their eyes.

The researchers replicated their finding in a second experiment that involved a larger sample of 81 students, and which controlled for the influence of anxiety using the Mood and Anxiety Symptom Questionnaire. Again, students classified as mild to moderately depressed were better at recognising the emotions shown in pictures of people’s eyes.

Understanding other people’s feelings requires two stages, the authors said – the ability to detect emotions, followed by the ability to interpret and reason about those emotions. The researchers believe depressed people have an enhanced ability for the first stage paired with negatively biased functioning in the second stage.

“…hypersensitivity to others’ emotional states may have pathological implications simply because by being more sensitive, dysphoric and depressed individuals have more opportunities to deploy their negative biases in interpreting fleeting emotional reactions”, the researchers said.

Harkness, K.L., Sabbagh, M.A., Jacobson, J.A., Chowdrey, N.K. & Chen, T. (2005). Enhanced accuracy of mental state decoding in dysphoric college students. Cognition and Emotion, 19, 999-1025.
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