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Better Safe Than Sorry: Understanding Social Inference in Depression

Better Safe Than Sorry: Understanding Social Inference in Depression


Today, we're going to delve into the fascinating world of social inference in depression. Now, I know the topic might sound a bit heavy, but trust me, we'll break it down into bite-sized pieces and make it as engaging as possible.

Depression: A Social Disorder

Let's kick things off by understanding why depression is often referred to as a social disorder. Research has shown that individuals with depression tend to have distorted perceptions and processing of social information. For instance, they may be more sensitive to rejection, struggle with tasks related to theory of mind, and exhibit poor social problem-solving skills. These social impairments are well-documented, but what's really intriguing is understanding why and how these differences in social functioning occur.

From a computational perspective, a model that explains these processes could help us link various social symptoms in depression to biases in patients' internal social belief systems. This, in turn, could have significant implications for diagnostics, understanding the causes, and tailoring interventions for depression.

The Role of Social Trauma

Now, let's talk about the bidirectional relationship between depressive symptoms and impaired social functioning. Research suggests that experiences such as peer rejection, childhood maltreatment, and lack of social support can lead to maladapted perception, processing, and behavior, which, in turn, can generate interpersonal stress and promote depressive symptoms. On the flip side, depressive symptoms can further worsen social skills, leading to negative social interactions and new social trauma, creating a vicious cycle.

"Better-Safe-Than-Sorry" Adaptive Responses

Ever wondered why individuals with depression exhibit certain social behaviors? Evolutionary psychologists propose that depressive symptoms may actually represent adaptive responses to highly aversive social contexts. These behaviors, such as being overly cautious in social interactions, may have initially evolved as strategies to minimize uncertainty in the social environment. However, when these strategies persist in the long term, they can become maladaptive and lead to severe consequences for those affected.

On the Maintenance of Social Symptoms in Depression

Now, let's shift our focus to understanding why social perception and behavior in individuals with depression do not normalize even when the social context improves. There are several factors at play, including learned helplessness, neurobiological dysfunction, and persistent negative expectations, among others. However, the key factor we're interested in is how individuals with depression infer the characteristics of social contexts through social action, such as social decision-making. This plays a significant role in maintaining their symptoms.

Clinical observations indicate that individuals with depressive symptoms, especially those with a history of social trauma, tend to have distortions in exploring their interpersonal context before making social decisions. They often stick to social strategies which prevent new learning and promote experiences that reinforce their approaches. This is supported by research linking depression to social withdrawal, inhibited behavior, low social information seeking, and difficulty drawing the right conclusions from social interactions.

Wrapping It Up

So, there you have it! We've taken a closer look at the active inference approach to biased social inference in depression. It's truly fascinating to understand how social impairments in depression differ from healthy social functioning and why they develop, are maintained, and manifest in such different ways. While the topic may seem complex, breaking it down into understandable bits helps us appreciate the intricate workings of the human mind, especially in the context of mental health.

I hope you found this exploration into the world of social inference in depression as intriguing as I did. Until next time, take care and stay curious!

Citation: Lukas Kirchner et al., “Better Safe than Sorry? - An Active Inference Approach to Biased Social Inference in Depression,” preprint (PsyArXiv, August 9, 2022),


  • Depression: (depression) A condition marked by ongoing feelings of sadness, despair, loss of energy, diminished interest/pleasure and difficulty dealing with normal daily life. (

  • Social Disorder: A condition where an individual experiences difficulties in social interactions, communication, and relationships with others.

  • Social Trauma: Negative experiences, such as peer rejection, childhood maltreatment, and lack of social support, that can have a lasting impact on an individual's social perception and functioning.

  • Adaptive Responses: Behaviors or strategies that have evolved to help individuals cope with challenging or threatening situations, such as being overly cautious in social interactions in the context of depression.

  • Maladaptive: Behaviors or responses that are not conducive to an individual's well-being or functioning, often causing distress or impairment in daily life.

  • Learned Helplessness: Learned expectation that one's responses are independent of reward and, hence, do not predict or control the occurrence of rewards. Learned helplessness derives from a history, experimentally induced or naturally occurring, of having received punishment/aversive stimulation regardless of responses made. Such circumstances result in an impaired ability to learn. Used for human or animal populations. (APA, Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms, 1994) NLM Medical Subject Headings (

  • Neurobiological Dysfunction: Abnormalities or impairments in the functioning of the brain and nervous system that can contribute to the development and maintenance of depressive symptoms.

  • Inhibited Behavior: Restrained or limited actions and responses, often observed in individuals experiencing social impairments due to depression.

  • Social Information Seeking: The act of actively searching for and processing social cues, feedback, and information from the environment and others.

  • Active Inference: An approach that involves actively gathering and processing information from the environment to make inferences and predictions, often applied to understanding social behaviors in depression.