The resilient children had an internal locus of control

Wednesday, April 8th, 2020

Maria Konnikova — author of The Confidence Game and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes — explains how people learn to become resilient — or not:

In 1989 a developmental psychologist named Emmy Werner published the results of a thirty-two-year longitudinal project. She had followed a group of six hundred and ninety-eight children, in Kauai, Hawaii, from before birth through their third decade of life. Along the way, she’d monitored them for any exposure to stress: maternal stress in utero, poverty, problems in the family, and so on. Two-thirds of the children came from backgrounds that were, essentially, stable, successful, and happy; the other third qualified as “at risk.” Like Garmezy, she soon discovered that not all of the at-risk children reacted to stress in the same way. Two-thirds of them “developed serious learning or behavior problems by the age of ten, or had delinquency records, mental health problems, or teen-age pregnancies by the age of eighteen.” But the remaining third developed into “competent, confident, and caring young adults.” They had attained academic, domestic, and social success—and they were always ready to capitalize on new opportunities that arose.

What was it that set the resilient children apart? Because the individuals in her sample had been followed and tested consistently for three decades, Werner had a trove of data at her disposal. She found that several elements predicted resilience. Some elements had to do with luck: a resilient child might have a strong bond with a supportive caregiver, parent, teacher, or other mentor-like figure. But another, quite large set of elements was psychological, and had to do with how the children responded to the environment. From a young age, resilient children tended to “meet the world on their own terms.” They were autonomous and independent, would seek out new experiences, and had a “positive social orientation.” “Though not especially gifted, these children used whatever skills they had effectively,” Werner wrote. Perhaps most importantly, the resilient children had what psychologists call an “internal locus of control”: they believed that they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements. The resilient children saw themselves as the orchestrators of their own fates. In fact, on a scale that measured locus of control, they scored more than two standard deviations away from the standardization group.


George Bonanno is a clinical psychologist at Columbia University’s Teachers College; he heads the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab and has been studying resilience for nearly twenty-five years. Garmezy, Werner, and others have shown that some people are far better than others at dealing with adversity; Bonanno has been trying to figure out where that variation might come from. Bonanno’s theory of resilience starts with an observation: all of us possess the same fundamental stress-response system, which has evolved over millions of years and which we share with other animals. The vast majority of people are pretty good at using that system to deal with stress. When it comes to resilience, the question is: Why do some people use the system so much more frequently or effectively than others?

One of the central elements of resilience, Bonanno has found, is perception: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic,” Bonanno told me, in December. “To call something a ‘traumatic event’ belies that fact.” He has coined a different term: PTE, or potentially traumatic event, which he argues is more accurate. The theory is straightforward. Every frightening event, no matter how negative it might seem from the sidelines, has the potential to be traumatic or not to the person experiencing it. (Bonanno focusses on acute negative events, where we may be seriously harmed; others who study resilience, including Garmezy and Werner, look more broadly.) Take something as terrible as the surprising death of a close friend: you might be sad, but if you can find a way to construe that event as filled with meaning—perhaps it leads to greater awareness of a certain disease, say, or to closer ties with the community—then it may not be seen as a trauma. (Indeed, Werner found that resilient individuals were far more likely to report having sources of spiritual and religious support than those who weren’t.) The experience isn’t inherent in the event; it resides in the event’s psychological construal.


The good news is that positive construal can be taught. “We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things,” Bonanno said. In research at Columbia, the neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner has shown that teaching people to think of stimuli in different ways—to reframe them in positive terms when the initial response is negative, or in a less emotional way when the initial response is emotionally “hot”—changes how they experience and react to the stimulus. You can train people to better regulate their emotions, and the training seems to have lasting effects.

Similar work has been done with explanatory styles—the techniques we use to explain events. I’ve written before about the research of Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who pioneered much of the field of positive psychology: 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. The same goes for locus of control: not only is a more internal locus tied to perceiving less stress and performing better but changing your locus from external to internal leads to positive changes in both psychological well-being and objective work performance. The cognitive skills that underpin resilience, then, seem like they can indeed be learned over time, creating resilience where there was none.

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.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    Positive construal can be taught, but who will teach it?

    The trouble with growing up in a dysfunctional family is there are no handy positive role models.

    The good news is a smart kid can learn things without being taught. You learn the hard way, by trial and error. An awkward kid in a bad family seems like he’s cursed twice over, but his awkwardness may simply be experimentation, a desperate search for the right formula.

  2. Neovictorian says:

    I read some studies that resilience must have a fairly large genetic component.

  3. Kirk says:

    Looking over how these studies were constructed, I think they have about as much correlation to reality as anything else the fuzzy-studies people in the humanities have managed to come up with. Also, that like the same BS they tried with “self-esteem”, back in the day, attempts to induce “resilience” in their test subjects is also not going to work.

    The problem with all this crap, and crap is exactly what it is, is that you simply cannot do the experiments and studies that you would need to be able to do in order to actually validate the ideas these things are trying to test and describe. Not even the Nazis had the time or the ruthlessness (not to mention the lack of self-delusion) to actually do meaningful work in these areas, and as such… It’s all so much fatuous bullshit thought up by grad students and professors over their beer.

    I’m sure there’s something to some of this, but there’s no damn way to tell for sure with the experiments and studies they’ve done. They’re looking at what amounts to a pico-second wide slice of human existence, and trying to extrapolate out to the entire species from what they think they’ve seen. You want to get solid answers in this arena, you’ll need to have the power to run utterly ruthless experiments with twins that would likely lead to the ethics committee of even the most progressive institutions in the world burning your labs to the ground and salting the site with Cobalt-60. Not even the Nazis or the Communists ever had to will to run stuff like this, which would make Mengele and the chaps who ran Unit 731 look at you like you were a mentally diseased maniac.

    Either that, or you’re going to have to run generations-long longitudinal studies that would last longer than even the most successful civilizations we’ve managed to put together so far. Which ain’t happening in the current system. Those guys trying to figure out how to communicate radiation hazard to cultures ten thousand years from now would have to be pikers next to the ones trying to prove some of this crap they’re talking about here isn’t simply statistical noise.

  4. Graham says:


    G*dd*mn that was fun to read.

    Strictly, I think esteem and respect have overlapping meanings, but my dad always found them sufficiently different concepts that for him, and how he put it to me, was that a person should strive for self-respect and the self-respect of others, both mostly to be earned with little otherwise due, even from oneself, whereas esteem could only be directed at another, and only if they earned it from you. ‘Self-esteem’, meant to him an unearned version of self respect, a concept to be denigrated at all times. I’m not sure he used these words correctly, but this framing lives on in my mind whenever I hear the term ‘self-esteem’.

    Resilience strikes me as a good concept for nations or individuals, but it’s slippery. And situational.

    Consider. My employer and country at large is devoting a lot of discussion time to the mental health implications of COVID. For me, if you’ve got something that could potentially put in something as horrible as intubation/ventilator, with fatality or long-term disability a real possibility, that’s a casue for fear. All will confront it in their own ways. I would rather avoid it. Same if you’ve got a loved one with it.

    If you’ve got some other ailment for which you now can’t get timely care, or which would increase your COVID exposure. If, like me, you have a couple of moderate comborbities.

    Or if you have lost a job and have serious financial/food/housing problems coming on fast.

    All those are reasons for stress effects on mental health. I’m on watch for them myself. I’ve had some experience.

    But we’ve got mental health discussions centred on the idea that the existence of COVID itself is such a mental shock to the worldview, or that mere social distancing or isolation are such demanding practices, that everyone is going to have a breakdown.

    I’m not sure what level resilience that is. I’m still more worried about my physical health than my mental health in all this. I must be nuts.

  5. Wang Wei Lin says:

    I would like to see the raw data. I suspect there is a racial component that doesn’t get mentioned given the likelyhood that genetics play a significant role.

  6. Harry Jones says:

    Anyone who takes this stuff too seriously has already had the breakdown.

    Every ten years or so the world is coming to an end. To me, change is only proof that time has not stopped.

    Spring is in the air. So is panic.

  7. Kirk says:

    Harry, part of the problem with all of this is that we suffer from a severe lack of objectivity and vision over these things.

    If we lived longer, and paid better attention to the world around us, most of us would go “Meh. Another day, another “crisis”… Not gonna panic.”.

    Instead, we rely on things like the media to tell when “things are really, truly important…”, and that’s a huge ‘effing mistake, because the people running media in general are fucking idiots, the people who couldn’t hack the course of study for things like advanced degrees in Education. They are morons, preening narcissists who know nothing. There are a few working in the ranks who know things, but they are so few and far between that they can be safely dismissed as being part of the general herd.

    If you’ve dug through the primary sources about things like the Spanish Influenza Epidemic, and read the actual contemporaneous news stories, you’d look at today’s blathering as being of a similar sort of useless panic-mongering. Nobody has any perspective on this crap at all, and I guarantee you that by the end of the day, when you break it all out, COVID-19 is probably going to be more lethal due to the number of delayed surgeries and hospitalizations taking place for other issues. How many stents aren’t being put in, how many other correctives are being held off due to “hospital crowding”?

    We don’t experience the world the same way as those resident to the 1918 epidemic, when you simply put your head down and went to work every day, knowing you might die from a poorly-understood disease. Today, modern medicine has insulated us from reality, and here we are: Something like COVID-19, which would have been the merest blip on the radar many generations ago, is now a world-shattering crisis. Mark my words, on this: End of the “pandemic”, we’re going to see that there was a minor rise in the death rate, at most, and that what will probably kill more people will be the side-effects from trying to deal with everything.

    I’ll also lay money on this being less a respiratory thing, and more an issue with hypoxia due to the damage done to oxygen transport mechanisms, showing that the people put on ventilation are probably being killed by that causing more damage to the lungs than anything else. Supplemental oxygen, yes; forced-air ventilation? Oh, hell no. That is, I think, what is killing more people than anything else, because it drives the lungs to destruction and deep pnuemonia. If you get this crap, and wind up hospitalized for it, make damn sure that you understand the risks and that going on ventilation will actually help, in your case.

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