Why Russians Don’t Get Depressed

12 Aug

The saddest short story I’ve ever read is “The Overcoat,” by Gogol. (It starts out bleak and only gets bleaker.) The second saddest story is “Grief,” by Chekhov. (Nabokov famously said that Chekhov wrote “sad books for humorous people; that is, only a reader with a sense of humor can really appreciate their sadness.”) And then, if I had to make a list of really depressing fiction, I’d probably put everything written by Dostoyevsky. Those narratives never end well.

Notice a theme? Russians write some seriously sad stuff. This has led to the cultural cliche of Russians as a brooding people, immersed in gloomy moods and existential despair. In a new paper in Psychological Science, Igor Grossmann and Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan summarize this stereotype:

One needs look no further than the local Russian newspaper or library to find evidence supporting this belief [that Russians are sad] – brooding and emotional suffering are common themes in Russian discourse. These observations, coupled with ethnographic evidence indicating that Russians focus more on unpleasant memories and feelings than Westerners do, have led some researchers to go so far as to describe Russia as a “clinically masochistic” culture.

This cliche raises two questions. Firstly, is it true? And if it is true, then what are the psychological implications of thinking so many sad thoughts?

The first experiment was straightforward. The psychologists gave subjects in Moscow and Michigan a series of vignettes that described a protagonist who either does or does not analyze her feelings when she is upset. After reading the short stories, the students were then asked to choose the protagonist that most closely resembled their own coping tendencies. The results were clear: While the American undergraduates were evenly divided between people who engaged in self-analysis (the brooders) and those who didn’t, the Russian students were overwhelmingly self-analytical. (Eighty-three Russians read the vignettes; sixty-eight of them identified with the brooders.) In other words, the cliche is true: Russians are ruminators. They are obsessed with their problems.

At first glance, this data would seem like really bad news for Russian mental health. It’s long been recognized, for instance, that the tendency to ruminate on one’s problems is closely correlated with depression. (The verb is derived from the Latin word for “chewed over,” which describes the process of digestion in cattle, in which they swallow, regurgitate and then rechew their food.) The mental version of rumination has a darker side, as it leads people to fixate on their flaws and mistakes, preoccupied with their problems. What separates depression from ordinary sadness is the intensity of these ruminations, and the tendency of depressed subjects to get stuck in a recursive loop of negativity.

According to Grossman and Kross, however, not  all brooders and ruminators are created equal. While American brooders showed extremely high levels of depressive symptomatology (as measured by the Beck Depression Inventory, or BDI), Russian brooders were actually less likely to be depressed than non-brooders. This suggests that brooding, or ruminative self-reflection, has extremely different psychiatric outcomes depending on the culture. While rumination makes Americans depressed, it actually seems to provide an emotional buffer for Russians.

What explains these cultural differences? Grossman and Kross then asked students in Moscow and Michigan to “recall and analyze their “deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding a recent anger-related interpersonal experience”. Then, the subjects were quizzed about the details of their self-analysis. They were asked to rate, on a seven point scale, the extent to which they adopted a self-immersed perspective (a 1 rating meant that they “saw the event replay through your own eyes as if you were right there”) versus a self- distanced perspective (a 7 rating meant that they “watched the event unfold as an observer, in which you could see yourself from afar”). Finally, the subjects were asked about how the exercise made them feel. Did they get angry again when they recalled the “anger-related” experience? Did the memory trigger intense emotions?

Here’s where the cultural differences became clear.* When Russians engaged in brooding self-analysis, they were much more likely to engage in self-distancing, or looking at the past experience from the detached perspective of someone else. Instead of reliving their confused and visceral feelings, they reinterpreted the negative memory , which helped them make sense of it. According to the researchers, this led to significantly less “emotional distress” among the Russian subjects. (It also made them less likely to blame another person for the event.) Furthermore, the habit of self-distancing seemed to explain the striking differences in depressive symptoms between Russian and Americans. Brooding wasn’t the problem. Instead, it was brooding without self-distance. Here’s Grossman and Kross:

Our results highlighted a psychological mechanism that explains these cultural differences: Russians self-distance more when analyzing their feelings than Americans do. These findings add to a growing body of research demonstrating that it is possible for people to reflect either adaptively or maladaptively over negative experiences. In addition, they extend previous findings cross-culturally by highlighting the role that self-distancing plays in determining which type of self-reflection—the adaptive or maladaptive one—different cultures engage in.

The lesson is clear: If you’re going to brood, then brood like a Russian. Just remember to go easy on the vodka.

*I think cross-cultural studies like this are an important reminder than American undergrads are W.E.I.R.D.

PS. Thanks to Jad for the tip! And if you’re interested in a controversial new take on depression and rumination, you might be interested in this article.