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Dave the Chimp & Psychological Resilience

December 4, 2018

I was watching the legendary David Attenborough’s new show, “Dynasties” on BBC One last week with my beautiful wife.  The episode followed a chimpanzee “known as Dave”, according to Dave.  My initial reaction was: “aye, by who exactly?” but didn’t let my scepticism detract from the unfolding drama.  (Turns out he’s been followed by researchers for over a decade…and they named him Dave…as Dave told us at the end of the show).

In a storyline that would be fitting to a British soap opera, Dave, the chimp and leader of his pack got sprung upon in the middle of the night by chimps wishing to dethrone him.  The next scene was a rather grim one where viewers watched as a barely conscious Dave gained some degree of alertness appearing battered, badly wounded and fighting for his life.

The film crew followed the rest of the pack as they sought pastures new and another chimp tried to assert his dominance.  Cue the lingering scene in the jungle and human Dave solemnly stating: “it appears Dave has been left…for dead”.

BUT…fast forward a couple of minutes and guess who has pretty much risen from the dead…dragging himself through the jungle in search of his tribe.  Dave! What a guy chimp!  Can’t keep a good chimp down!

Now, not wanting to ruin it for you but he regains the throne and all is well.

And so my wife turned round to me and said: “There ya go Andy B.  You can talk about Dave whenever you’re talking about resilience”.

I didn’t know how to react to that….I started querying if I even knew what resilience was?  What’s the difference between resilience and coping? Between resilience and bouncing back? Are they all the same?  Or are they different?

So I dived into some of the literature to help clarify my understanding.  A week later, I emerged from the books (looking rather primitive myself) and declared to my wife: “Dave was resilient!”.  I know…why did I need to go and dig into books when it was obvious!? Well, there’s a difference between just “saying it” and “knowing it”, isn’t there…?

You see, from my reading and further reflection, there appear to be three fundamental aspects of resilience (plus a possible bonus one):

 

  • Challenge appraisal

 

Research by Fletcher and Sakar (2013) on Olympic medalists suggested that the resilience process was influenced by the Olympian’s appraisal of the situation they were facing.  That is, what did they tell themselves about it? What did the challenge mean to them?

When describing resilience, the Olympians described seeing the challenge as an opportunity to develop,  to test themselves or to demonstrate their proficiency. This is what we call a “challenge mindset”.

This is contrasted with those times when we may worry about the outcome, the consequences of making mistakes, failures or the opinion of others.  These appraisals are characteristic of the “threat mindset”. There’s something to lose here.

Needless to say, it remains to be seen whether Dave interpreted his midnight assault as an opportunity to rise above it, to better himself or prove his mastery….I mean, who knows what animals think?

 

  • Resilience is not “coping”

 

Regarding a doubt about the difference between coping and resilience, I learned that the two are distinct.  Resilience itself is characterised by the challenge appraisal and subsequently, more productive coping strategies may be used to deal with things.  

For example, if I’m unsuccessful in applying for a job, following a challenge appraisal, I may begin thinking about what areas of my application were strongest, what could be improved and how can I better demonstrate my suitability for future jobs.  

Whereas when we’re coping, the adversity hasn’t been viewed as a challenge but a threat.  This means we may draw from unhelpful and/or helpful coping styles.  

For example, continuing the above analogy, following a threat appraisal I might productively and objectively review my application, but I might lose motivation, any sense of perspective, give up and take out my frustration on my nearest and dearest.  Whilst the latter certainly isn’t resilient, the former may be believed to be resilient. But remember, it comes from a threat, not a challenge appraisal.

So the crucial difference between resilience and coping seems to rest upon the challenge .v. threat appraisal and the subsequent behaviours.

Returning to Dave (the chimp) his behaviour was certainly helpful.  Rather than staying to die, he went to find his pack and develop new friendships to fend off any future challenges.  What. A. Chimp.

 

  • Minimal disruption to performance / psychological distress

 

Because of the challenge appraisal and the subsequent productive coping style, resilient people demonstrate little to no reduction in performance nor an increase in psychological dis-ease.  

This means that a resilient job seeker would continue to look for work with minimal disruption to their motivation and rate of application to suitable jobs.

And, perhaps most crucially, this means that resilience is not bouncing back!  

The popular notion that resilience is being able to bounce back is inaccurate.  Bouncing back would mean a disruption to performance or reduction in psychological dis-ease, returning back to a baseline or normal level with time.  Again, resilience seems to entail minimal disruption to performance or psychological wellbeing. So whilst bouncing back is an important attribute when overcoming challenges, it’s not resilience.

Instead, resilience is the psychological factor that protects a person from the possible negative consequences of an adversity.

It’s also worth noting that definitions of maintaining performance and psychological wellbeing are culturally dependent.  So, resilience may look/sound different in different areas of the world, businesses and within different teams. And that brings a complexity that is beyond the scope of over analysing the plight of our pal Dave the chimp…

Now, Dave, the chimp, did have a reduction in wellbeing but neither chimp nor humankind is biologically unbreachable.  So let’s not set godly standards for our furry pal. But if we consider Dave’s story more broadly: he got up, found his pack, intimidated the main contender, built up new friendships, physically recovered and, along with new pals, dealt with a future uprising.  From this broader perspective, this isn’t “bouncing back”. This is an act of resilience. A rising to the challenge, the generation of productive coping strategies (e.g. new friendships) and maintenance of performance (i.e. top dog/chimp).

 

  • A learning/development element

 

An interesting aspect of resilience from what I read was the notion that those who were resilient may have actually “got better” through the adversity.  This isn’t to say that the adversity itself caused the improvement. Rather, in keeping with the challenge appraisal described above, the person’s motivation to derive lessons/wisdom from their difficulties and make sense of it may lead to a greater sense of meaning or purpose in what they do, the adversities they’ve overcome and increased meaningful engagement with those around them.

For instance, following a season-long injury, a footballer may accommodate the lessons he learned through this process to adjust his worldview.  He maybe learns that emotional pain is bearable in pursuit of something that is meaningful. Or perhaps that he has greater resources to draw from than he or significant others gave him credit for.  Maybe he begins the new season with a greater sense of empathy towards other injured players and an increased sense of gratitude that he gets to play football rather than has to…

And perhaps we saw this in Dave.  If we could read the mind of our closest mammalian ancestors, perhaps we’d see that his actions in building a support network to fend off any future challenges were the product of some soul searching during his march back to the pack.  Perhaps.


So, never mind Dave.  In the face of challenges:

  • When have you got into a “challenge mindset”?
  • What has helped you do this?
  • In the face of your most challenging experiences – what wisdom have you earned? What did you really learn?

And…sadly, after spending a few hours writing this post, and the days of researching and thinking of Dave, my wife tells me there’s news on Dave.  And it isn’t good…

https://www.express.co.uk/news/nature/1046300/BBC-tribute-chimpanzee-dynasties

I guess, fundamentally, resilience ≠ invincible.


Simply Perform’s one-to-one coaching is perfect for helping you develop your personal resilience.  Whether that’s in business, sport or life, get in touch. Also, consider our Spotlight Profiling service.  Spotlight is a psychometrically validated tool that helps you understand how you change when there’s something to win or lose.  It also explores how you react in challenging times and suggests ways to proactively manage the challenges, personalised to you.

References:

Fletcher, D. and Sarkar, M. (2013). Psychological resilience: A review and critique of definitions, concepts, and theory. European Psychologist, 18, 12 – 23.

Fletcher, D. and Sarkar, S. (2016). Mental fortitude training: An evidence-based approach to developing psychological resilience for sustained success. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 7, 135 – 157.

Howells, K and Fletcher, D. (2015).  Sink or swim: Adversity- and growth-related experiences in olympic
swimming champions. Psychology of Sport and Exercise16, 37 – 48.

 

 

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