Apr
24

Has America lost its resilience?

By
One of Pavlov's dogs, preserved at The Pavlov Museum, Ryazan, Russ

One of Pavlov’s dogs, preserved at The Pavlov Museum, Ryazan, Russia.
By Rklawton via Wikimedia Commons

Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected.

That is how people who study psychological resilience see the difference between people who rise above adversity and those who succumb to it. Maria Konnikova wrote about those studies in a February New Yorker article. Coping skills come naturally to some people, but they can also change over time. “The stressors can become so intense that resilience is overwhelmed,” Konnikova writes. “Most people, in short, have a breaking point.”


The most resilient people, it seems, have an “internal locus of control.” They have a sense that they are “orchestrators of their own fates.” That is indeed how many Americans prefer to portray themselves. (“Masters of their domain,” to appropriate a euphemism from Seinfeld.) Those skills can also be learned, researchers find. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, a pioneer in positive psychology, found that “learned helplessness” can be unlearned using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:

Seligman found that training people to change their explanatory styles from internal to external (“Bad events aren’t my fault”), from global to specific (“This is one narrow thing rather than a massive indication that something is wrong with my life”), and from permanent to impermanent (“I can change the situation, rather than assuming it’s fixed”) made them more psychologically successful and less prone to depression.

One of the psychologists behind the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation program attended one of Seligman’s lectures on how people might resist torture and interrogation. Rather than use Seligman’s work to cure learned helplessness, he and his colleague used the research to induce it in prisoners.

George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University, finds that stress response can be a matter of perception. “We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things,” he believes. Regulating emotions can be taught.

Unfortunately, the opposite may also be true. “We can become less resilient, or less likely to be resilient,” Bonanno says. “We can create or exaggerate stressors very easily in our own minds. That’s the danger of the human condition.” Human beings are capable of worry and rumination: we can take a minor thing, blow it up in our heads, run through it over and over, and drive ourselves crazy until we feel like that minor thing is the biggest thing that ever happened. In a sense, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected.

All this exposition leads to this observation: This anti-therapeutic approach is the right wing media’s business model. The “Ground Zero mosque,” communists (jihadis) hiding in woodpiles, gender-neutral bathrooms, jackbooted government thugs coming for your guns, ACORN, zombie voters, etc. Has hyping everything as a threat and spending hours a day on radio and television for years on end fulminating over the daily outrage been one, huge, informal experiment in inducing helplessness among the American populous simply to make us more compliant? Or perhaps it is just id talking to id. Whatever. With all the time Americans spend running around with their hair on fire, you’d think we’d all look like Vin Diesel.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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