The word conation is included in the book The 1,000 Most Obscure Words in the English Language. So don’t feel embarrassed if you were unaware of the term. Yet it’s also remarkable that conation is so rarely used today in social and psychological discussion. The word comes from the Greek, meaning “endeavor; impulse; inclination; tendency; undertaking; striving.” It is our will and desire; it is our motion forward. Today, we typically divide the mind into two categories: affect (feeling) and cognition (thinking). Conation was once taken seriously as a third part of the mind. It should have remained there as a category.
In my work, I meet many people with severe problems in thinking – people experiencing hallucinations and delusions, for example – yet their levels of conation are intact. Despite considerable problems in thinking, they assertively push forward towards their goals. I meet people with serious mood disorders, who are also conatively O.K. Despite feeling depressed or anxious, they find ways to keep going. In fact, whether they are impaired in thinking or mood, many of the people I help often display a stronger will to push forward than my own. On the other hand, in my professional and personal life, I’ve come across many individuals who are cognitively and affectively in good shape, but are not quite intact in their conation. They aren’t depressed per se, but they do have low morale; they don’t see a goal to work towards that excites them. Nothing is wrong with their thinking, but they lack grit; they can’t “take it on the chin” when something goes wrong. “Slackers,” in common parlance, are people with low conation.
The currently popular term for conation is “psychological resilience.” It’s a nice term, but it also implies a bit that our conation is locked within us as a psychological trait, and not a more flexible state that can be affected by social conditions. I believe our ability to move forward in life is more connected to social psychological resources than is generally portrayed. Sure, some people are more resilient than others, but most of us are quite susceptible to certain social dynamics in regard to our willingness to keep moving.
Our connections are what help us feel protected against the elements. Without feeling tied to a group, we wither quickly. Even when we are taking care of our physiological needs, it is usually in the context of connections. In infancy, this was the case, for our first experiences connecting with others occur through nutrition and physical care. In adulthood, it remains the case.
Social psychologist Kent Harber, at Rutgers University, illustrates this in his experiments. Harber’s work shows how social support is intricately entwined with the way people perceive challenges, accurately interpret the emotions of others, view threats and perceive the physical world around them. In his experiments, Harber typically splits subjects into three groups. He asks one group to think about a time when they received positive social support. He asks the other group to think of a time when a social interaction was negative. The third "control" group thinks about encounters that are neither supportive nor negative, such as a transaction with a store clerk. In one experiment, Harber directs his subjects to look at a hill and estimate its steepness. In another experiment, his subjects listen to babies crying, and interpret their level of distress. In yet another, he places a laser beam on the back of each subject’s neck and asks them to describe the pain and the circumference of the beam. In Harber’s most interesting experiment, subjects sit in a chair while a live tarantula, placed in a Plexiglas box, is slowly moved towards them. He asks the subjects to guess the distance between themselves and the spider.
In each of these experiments, the groups had different results. Looking at a hill, “low social support” subjects thought it was steeper than did the “positive social support” group. Listening to babies crying, the “low social support” group felt the babies were in greater distress than the “high social support” group. In the laser experiment, the “low social support” subjects felt the laser was more painful and bigger than their high-support cohorts. And as you might guess by now, the “low social support” group was less accurate regarding the distance between themselves and the tarantula, seeing the spider as much closer than that it really was.
In his experiments, Harber introduced the variable of social support (or, in the tarantula study, "self-worth") to his subjects by having them simply think about either a positive or negative social interaction in which they felt either supported or not. No more than this, and yet the results are significant. Harber’s work tells us that when people merely think about a negative social event, they see the world as more dangerous, threatening, and challenging. When they think about an event in which they were supported socially, they are more accurate in their perceptions, see the world as less threatening, and feel as if they can surmount more challenges. This relationship between social support and the ability to achieve goals is not simply rooted in our social nature. It is connected to our neurology.
Research on social rejection by Ethan Kross and his colleagues shows how loss of relational support undermines coping. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Kross et al. show that regions of the brain that respond to physical pain also respond to social rejection, and that this phenomenon is found specifically when someone is rejected, not in other distressing emotional situations. Kross and his colleagues write that, “The distress elicited in response to intense social rejection may represent a distinct emotional experience that is uniquely associated with physical pain.” Kross et al. suggest that we are truly – not figuratively – hurt when someone rejects us. When we say, “You hurt my feelings,” we are saying something neurologically true. Neurologically true, but socially caused. It’s an interaction between the brain and a social experience, likely affecting conation.
The fact that the term “resilience” is used so often these days may point out something important. Not something about what is happening only in our individual psychological experiences, but about what is happening in our cultural and social fabric: a fraying of connection and cultural resources of support. These resources are at the root of our conation.