Emotional reactivity and perspective-taking in individuals with and without severe depressive symptoms
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The perspective-taking ability to imagine another person's feelings and thoughts is paramount for successful communication. This study pursued two questions regarding the link between perspective-taking and depressive symptomatology in a task where participants provided responses to words ranging in their positivity. First, we examined in a between-participants experimental manipulation how the presence of depressive symptoms influenced participants' emotional reactivity. Second, we measured within-participants, how their responses change as a function of the perspective they are assigned to take, that of a depressed or a non-depressed person. Our main interest is in the interaction of the two effects: we examine how one's emotional state determines the ability to engender someone else's responses. Our central finding is that depressive symptoms lead to emotional insensitivity, i.e., weaker responses to extremely positive and negative words. Furthermore, depressive symptoms come with a much weaker ability to take a non-depressed perspective. Finally, non-depressed participants demonstrated an excellent ability to mimic the blunt affect of depression when responding for the other group, suggesting that the outlook of a depressed individual is available to people throughout the range of depressive symptomatology. We discuss the implications of these findings for quantifying emotional reactivity during depression, as well as the diagnosis and prognosis of depression.