NYgraphic/Shutterstock
Source: NYgraphic/Shutterstock

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:

  1. Build your resistance. A mouse can’t change its interpretation of experiences, but you can. Don’t shy away from those who’ve defeated you—allow yourself to get back out into the field and continue to interact in your own environment.
     
  2. Admit that it hurts. You don’t have to pretend that you don’t mind losing (unless you truly don’t). Perhaps one of the most truthful statements a politician can make is to admit that winning is better than losing.
     
  3. Learn from the experience so that you can lower your chances of defeat in the future. What was it that led to your loss? Was it a simple lack of strength or was there something you could’ve done differently? If you take this pragmatic, problem-oriented approach, you may come out better prepared the next time.
     
  4. Understand, and then manage, your emotions. It’s interesting that mice didn’t show the effects of social defeat until they reached adulthood. It’s possible that by letting things fester, we humans may be more easily brought down by defeat.
     
  5. Recognize that not everyone can always be the winner. When we hear about “unsportsmanlike conduct,” this means that a player didn’t adopt the mindset that in sports, someone always has to lose.
     
  6. Don’t torment yourself with “what if’s.” Presidential candidates, as seen in the CNN special, may spend anywhere from days to decades mulling over how the outcome might have been different if they hadn’t made a debate gaffe. Regret is great if it helps you become a better person, but regret that can’t undo what’s been done has no point.
     
  7. Congratulate the winner. It’s not only gracious, but self-preserving to put the defeat behind you by letting the other person know that he or she won fair and square. Like a defeated politician, you may end up getting an invitation to be on that person’s team.
     
  8. Find other ways to feel good about yourself. Those defeated little lab mice could only see themselves as losers because, in that context, there wasn’t much else they could do. You, however, can move on and find ways to console yourself by focusing on activities at which you feel successful.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask questions about this post.

Reference

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

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