A Fresh Perspective

Date: 12 May, 2020

The psychology of resilience and plotting a path forward.

Niamh Murphy

By Niamh Murphy

Behavioural Strategist

Moving past the unimaginable:

How on earth did it happen, I used to wonder that a whole city—arches, pillars, colonnades, not to mention vehicles and animals—had all one fine day gone under?

A week after her death, Eavan Boland’s poem ‘Atlantis’ seems particularly apt in articulating the incomprehensibility of the right now. Especially given the clandestine way in which it crept into the background of our lives only to suddenly and irrevocably change them. Like the city that sank, it was utterly unimaginable. Until the unimaginable happened. The word unprecedented has been used to a comical degree in describing this new situation and its long list of unintended consequences. Yet, now we must begin to plot a path out of a situation we had never anticipated in the first place. And perhaps here, we need to look somewhere more familiar so as to steel ourselves and prepare for a future we never imagined. That familiar space being the world of psychology.

Ambiguity is a biological enemy:

In learning and developmental psychology, there is a concept called the Locus of Control. It speaks to the degree to which people believe they have control over events in their lives, as opposed to those events being dictated by external forces. While there are extreme cases, most recognise there are some elements we can control, and some we cannot. However, this divide feels more delineated as our homes become a melting pot of the controlled and the random. Whether we are engaging in personal and professional endeavours (Zoom fatigue, anyone?) or observing the seemingly arbitrary progression of the virus and the diminishment of local economies. Everything blends into ambiguousness. As humans, our risk aversion compels us to avoid ambiguity, so being constantly confronted with it is damaging. The global uncertainty index already stood at its highest point in December 2019. Since then, it has jumped 50 points. The consumer confidence index has reached a low only previously achieved when we crashed into recession. The feeling is ubiquitous: we are losing control. This is mirrored politically, from egregious bleach suggestions by Trump, to Bolsonaro’s claim that footballers are mostly immune to the virus. As a result, we are clinging to the things we feel we still can control: the ritualistic baking of banana bread, the fanaticism of step-counting and other such trivial pursuits.

Hindsight is so 2020:

So, how do we regain and retain control in more meaningful ways? Within forensics, there is a famous case: ‘Situation 21’. The organisers of the 1972 Munich Olympics were trying to prepare themselves for potential security breaches and called upon psychologist Georg Sieber to envision the potential worst-case scenarios. He created 26 possibilities. The 21st one imagined Palestinian terrorists invading the Israeli delegation, killing hostages and demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners. Prior to the event, these outcomes seemed highly unlikely and alarmist. Unfortunately, Situation 21 did happen. This tragedy holds an important and timely reminder: when a risk seems unlikely (and is highly uncomfortable), there is often an inclination to overlook it. Despite our poor preparation for a pandemic, there have been warning signs all along. Bill Gates has been evangelising this inevitability for years. But preparation for these forms of phenomena are not only needed from a logistical perspective but are also urgently needed from a psychological one too.

The three C’s of resilience:

Psychological resilience speaks of the ability to mentally or emotionally cope with a crisis, or to return to pre-crisis status quickly. Some people are born with this admirable trait, but for others it is a honed set of skills – it has even been posited that sufferers of anxiety, with their learnt resilience strategies, may be better able to cope with our current situation. As such, variations of these strategies are being rolled out in schools as a way to psychologically prepare children for the unknowable unknowns of the future. While this field has grown in attention in recent years, these benefits are only used by certain cohorts despite the benefits they can provide for society overall. The three C’s resilience model can serve to help consumers, brands and businesses to understand how they can begin to develop a more resilient mindset after a shared disaster:

1. Control

Believing that we (and not external factors) have control over situations has been shown to create more positive changes in our collective states, both in terms of well-being and work performance. Creating situations that give consumers or businesses back any sense of this control will resonate right now. 

2. Coherence

While there is a need for the basics of information relating to Covid-19, research has also found that trauma can become easier to comprehend when it is construed with some degree of meaningfulness. This is seen in the numerous comms pieces showing our appreciation of frontline workers. While this in no way justifies the sacrifice, it may help us to comprehend it and breed resilience to it.

3. Connectedness

There is an overwhelming need for shared togetherness right now. Like those gathering apart to clap for the health services or Darkness into Light last weekend, resilience flourishes through acts of shared strength and brands should seek to provide them where appropriate.