Diagnosing the Doctor

The TV series House, which aired its first episode in 2004, quickly became a hit not only for its intricate and thrilling storyline but also for of its protagonist, Dr. Gregory House. House, as he is called in the show, is a quick-witted, smart, and sarcastic doctor, who also happens to be hated by most. House’s selfish and aggressive personality, which remain almost intact throughout the show’s eight seasons, quickly become a characteristic trait of the character. Beneath the hard shell that he portrays to the world, there is a sense of deep remorse and sadness. House’s seemingly incomprehensible dissatisfaction, given his high medical position and gifted mind, becomes much more clear when looked through the lens of the hopelessness theory of depression (Abramson, Metalsky, & Alloy, 1989).

First coined in 1989, the hopelessness theory of depression (HTD) states that people are more likely to develop depression when the following two factors coexist simultaneously: the person is vulnerable, and there are negative environmental circumstances (Abramson et al., 1989). Though vulnerable may not be the first adjective a House fan would label its protagonist with, the theory actually proposes a different view of vulnerability. The term is used to describe a person who has a negative way of portraying and interpreting aversive life events (Abramson et al., 1989). This kind of pessimistic explanatory style is done through two kinds of attribution, stable, and global.

Stable attributions can be though in terms of permanency, where one’s pessimistic view of something remains unchanged. In the 2005 episode “Three Stories”, House states at one point that “everybody lies” for it is a “basic truth of the human condition”. The stable attribution is present here for if lying is part of the human condition, there is no way that people will ever be exempt from such deplorable trait. The term “everybody” and “human condition” also lead to the discussion of the second kind of attribution.

Global attribution can be thought of as a kind of generalization, where a pessimistic view is thought to affect many aspects of one’s life (Abramson et al., 1989). In House’s case, given that lying is present in everyone at all times, there is no way he can ever truly trust anyone. Such belief affects his relationship with his patients, coworkers, friends, and loved ones. Dr. House never lets anyone truly in because the idea of safety and comfort with another is not a possibility in his mind. Clinical observations have also found that the more widespread the attribution and hopelessness may be, the greater the depressive symptoms are as well as their persistency. (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012).

The second factor of the theory requires there being negative environmental circumstances in the person’s life (Abramson et al., 1989). When Dr. House first appears in the “Pilot” episode, he already walks with the help of a cane. The viewers quickly learn that he had previously suffered an accident which left his leg debilitated and in chronic pain. Vicodin is his medicine of choice and one that leads him to addiction. Despite the medicine, Dr. House continues living in pain, at one point in the series even stating that “life is pain” (Attanasio et al., 2004). He proceeds to say that he gets up in pain, goes to work in pain and has many times considered giving up. Both the accident and the Vicodin, which eventually leads to an incontrollable addiction, are two major negative environmental circumstances that mark Dr. House’s life forever.

Though House’s tough and aggressive personality may at first appear to simply be that of a selfish man, theories such as the HTD help to explore in a deeper and more holistic way the underlying causes of such behaviors. They remind us of the complexity and sensitive nature of humans, one both universal and yet so unique. The way Dr. House attributes aversive events in his life along with the negative circumstances that have taken place, shape both his mindset and the way he presents himself to the world. The show does an amazing job of portraying the wide spectrum of human nature as well as the different ways people chose to confront their problems and move forward (or not) with their lives.


Abramson, L. Y., Metalsky, G. I., & Alloy, L. B. (1989). Hopelessness depression: A theory-based subtype of depression. Psychological Review, 96, 358–372.

Paul Attanasio, Katie Jacobs, David Shore, & Bryan Singer (producers). (2004). House [Television Series]. New York: NBCUniversal.

Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., and Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

1 comment

  1. Iman Ayman Chehouri

    Depression is a major issue that, unfortunately, a lot of individuals suffer from. Most people have some misassumptions about depression and are misinformed of it’s true causes and effects. The televisions series, “House”, is a perfect series that can portray the example of the hopelessness theory of depression (HTD). Being vulnerable does not necessarily mean that an individual has to be psychologically weak or portray the characteristics of a “weak” person. The two factors, vulnerability and and negative environmental circumstances are clearly depicted in the series.What other ways can vulnerability be portrayed through? Personally, I believe that there are several forms of vulnerability; emotional, mental, physical, and social. Each form can have different characteristics and can be interpreted differently.

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