How Do We Interpret Ambiguous Social Events?
New research shows that it may depend on depression and anxiety.
Posted December 11, 2019 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
Have you ever said “hello” to a passing friend and had him or her just walk right past you? Your unrequited greeting might hint that your friend is angry with you. Then again, the distraction posed by the phone your friend was staring at might also explain why you were ignored.
Because our social lives are replete with such ambiguity, how we interpret interpersonal events has the potential to greatly impact our relationships and overall well-being. For example, incorrectly thinking we’ve been snubbed by a friend might lead us to distance ourselves from that person, costing us a perfectly good relationship. After a few similar mistakes, we might begin to question whether something is wrong with us, or whether anyone will ever want to be our friend. Unsurprisingly, then, people who consistently take a dismal view of ambiguous situations tend to be more depressed and socially anxious.1-2
Fortunately, being biased toward negative interpretations does not doom an individual to depression or social anxiety; the negative impacts of this bias might be avoided if overly-negative interpretations of ambiguous situations are revised in response to evidence against them. For instance, even if you decided that a friend had purposely ignored your greeting, your friendship might be preserved if your friend sends a kind text message the next day and you think, “Maybe I had things wrong yesterday.”
With this in mind, we recently conducted a series of studies looking at interpretation bias and flexibility in the context of depression and social anxiety. In these studies,3-4 we asked over 750 people to imagine themselves in ambiguous social scenarios similar to the one described at the start of this post. We had these individuals rate the quality of four possible interpretations of the events described in each scenario. We then presented two new pieces of information about each scenario, and had people rate the same interpretations again. Some of these interpretations were positive (e.g., “your friend is distracted by her phone”), others were negative (e.g., “your friend never wants to speak with you again”). In half of our scenarios, negative interpretations seemed most plausible at first, but the additional information suggested that a more positive interpretation was warranted. In the remaining scenarios, the opposite was true: Positive interpretations seemed to fit best at first, but then negative interpretations became most likely. We measured the flexibility of individuals’ interpretations by examining their ratings of interpretation plausibility over the course of each scenario. We also measured interpretation bias by examining peoples’ initial perceptions of the plausibility of each interpretation.
Like other researchers,1,5 we found that more depressed and socially anxious people made more negatively biased interpretations. We also found that more depressed and socially anxious individuals were less flexible in their negative interpretations: They were less willing to revise these interpretations when new evidence suggested that a more positive interpretation would better fit the facts. In contrast, more depressed and socially anxious people were not less willing than others in our studies to revise their positive interpretations when new evidence suggested that a more negative interpretation was warranted.
These findings made us wonder why exactly inflexible negative interpretations might be particularly prevalent in more depressed or socially anxious individuals. One potential answer from our research: When people experience positive emotions, inflexible negative interpretations might encourage patterns of thought that dampen this experience (e.g., “my streak of luck will end soon,” “I shouldn’t enjoy this; good things won’t last for me”). Dampening these positive emotions, in turn, may exacerbate depression and social anxiety.6
Given these findings, we think it’s worthwhile to treat our interpretations of ambiguous situations as hypotheses rather than facts. Instead of thinking “my friend is definitely mad at me” when a hello goes unreturned, we might think to ourselves, "While it’s possible that my friend could be mad, it’s also possible something else is going on; gathering more evidence would help me be more certain.” Taking this stance toward our interpretations could help everyone, but it might be especially helpful for people struggling with depression or social anxiety. In fact, this attitude toward interpretations is already encouraged by cognitive-behavioral therapies for these individuals.
Michael V. Bronstein (PhD candidate at Yale), Jonas Everaert (postdoctoral fellow at Ghent University), Ariana Castro (PhD candidate at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign) and Tyrone D. Cannon (professor of psychology at Yale) also contributed to this article.
1. Everaert, J., Cocia, I., Koster, E. H. W. (2017). A comprehensive meta-analysis of interpretation biases in depression. Clinical Psychology Review, 58, 33–48.
2. Amir, N., Beard, C., & Bower, E. (2005). Interpretation bias and social anxiety. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 29(4), 433-443.
3. Everaert, J., Bronstein, M. V., Cannon, T. D., & Joormann, J. (2018). Looking through tinted glasses: Depression and social anxiety are related to both interpretation biases and inflexible negative interpretations. Clinical Psychological Science, 6(4), 517-528.
4. Everaert, J., Bronstein, M. V., Castro, A., Cannon, T. D., & Joormann, J. (2019). When negative interpretations persist, positive emotions don't! Inflexible negative interpretations encourage depression and social anxiety by dampening positive emotions. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 103510.
5. Amir, N., Beard, C., & Bower, E. (2005). Interpretation bias and social anxiety. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 29(4), 433-443.
6. Raes, F., Smets, J., Nelis, S., & Schoofs, H. (2012). Dampening of positive affect prospectively predicts depressive symptoms in non-clinical samples. Cognition & Emotion, 26(1), 75-82.