One of the most well-known strategies for dealing with depression is the use of the class of medications know as SSRI’s. For many people, Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, and the like have been incredibly helpful in dealing with depression.
Given this, why would a philosopher such as myself have something to say about depression? One reason is that there is another resource which may be helpful in dealing with depression, perhaps in concert with SSRI’s and other forms of treatment. That resource is sound critical thinking, and this is something that I am familiar with as a philosopher.
My claim is not that unsound or illogical thinking is the cause of depression, or that the depressed person is blameworthy for how she thinks, but rather that the thinking that is characteristic of someone suffering from depression is sometimes illogical thinking. Such thinking can perpetuate depression.
In cognitive therapy, an individual can come to recognize these illogical patterns of thought. Then, through a variety of means, she can begin to change those patterns. We all fall into these patterns of thought at times, but for the depressed they are perhaps more severe or exert more power over their lives. But what sorts of patterns of illogical thought are present in depressed thinking?
All or Nothing Thinking
Here, we tend to see black and white where they do not exist.
For example, someone might believe something like this: “Either I’m a total success, or I’m a total failure.” A successful person might lose out on a promotion, and then think that because of this he’s a complete failure. However, this type of thinking commits a logical fallacy, the fallacy of the false dilemma. When committing this fallacy, a person is assuming that only two options exist when there are more than two. So in the promotion example, rather than seeing himself as a failure, he would see himself as someone who is successful, but has suffered a professional setback
Disqualifying the Positive
Consider the depressed student who doesn’t think that anyone likes her. She discusses this with her roommate, who says “I like you, and so does your family and your 3 friends down the hall.” This is evidence that her belief is false, but the depressed person often persists in this thinking by believing that they don’t really like her, or they only like her because they have to, or something along these lines. This type of thinking is an example of the fallacy of suppressed evidence. This fallacy occurs when we overlook or ignore or unjustifiably discount relevant evidence that supports a different conclusion than what we believe.
This is when we believe that our negative feelings about something reflect reality, when they do not. For example, someone feels like they have nothing to offer anyone else, when this is not in fact that case. Feelings are powerful, and important, and they can reflect reality. But when they fail to reflect reality and we believe what they tell us anyway, we commit the fallacy of insufficient evidence. This fallacy occurs when we believe a conclusion even though there is not enough evidence to warrant that belief.
Depressed thinking often includes these types of statements: “I should exercise 3 times this week,” or “I should never feel angry with my children.” This type of self-talk can be harmful and demotivating, and may helpfully be replaced with statements like “It would be good to exercise 3 times this week,” or “It would be nice for my kids if I were more patient with them.” Sometimes, should statements exhibit the fallacy of the false dilemma: “I should exercise 3 times this week or I’m worthless and undisciplined.”
This is a false either-or type of reasoning. At other times, should statements reflect the fallacy of unacceptable premise, which occurs when one accepts a premise that is unwarranted by the evidence. For example, a depressed person might think that “Anyone who feels angry with their kids is a very bad parent and should feel very guilty. Since I sometimes feel angry with my kids, I’m a very bad parent and should feel very guilty.”
The unwarranted and unrealistic premise is that “anyone who feels angry with their kids is a very bad parent and should feel very guilty.” This is not to condone anger or belittle patient love, but it is to point out that feelings of anger are sometimes appropriate, and even when they are not it does not follow that one is a bad parent merely for having such feelings.
There are many issues here worth pursuing. How much can correcting these illogical ways of thinking help the depressed person? How can a depressed person begin to correct this thinking, when it occurs in her mind? I will leave it to the experts in psychology to answer these types of questions, but there is at least good philosophical evidence that sound critical thinking belongs in the toolbox of the person who is dealing with depression, as well as the toolbox of those who are seeking to help such an individual.
Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University. Austin has published numerous books and journal articles related to ethics, philosophy of religion, philosophy of the family, and philosophy of sport. He speaks on these and a variety of other topics related to the connections between character and human fulfillment.