Despite the plethora of interventions designed to raise levels of resilience (and the accompanying publications) we rarely stop to ask ourselves if attempts to make young people more resilient is even a good idea, let alone necessary. Can resilience ever be a bad thing? One would think not, after all, being more resilient allows us to bounce back from adversity and to keep going when things get tough, right?
Research into resilience has a short but rather intensive history, ranging from investigations into the way people recover from extreme trauma to how children from deprived backgrounds overcome their problems and flourish despite adversity.
One such series of studies, conducted in the 1970’s by Lawrence Hinkle, investigated the susceptibility of individuals to coronary heart disease. Hinkle found that there were a small number of individuals who could live through major changes in relationships, deprivations and dislocations and display little if any overt evidence of illness. The resilience they displayed was associated with two factors:
1. They had no history of pre-existing susceptibilities
2. They displayed certain personality characteristics that ‘insulated’ them from detrimental life experiences
The healthiest members of the samples displayed little psychological reaction to events and situations which caused profound negative reactions in other members of the group. Life events such as the loss of a spouse produced no profound lasting reaction.
More importantly, many:
Displayed a distinct awareness of their own limitations and their psychological needs
Avoided situations that would make demands on them if they felt that they could not, or did not want to meet, these demands
For example, they might refuse a promotion because they didn’t want the extra responsibility and because money and prestige were of little importance to them.
Hinkle described many of the these individuals as having…
an almost sociopathic flavour… typical of so-called ‘invulnerables’… displaying characteristics of some kind of narcissistic disorder.
E. James Anthony calls this type of behaviour as the ‘Meursault Phenomenon’ after the protagonist of Albert Camus’ novel ‘The Outsider’. Meursault is a passive and detached observer of life who displays a flat level of affect even in response to the death of his mother; relationships mean nothing to him, nothing is either better or worse than anything else and his strategic selfishness is based on his convenience and the comfort of his ‘self’ (what psychologists of the psychodynamic persuasion would call ‘rational egoism’).
Meursault sustains his resilience by not engaging himself in the wider world and appears, according to Anthony, to be employing a strategy of defensive distancing that insulates him from all the ‘disturbing psychosocial impingements’ that exist in the environment, resulting in a kind of ‘psychoimmunization’.
From where such characteristics might arise is unclear but there is certainly a biological component. For example, highly resilient members of the US Special Forces have been found to have unusually high levels of a chemical known as neuropeptide Y that appears to protect them against PTSD and bestows higher levels of psychological resilience. However, like many studies of this kind, the direction of causality is more difficult to establish.
Increasing resilience in individuals is certainly a positive move, but resilience in the absence of human values and a strong moral compass could do more harm than good. Furthermore, the jury is still out on the whether or not resilience can be taught or if it arises through life experience or exists innately at a biological level. Ultimately, resilience exists in all of us and this is why we survive. Tinkering with the unknown on such a large scale and involving so many potentially vulnerable young people in often highly unregulated pseudo-scientific experiments could prove damaging at worse and pointless at best.