“It was also a misuse of the method of ostracism which, in my view, is a  valuable political expedient only at such times when there are two sharply  contrasting policies in the state, one of which, from necessity, has to be  adopted;  and in such cases it is obviously desirable that the man who  should be required to go into exile should be one or other of the leaders  of the two parties.”

   Ostracism of Damon, in Pericles the Athenian by Rex Warner, London,  Collins, 1963, p175.


In putting forward the yielding hypothesis of depression (Price and Sloman,  1988) we did not compare the hypothesis directly with other hypotheses of  the adaptive function of depression. One alternative hypothesis is that  which sees depression as serving to detach the individual from an  unattainable goal. This theory, put forward by Klinger (1975) and by  Hamburg et al. (1975), sees depression as a second, "fall-back" strategy,  to be adopted when goal pursuit is blocked and an initial strategy of  invigoration and aggression (elevation of mood?) has failed. Hamburg et  al. put it as follows:


"Let us briefly consider anger and depression from this [phylogenetic]  perspective. The angry organism is making an appraisal of his current  situation, which indicates that his immediate or long-run survival needs  are jeopardised;  his basic interests are threatened. Moreover, his  appraisal indicates that another organism (or group) is responsible for  this threat. Although there are many ways he can go from this appraisal,  the general tendency is to prepare for vigorous action to correct the  situation, quite likely action directed against the person(s) seen as  causing or at least manifesting the jeopardy to his needs. The signals are  likely to be transmitted to these individuals as well as to the organism's  own decision-making apparatus. The significant others are then likely to  respond in a way that will ameliorate the situation. In a medium range of  intensity, anger and some associated aggressive actions are likely to bring  about a result desirable to the person and acceptable to his significant  others. At very high intensity, the risk of serious injury becomes great  for the initiator as well as for others. This behavior can readily become  maladaptive.

  "Depressive responses have similar characteristics. However, they tend to follow a prior angry period;  but the angry responses have not elicited  a rewarding outcome. Then a feeling of sadness and discouragement sets in. The subject estimates the probability of effective action as low. By the  term effective action we refer here to action the subject believes to be in  his self-interest or group interest, even though his belief may be vaguely  formulated. He may, in effect, have been prepared for this orientation  through the long past experience of his species or his population or his  family or his own experience or some combination of these. But, however he  came to this appraisal, it is now a firm commitment, somehow bound up with  his survival. How can the depressive responses be viewed as adaptive?  As  we saw in the case of anger, they can be adaptive in a medium range of  intensity. His feeling of sadness and discouragement may be a useful  stimulus to consider ways of changing his situation. If a key human  relationship is in jeopardy, ways of improving that relationship, or  substituting a better one, may be considered. Moreover, his state of  sadness may elicit heightened interest and sympathetic consideration on the  part of significant other people. Their actions as well as his own may  work toward improvement of the situation. But at very high intensity, the  depressive responses increase survival risks for the person:  (a) in terms  of his own behavior, physiology, and susceptibility to disease; (b) in  terms of the response of others, which tend to become unfavorable or at  least ineffective in the face of intense depression (Klerman, 1971)." (pp  239-240)



Advantages of the Hamburg hypothesis


1. It fits well with other psychological theories.


Hamburg is saying that when the route to a goal (or enjoyment of a goal) is  blocked, the individual reacts first with a phase of  invigoration/protest/aggression which may well succeed in removing the  block;  if the phase of invigoration fails to remove the block, the  individual enters a phase of depression in which there is retrenchment,  consolidation, repair, restoration of expended energy, and in which the  individual not only has time to lick his wounds but also is able to receive  the help of others to restore his health. In this phase of recuperation  the individual has time to reasses the goal which has been blocked and  hopefully choose alternative goals that are realisable. This theory is  compatible with the formulation of Dollard et al. (1939) in which  aggression is seen as a response to frustration, and with the view of  Schmale (1973) in which depression is seen as a time for restoring energy. It is closest to the theory of Klinger (1975) who sees the pursuit of goals  and incentives as being an alternation of active pursuit and disengagement,  depression being the state of disengagement. It fits with Bowlby's (1973)  formulation of the response to separation in which a phase of protest is  followed by a phase of despair. It is not incompatible with Selye's  biphasic General Adaptation Syndrome, in which a phase of increased  resistance is followed by a phase of exhaustion (Selye, 1936).


2. It is compatible with evolutionary theory


If the tendency to depression were a single additive character, then we  could say that a polymorphism is maintained in the population by  heterozygote advantage. The individual with one gene for depression gets  moderately depressed when goals are severely blocked, and he is better  adapted to survival that the individual with two depressive genes who gets depressed too easily, or too severely, or for too long;  and he is also  better adapted than the individual with no genes for depression who wastes  his substance pursuing unattainable goals and of whom it might be said that  he "does not know when to give up".

  The same argument applies if the tendency to depression is a  multifactorial genetic character, when the general biological principle  would hold that individuals in the middle of a distribution tend to be  better adapted than those on either extreme.

  According to this argument psychiatrists are not in a good position to  speculate on the biological advantage of depression, because our depressed  patients are those on the extreme of the distribution whose depression is  maladaptive. Almost by definition, if you get to a psychiatrist, your  depression has not done its job. Possibly the 95% of psychiatric patients  in the UK who are seen by general practitioners and not referred to  psychiatrists have adaptive degrees of depression, or possibly only that  50% of depressives who are identified in community surveys and do not even  consult their family doctor.


3. It deals with the relation between aggression and depression.


There is a large and confusing literature on the relation between  aggression and depression, and even now there is controversy as to whether the outward expression of aggression (hostility) is inhibited in  depression, as it is in the psychoanalytic formulation of depression as  aggression turned inwards onto the self. However that may be, a  psychological formulation of depression should be clear about the relation  to aggression, and Hamburg's theory does this by postulating that  depression occurs as a "second string" response when the primary aggressive  response to a blocked goal is ineffective.


Disadvantages of the Hamburg hypothesis


1. It does not explain important features of depression, such as   pervasiveness, incapacity (for perception, execution and decision-making)  and unsociability.


2. Episodes of depression are not usually preceded by a phase of  invigoration, anger or protest. In the case of both mild and severe  depressions, most patients pass gradually from a period of normal  functioning into the episode of depression. Hamburg et al. themselves (p  250) describe the way this may occur in human grief, when "some persons  slide into a clinical depression, in which there is a pervasive undermining  of prior interests and human relationships, with feelings of despondency."


3. The relinquishing of unattainable goals may occur at a late stage in  the depression or not at all. What does happen early in the depression is  that the pursuit of the goal is blocked by the symptoms of the depression,  such as anxiety or apathy. But these very symptoms also block the choice  and pursuit of alternative goals.


An alternative hypothesis:  depression is a means by which a group detaches  itself from the goal of one member and switches its allegiance to the goal  of another.


The pervasive incapacity mentioned above makes it unlikely that depression  is an evolved mechanism for switching from one goal to another within the  individual. But if we raise our frame of reference to the level of the social group, the situation is quite different. Groups often have  incompatible goals espoused by different important members or factions;   for instance, one member may advocate war with a neighbouring group while  another member advocates peace. Let us say the war advocate is in the  ascendant and the group carries out a war policy. Let us also assume that  the war policy is failing. The member who advocated the war policy loses  prestige, feels guilty and in the wrong about his failed policy and the  deaths of his fellows in unsuccessful battles, and becomes depressed. As a  result of his depression he ceases to press his war policy with his usual  vigour. Students of emotion (Scherer et al., 1986) find that when things  go wrong and one attributes the cause to oneself, one becomes depressed,  whereas when things go wrong and one attributes the cause to someone else,  one becomes angry (with whoever is held responsible). Therefore the peace  advocate, who feels "in the right", is angry with the war advocate, and the  expression of his anger (catathetic signals) is likely to make the war  advocate even more depressed. The war advocate is now depressed for three  separate but related reasons:  he has lost prestige because his policy has  been seen publicly to fail;  he feels guilty about the failure of his own  policy;  and he is in receipt of catathesis from the peace party. None of 

these three conditions applies to the peace advocate, who does not become  depressed and continues to espouse his cause with undiminished vigour. It  is likely that, in these circumstances, the group will change its goal from  war to peace. Moreover, the depressive reaction of the war advocate will  help him to adjust to the change in policy, and possibly to a change in  leadership, and will reduce the chances that he will change groups and go  and fight for the other side.

  According to this theory the cause of depression is failure to achieve a  goal in the presence of another group member who is espousing an  alternative and incompatible goal. The goals may be incompatible because  only one person can occupy the goal, such as a territory or leadership  position, or they may be incompatible for some technical reason, such as it  being difficult to wage war and peace at the same time. In animals the  only goals are usually social goals, represented by territory or rank. There is not much else for a baboon to aim for than to rise another step in  the hierarchy - most potential sub-goals and incentives are secondary to  the achievement of the primary goal of rank. Some species have non-social  goals, such as migration or the construction of nests and dens. But there  is no adaptive advantage in becoming depressed when one fails to achieve a  non-social goal. Let me give an example. The golden-headed jackal lives  in a monogamous situation, and builds a den to rear its young (Moehlman,  1986). Let us say that it has den-building apraxia, and however much it  digs, no den results. There is no non-social advantage in it becoming  depressed and giving up because of its failure to build a den;  it would be  better to make some alternative arrangement, such as a nest of branches on  the surface. But there is an advantage in depression if the animal fails to build a den in the presence of another golden-headed jackal who is  looking for a territory. Then the depressed jackal allows itself to be  driven from the territory by the newcomer, who is probably a nephew or  other close relative, hanging on for a season or two with its parents  waiting for a territory to become vacant. The depressed jackal thus gives  up the very slim chance of its own reproduction for the much higher chance  of collateral reproduction, and its inclusive fitness is enhanced. In this  example the depression comes into the category of altruistic behaviour;  in  other cases there may be direct advantage to the depressed individual (as  might have been the case with the war advocate).




The pervasive incapacity of depression is difficult to reconcile with a  goal reformulation model limited to the individual actor. However, these  difficulties disappear if we think of depression in relation to group  goals. Those symptoms such as indecisiveness and apathy which interfere  with the individual's formulation of new goals for himself, interfere much  less with his joining in the pursuit of someone else's goal. Therefore  depression may serve the function of the transfer of the role of goal- setter from the depressed individual to another member of the group. The  proximate cause of the depression is not likely to be seen in terms of  interpersonal competition by the actors concerned, but rather in terms of  failure to achieve the original goal. However, the significant change  achieved by the depression is the yielding of the goal-setting role by one  group member to another, and therefore, since goal-setting is a leadership  function, the depression has facilitated a fall in rank.





Bowlby, J (1973) Attachment and Loss. Vol. 2: Separation, Anxiety and  Anger. London: Hogarth Press.


Dollard, J. et al. (1939) Frustration and Aggression. Newhaven: Yale  University Press.


Hamburg, D.A., Hamburg, B.A. & Barchas, J.D. (1975) Anger and depression in  perspective of behavioral biology. in Emotions:  their parameters and  measurement ed L. Levi. New York: Raven Press. p 235-278.


Klerman, G.L., 1974, Depression and adaptation. In The Psychology of  Depression. R.J.Friedman and M.M.Katz (Eds.). Washington, D.C.:   V.H.Winston, pp.127-145.


Klinger, E. Consequences of commitment to and disengagement from  incentives. Psychological Review 82:1-25, 1975.


Moehlman, P.D. (1986) Ecology of cooperation in canids. In: Rubenstein,  D.I. & Wrangham, R.W. (eds) Ecological Aspects of Social Evolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Universoty Press. (Pp 64-86).


Price, J.S. & Sloman, L. (1987) Depression as yielding behavior:  an animal  model based on Schjelderup-Ebbe's pecking order. Ethology and  Sociobiology, 8, 85S-98S.


Scherer, K.R., Wallbott, H.G., Summerfield, A.B. (1986) Experiencing  Emotion: A Cross-Cultural Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Schmale, A.H. (1973) Adaptive role of depression in health and disease. In  Stress and Disease (ed H.G.Wolff) Springfield: Thomas.


Selye, H. (1936) A syndrome produced by diverse nocuous agents. Nature,  138, 32.