You’ve decided to take the plunge and enter a 5K race, competing with other runners in your town to support a worthwhile cause. Although you don’t consider yourself an elite athlete, you feel you can hold your own against most people your age. The day of the race comes and you’re feeling in tiptop shape. But despite your best preparation and your most ardent efforts, you complete the race behind far too many people to count. Or perhaps it’s not a physical competition that brings you down, but one involving being chosen to join a team at work. You thought your coworkers felt good about you, but much to your chagrin, they don't select you to work with them.
New research on social defeat shows how much our brain takes a beating when we're a loser rather than a winner.
Political candidates, of course, consider losing to be an occupational hazard. In a two-person race, one will by definition come out ahead and one will not. Former U.S. Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, when asked, stated that “it sucks” to lose; Mitt Romney essentially said the same thing but a bit more delicately, as shown on the CNN Special, Almost President: The Agony of Defeat. Someone will say the same thing come the morning of November 9, 2016, after the current election enters the history books. In any case, why political candidates expose themselves to these inevitable drubbings says something about the strength of their ego.
For the rest of us, losing can be a harsh outcome we will go very far out of our way to avoid.
Studies on lab animals provide an intriguing and useful model for understanding how humans respond when things don’t go their way. In what is called the “resident-intruder” paradigm, mice differing in size are placed into contact with each other. In the ensuing combat, the smaller mouse invariably loses to the more aggressive territorial foe. The fight may take place over one or repeated occasions. The longer the period of time, the greater the chronic stress potentially experienced by the weaker mouse. The physiological basis for the effects of social defeat appear to be tied to stress hormones, as indicated by this growing body of literature.
It turns out, though, that not all weaker mice respond the same way to being the target of a larger mouse’s aggression. As shown by Kent State University psychologist Maeson Latsko and colleagues (2016), there are resilient creatures who seem to be able to hold their own after being attacked by an aggressor. The key finding of this study is that prior to puberty, no mice seem to be susceptible to social defeat. It’s only in adulthood that the difference between the resilient and susceptible groups becomes apparent. Young mice can handle defeat seemingly well, but the experience takes its toll on the more vulnerable ones.
If we’re to take the perhaps risky step of extrapolating this finding to humans, it would suggest that exposure to social defeat can have delayed effects, causing some of us as adults to experience lingering stress and others to show no particular long-term harm. Of course, the difference between lab mice and humans in any type of stress experiment is that for humans, it’s all about the perception: We can choose to interpret events as stressful or not, and therefore whether to bounce back or not from defeat.
Assuming that we humans have control over our interpretation of defeat, let’s look at these 8 strategies for overcoming a blow to the ego:
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Latsko, M. S., Farnbauch, L. A., Gilman, T. L., Lynch, J. F., & Jasnow, A. M. (2016). Corticosterone may interact with peripubertal development to shape adult resistance to social defeat. Hormones and Behavior, 8238-45. doi:10.1016/j.yhbeh.2016.04.009
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016