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by Lucy McCarraher & Annabel Shaw


Saving Us From Ourselves - The Psychological Immune System

The thing I have always found most surprising about myself is my resilience. I suffer a rejection and a few hours later I’m OK about it. I go to bed upset and wake up the next morning feeling fine. I seem to have this default to equilibrium - I can’t keep feelings of rejection up for very long. I don’t seem able to hold a grudge. I’ve tried. I’ve even written post-it notes to remind me. DON’T FORGET YOU’RE NOT TALKING TO...

I’m not a happy clappy forgiving kind of person (just because I can’t hold a grudge doesn’t mean I can forgive easily). So can’t explain it that way. And no-one who knows me would ever accuse me of positive thinking. As a general rule I take the dim view. Nor do I seem to take it personally.  I could of course be a self serving, don’t give a toss what you think of me type of person. Only I’m not. What people think about me really matters to me. Perhaps that’s the explanation. But it’s not that either. I don’t think that highly of other people, least of all those who reject me. So how come I get over rejection so readily?

The puzzle is over. It’s taken awhile but I now know what lies behind my ability to get up when knocked down - psychologically, that is.

One of the most incredible things about the human mind is its resilience. We have a psychological immune system. When we experience events that have the power to knock us sideways, such as rejection, it kicks in to try and protect us from the worst of it. Interestingly, unlike the physical immune system, we seem not to notice it. There it is working away on our behalf and we didn’t even know.

Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University and colleagues explored this surprising phenomenon in a series of classic social psychology studies (Gilbert et al., 1998). They set up a situation almost all of us would be familiar with: going for a job interview and getting rejected.

First they led participants to believe they were going for a job interview but, beforehand, amongst other misleading questions, they asked them how they would feel if they didn't get it. Of course there was no job to get and they were duly told they didn't get it, then asked, again subtly, how they felt now.

What the researchers were interested in was the difference between how people predicted they'd feel and how they actually did feel. In other words: do people understand they have a psychological immune system and that it will be working to shield them from the downsides of rejection?

There was also another interesting slant to the study: half the participants were told they were being evaluated for the job by one person and the other half that they were being evaluated by three people. This meant that for the half that were evaluated by one person it was easier to rationalise a rejection since when there's only one person deciding it's easier to imagine the decision had more to do with that person's individual preferences. Being rejected by three people, though, feels like a more considered judgement.

Results showed that participants predicted that if they were rejected they would feel about 2 points worse on a scale of 1 to 10 compared with their mood when they started the experiment. Immediately after rejection those for whom the rejection was easy to rationalise only felt 0.4 of a point worse on the scale, not 2 points worse. And after 10 minutes they felt just as happy as when they started the experiment. The immune system had done its work and people's predictions were way off.

The news wasn't quite so good for the participants in the difficult to rationalise condition, but it still wasn't as bad as they expected. Instead of a 2 point drop on the scale of 1 to 10, they experienced a 0.68 drop immediately and 1.25  point drop after 10 minutes, once the rejection had really sunk in. The strain was much greater for the psychological immune system in this condition and it didn't do so well.

All the same, neither group felt as bad as they thought they would. And this pattern is repeated again and again across other studies. When we're knocked sideways by negative events such as rejection, the psychological immune system starts its work, rationalising what has happened and, over time, stopping it hurting as much as we expected.

In the same paper, Gilbert and colleagues report studies on people getting ditched by their partners, told their personalities were not up to scratch and academics failing to get tenure. The pattern repeats: people think it's going to feel bad, but generally it's not as bad as they expect, and people recover quicker than they predict.

The fact that we don't seem to notice our psychological immune system is probably the only reason it works. After all, in order to feel better we have to conveniently forget some important facts, such as how much we wanted the job we didn't get or loved the partner who walked out.

So it looks as if my ability to bounce back from rejection is just the sign of a healthy psychological immune system. I’m taking down the post it notes in case they remind me that I ought really to be feeling rejected and therefore miserable.

Posted by Annabel

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