Outside of the unpopular sport of boxing, where participants learn to parry and roll with the punches, we get little instruction on how to take a beating. Children are taught what they must do to be successful, yet absorbing setbacks is a critical to any kind of meaningful success.
The Biology of Defeat
To some degree, coping with setbacks is part of our biology. When an animal is defeated in a contest over food or territory, it backs away and avoids further damaging contact.
This psychological shift is partly mediated by a decline in testosterone output for the loser (whereas testosterone increases in the winner, making it more confident and belligerent). A similar change occurs in humans in response to winning or losing. Analysis of sporting competitions, such as tennis matches, finds exactly the same testosterone shifts for winners and losers of each gender1.
An appreciation of such psychological shifts in other species as a consequence of winning and losing helps us understand why a pattern of repeated failures threatens a person's health well-being.
The Psychological Toll of Repeated Failures
Most of the world's psychological problems are either caused or aggravated by stressful life events. There is no great mystery about this phenomenon: It is illustrated by what happened to American prisoners held by the Chinese during the Korean War. Many were subjected to psychological abuse—a brainwashing exercise in which they were encouraged to criticize their own country for propaganda purposes2. Many buckled under the strain and experienced something like clinical depression. The victims would remain in their beds incapable of exertion. Fellow prisoners referred to this condition as "give-up-itis." Many sufferers died within days, without obvious physiological causes such as starvation.
Researchers subsequently found that animals exposed to unpredictable and uncontrollable electric shocks developed a condition resembling clinical depression, known as learned helplessness. The impact of repeated, unpleasant outcomes over which the animal had no control taught it that it was helpless in the situation. It essentially gave up on the possibility that anything it did could relieve its suffering.
Very traumatic experiences, such as being violently mugged, can create a crippling fear of leaving the house. Most people overcome such fears as they learn that they can go out again without being attacked. For some, though, such fear does not fade. This is true in he case of intense traumatic events, such as combat soldiers seeing their friends killed. They may develop post-traumatic stress in which even their sleep is full of horrific images.
Everyday problems such as difficulty paying bills or recurrent health problems can foster free-floating anxiety and an inability to feel hopeful about the future. For that reason, people who grow up in poverty, with a stream of uncontrollable unpleasant experiences such as the electricity being turned off, may suffer more from anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia, all of which are aggravated by negative life events.
Insensitive parenting is also a prevalent source of childhood stress that alters the brain, making people more vulnerable to psychological blows later in life. Not everyone succumbs, of course, and psychologists have studied resilient individuals for clues about what makes a difference.
The Secrets of Bouncing Back from Defeats
At least two traits help individuals bounce back from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, as Shakespeare termed them—temperamental optimism, or being hard to push down in the first place, and sociability3. Resilient children are good at eliciting social support from adults such as neighbors or teachers who can help them through difficult times at home. They are also more likely to participate in community activities.
Not everyone has the temperament and positive formative experiences that make them relatively impervious to life's blows. But there is a lot that one can do to lessen adversity. Most of these six common-sense techniques are well known and actually precede scientific psychology.
Like skilled pugilists, we cannot stop the blows from coming, but we can deploy many effective techniques to minimize the punches.
1. Archer, J. (2006). Testosterone and human aggression: an evaluation of the challenge hypothesis. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 30, 319-345.
2. Cialdini, R. B. (1988). Influence: Science and Practice. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company.
3. Werner, E. E. (2004). What can we learn about resilience from large scale longitudinal studies? In Handbook of Resilience in Children, New York, Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.