Build Your Social Resilience

Would you like to build your social resilience?

Posted Mar 06, 2010

Resilience as a property of a substance refers to its ability to recoil or spring back into shape after bending, stretching, or being compressed. People can also be more or less resilient, and in this context resilience refers to a person's ability to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. Most people think about a person's resilience as a capacity that, akin to intelligence or musical talent, does not vary substantially across contexts. This view is odd given that the resilience of substances can vary a great deal across contexts. For instance, water in a warm environment (i.e., when it is in a liquid state) is much more resilient than water in a frozen environment (i.e., when it is in the solid state of ice).

Similarly, an individual's resilience can vary dramatically as a function of the social context. Alex Zautra of Arizona State University, Harry Reis of University of Rochester, and I have written recently about social resilience as an inherently multi-level construct, revealed by capacities of individuals and groups to foster, engage in, and sustain positive social relationships and to endure and recover from stressors and social isolation. Emergent levels of organization, ranging from dyads, families, and groups to cities, civilizations, and international alliances have long been apparent in human existence, but identifying the features of individuals, relationships, and group structures and norms that promote social resilience remains an most important challenge for the behavioral sciences. Given the market collapse of 2008, it is at least as important a question for economic science to address, as well.

Social resilience is more than fulfilling friendships and the comfortable exchange of ideas. Although trust is essential, social resilience is not equivalent to warm hugs, unconditional positive regard, and anti-competition sentiments. Both science and the Olympics rest on competition as well as cooperation, both involve intense training and criticism, and both enterprises are high in social resilience.

Social resilience recognizes that, as a social species, we work, think, and excel as groups/teams as well as individuals. Wolves and lions hunt in teams, and by doing so they are able to bring down prey that would be impossible to conquer alone. Human civilizations rest on the specialization, differentiation, and orchestration of human expertise so that we, as a collective, can achieve more than we could by our solitary efforts. Social resilience is an emergent (but not a magical) property. People who have diverse interests, skills, and resources and who can work together make it more likely the group as a whole can respond adaptively to unforeseen problems and challenges. The functions each person serves in such adverse circumstances may not be defined a priori by the knowledge or "skills" of the individuals per se. Instead, how these individuals are combined can fundamentally change the capacities/functions the group can achieve to address a novel challenge. When individuals feel rejected, isolated, distrusted, devalued, or simply disliked, they cannot work effectively as part of the unit, and they are less likely to adapt creatively as a unit as required by the challenges they confront.

Socially resilient individuals value diverse perspectives and recognize that many tasks require coordination among persons with differing backgrounds, values, and priorities. A professional football team would have little chance of success if all their team members possessed identical features and skills. Social resilience implies not merely acceptance of diversity, but rather the intention to incorporate diverse perspectives into group activity for the creative adaptations that such diversity predisposes. Non-resilient persons seek to eliminate diversity by excluding individuals who differ or by accentuating pressures toward uniformity. Surrounding oneself with a lot of mini-me-s can be self-affirming but it does little to help one adapt to new challenges and problems or to withstand or recover quickly from very difficult conditions.  People are not unique in this regard. Homogenous gene pools are at greater risk than their heterogeneous counterparts for extinction when exposed to new environmental challenges.

The implications of this point should not be lost on those who use the internet to find and surround themselves only with "like-minded others." 

Core to social resilience, then, is an inclusion of diverse others, an acceptance and attention to others, mutual respect and care for others, and a responsiveness to others. A simple touch can provide connection and promote cohesion. For instance, one study show that people who received a supportive touch were nearly twice as likely to volunteer in class than those who did not, and another shows that a sympathetic touch by a doctor leads to the impression by patients that the doctor spent nearly twice as long with them.

To find out what people think about how to build social resilience, I posted the question on Twitter and Facebook. I thank all those who responded to this posting. The responses as a whole were encouragingly consistent with what our (limited) science on the topic suggests should promote social resilience. The following is a sample of those I received:

Share homemade baking goods with your neighbors.

Mail a "thinking of you" card to a friend, with a handwritten message.

Give a friend a gift of an experience rather than a material object. Better yet, give him or her a pair of tickets so you give them a shared experience.

Speak to the interests of others, and then speak about what you have in common to identify the sweet spot of mutual benefit. Speaking about your own interests is best done in the context of what interests them.

Take people out of their ordinary environments and gather someplace beautiful to lower interpersonal barriers and to promote openness, creativity, and productivity.

Incentivize interactions using recognition, respect, affirmation, and approbation rather than money.

Feeding people is a primitive, intimate act, and cooking and eating together can strengthen bonds among those who share the experience.

Encourage others to speak, and be in the moment and listen to what they have to say. Find ways of being constructively critical that do not feel like attacks or threats to the other person. For instance, one might begin with positive comments that frame critical comments in a positive context. Present a challenging scenario and invite others to puzzle it out together while assuring them that they have the ability to solve the puzzle.

Distinguish between the urgent and the important and work together to address the important while managing the urgent. Email, cell phones, and texting have made it easy to contact others, but dealing with all the queries one receives can leave little time for the important.

As a whole, these suggestions underscore the importance of not confusing social contact with connection, possession with experience, or personal with joint interests. Given the pace of the contemporary world, it is easy to find oneself multi-tasking even when speaking with another person. Social communications of this form can be thought of as the equivalent of eating fast food. Building social resilience is more likely when one savors the interactions with others.  Contemporary social networking technologies do little to promote the development of good listening skills, either.  Reis, Zautra, and I have suggested that good listening to build social resilience is as simple as ABCDE: (1) Attend: Pay attention to each other with genuine interest. (2) Being there: Be present and responsive to one another. (3) Caring. Care for one another and accept how things look from the other person's side. (4) Don't interrupt. Accept all the other has to offer. (5) Encourage. Encourage each other, sharing mutual respect and mutual value.  

Begin accumulating social wealth today by listening carefully to others and tending to your social resilience.

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