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News : When people become depressed, their competitive drive stays surprisingly strong

A team of researchers sought to investigate the effects of narcissism and depression on behavioral responses to social defeat, which refers to hostile interactions within a group context, such as a game. (Photo by Sean Do on Unsplash)


People with depression often face stereotypes that they lack motivation. But new research has found that depressed individuals are still as competitive in social settings such as video games as those without depression.

In a study published in December in PLOS One, researchers used a rigged video game tournament to measure competitiveness, rivalry and admiration-seeking behavior in people with narcissistic traits or depression.

Depression did not dampen players’ overall competitiveness, but it still influenced their behavior, including their ambition in the game, according to Anna Szücs, the lead author of the paper and a former researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. Szücs and a team of researchers studied how narcissism and depression impact the way people respond to social defeat, which refers to hostile interactions within a group context like a game.

“A major part of our environment is competitive, if you think about work. Sometimes even in our hobbies or in our families, there is a level of competition and of hierarchy,” Szücs told The Academic Times.

Players with depression were driven by a desire to avoid being beaten by any opponent, rather than by a desire to climb ranks in the game or to dominate highly ranked opponents. Depression did not necessarily lead to disengagement or passivity in the face of competition, which is what is often hypothesized, Szücs said. The competition element was still important to participants with depression, but their ambition to aim for a higher status was negatively affected. 

Narcissistic people, who are usually highly motivated by a desire to be dominant, were more likely to engage in rivalries, seek admiration and defend their status as the game progressed. These players reacted to defeat by antagonizing the opponent who they perceived as threatening, and by attempting to enhance their own chances of victory. Narcissism was also correlated with quicker improvement in performance in the game. 

“When threatened with social defeat, people tend to engage in self-enhancement, which aims to increase social rank, and in self-protection, which aims to avoid further losses by fleeing or fighting back,” the authors said in the paper.

The research team expected that the more depressed participants would engage in the rivalry and admiration-seeking behaviors less, and be more tolerant of being defeated. But depression did not suppress the players’ general competitiveness, and all players tended to engage in more rivalry when they were pitted against high-ranked opponents.

Szücs spent nine months developing and coding the game with a lab at the University of Pittsburgh beginning in 2017. The game was designed to elicit rivalry and admiration-seeking behaviors from players within competitive, hierarchical environments through prompted features such as stealing points from opponents and paying for rank. 

The virtual contest was modeled after the snake game, a classic arcade game. Notably, its design was unique in the context of studying social defeat in a competitive setting, and it was not derived from any of the traditional bargaining games typically used in psychology research. 

“We tried to devise an experimental task that would immerse participants of any age group in a competitive social setting and found that designing it as a video game tournament was a good middle ground between a simplified, virtual social environment and a complex real-life scenario,” Szücs said.

The game design was modified to increase participants’ frustration and sense of bad performance in order to hide the rigged outcomes, which involved having the players lose two-thirds of the trials.

Szücs recruited a sample of 85 predominantly depressed elderly adults through a lab at the University of Pittsburgh, and a second sample of 70 undergraduate students from the University of British Columbia in Canada. The final analysis compared the two age groups and accounted for differences in their mental and physical health.

“It’s really encouraging that people in both samples are reacting in the same way,” Szücs said. “Although this is in a controlled experimental environment, it still brings us one step closer to what may happen in real life. And I think that’s why behavioral validations of theories are important in general.”

Further behavioral and clinical studies are needed to investigate the reproducibility, generalizability and meaning of the behavioral pattern found in the current study, Szücs said. And future research will also help to specify whether this effect of depression on competitive behaviors would still be found in other environments, such as an easy competition that the players would mostly win. 

“If it does, it would be possible to imagine that this suppression of ‘hierarchical ambitions’ could contribute to maintaining a depressive state by depriving individuals from the opportunity of experiencing success [or] status gain, which would in turn affect their recovery of a positive self-view,” Szücs said.

The current paper serves as one phase of a larger research project. Szücs has previously studied how frustrated dominance manifests in people who attempted suicide, or whether it could be one of the motivations behind suicide. She then considered narcissism as a trait that could make someone more sensitive to and frustrated by situations where they cannot be dominant, which led her to develop the rigged game.

Szücs plans to investigate the potential effects of suicidal behavior history and use both depressed and healthy non-suicidal comparison groups in future data collection.

“To be able to study suicidal behavior — especially late-life suicidal behavior as we do — it is crucial to understand the role of depression first, since most elderly individuals who attempt suicide are also depressed,” Szücs said.

The study, “Status, Rivalry And Admiration-Seeking In Narcissism And Depression: A Behavioral Study,” was published in PLOS One on Dec. 3. Anna Szücs of the University of Pittsburgh was the lead author. Katalin Szanto, Aidan G. C. Wright and Alexandre Y. Dombrovski, of the University of Pittsburgh, and Luke Clark and Jade Adalbert, of the University of British Columbia, served as co-authors.

This story has been republished to incorporate an update about the study. 

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