by Stevan Hobfoll
Richard Farina chose the title “Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me” for his 1966 novel depicting the cultural revolution and change in perspective of the early 60s generation in America. The title implied that so much had changed that youth culture began to view things from an entirely different vantage point. In this paper we call this Cognitive Recalibration of Groups, and assert that this construct supplies a missing piece in the puzzle as to how cultural groups adapt to sustained change in their cultural surroundings. We will argue that this recalibration explains how individuals maintain their mental health, or at least avoid breakdown, despite chronic conditions of resource loss and threat. Our argument is very different from the individualistic idea of reframing (Lazarus & Folkman, 1985), because we see cultural recalibration as supporting the interpretations of an entire group of people who share a social setting.
In this paper we will discuss how cultures are shaped to communicate messages of safety and danger to participants of that culture. We will argue that people evaluate these cultural standards through both very rapid, virtually automatic responding, and through slower, more deliberate evaluation. We will argue that the fields of stress and trauma have not dealt to date with these cultural issues, despite their being the fundamental bedrock of people’s stress evaluations. They are the background upon which all stress reactions begin and are present throughout the entire stress process. This has both theoretical and applied importance, as we move to evaluate cultural differences, in particular where two cultures are in conflict. We will shape our approach within Conservation of Resources (COR) theory (Hobfoll, 1988; 1998; 2001), which provides a stress template for understanding shared evaluation of threat and loss by members of a culture or setting.
COR Theory and the Primacy of Loss and Threat of Loss
COR theory is organized into many principles and I can only mention several critical aspects of the theory here.The basic tenet of COR theory is that individuals strive to obtain, retain, protect, and foster those things that they value. These things they value, or what allows them to get or retain what they value, are termed resources. From this basic tenet, stress is predicted as occurring when three conditions are present:
1) When an individual’s resources are threatened with loss;
2) When an individual’s resources are actually lost, or;
3) When an individual fails to gain sufficient resources following significant resource investment.
COR theory is further defined by several principles and corollaries. For our discussion, the critical aspect of this is the primacy of loss. Specifically, resource loss is disproportionately more salient than resource gain. This means people are impacted much more negatively by resource loss than they are positively impacted by resource gain. We know this causes people to be sensitive to loss - to be risk avoidant.
For these processes to occur, however, there must exist a cultural standard by which individuals who are raised in a culture “understand” and define what is stressful to them. Otherwise each person’s stress would be unlike every other’s. If this were really true (as appraisal theorists suggest), we could have no common literature; we would feel no tension as the story unfolded because what was stressful to the story protagonists would be alien to us. As Kitayama, Markus, Matsumoto, and Norasakkunkit (1997) highlight, “psychological processes and a cultural system are mutually constitutive.” Psychological tendencies and processes support an individual’s actions within their cultural context and how they cognitively construe situations they encounter. Through these cultural learning processes we acquire knowledge about how to act and react. As I will argue, much of this knowledge is so deeply learned that it is automatic.
The Automatic Nature of Initial Stress Reactions
Individual appraisal, and in particular what Lazarus and Folkman (1985) termed secondary appraisal, takes place when individuals assess how environmental circumstances threaten them and their ability to adjust to or change these circumstances through the resources they possess. To do this, individuals must compare their circumstances to a certain standard they derive from the culture. These standards must be ingrained because assessments are made quickly, even if they can be revisited in a slower time frame. Indeed, research suggests that initial secondary appraisals occur in as little as 24 milliseconds (LeDoux, 1966). Although this may be re-evaluated at leisure, these quick appraisals are an indication of how deeply ingrained our cultural standards are, as well as our ability to modulate our own emotions and behavior in cultural context. Put another way, cultural calibration is the unstated standard by which individual appraisals are compared.
Evidence of the depth of the learning of cultural standards of danger and safety, and the use of cultural calibration, also appears in cognitive research by Bargh and Chartrand (1999). In their work, they illustrate how most evaluation processes occur too quickly (in milliseconds) and are too complex (containing thousands of bits of information) to be organized within people’s awareness. Rather, this deeply learned material is reacted to almost automatically. To illustrate this process we can look at a review of the literature by Ambady and Rosenthal (1992).
In these studies, individuals made assessments of target individuals’ behavior after observations of various lengths of time, ranging from 3 to 300 seconds. Ambady and Rosenthal found that “thin slices” of behavioral observation (less than 30 seconds observing the target) enabled evaluators to predict the target’s behavior no differently than longer periods of observation. In life we are constantly confronted with such “thin slices” of observation and we react emotionally and cognitively in a way that modulates much of our behavior.
What does this mean for Palestinians and Israelis? Automatic evaluation of the environment occurs because cultures and settings tend to be stable. We evaluate our environments as having a certain level of danger, comfort, safety and threat. We learn how well our resources and those resources at our disposal fit these settings, be they in Gaza City, Haifa, Jerusalem or Ramallah. This information is then encoded and becomes rather automatic and immediate. We no longer need to refer to who we are, who our enemies are, the danger in going outside, the threat posed by picking up a package in the street, or the path we take to work and the fact of having work.
But what about when these truths become untruths, that is, when core circumstances are markedly altered? At first, people ignore the change as unlikely to reoccur. However, after several occurrences of automatic thinking failing to produce desired results, the conscious mind must again take control. So, the square in Bethlehem is not a place where children should be allowed to play, and the bus on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem is not a good option for commuting. The religious Jew in the street is looked at intently, as he may be a suicide bomber in disguise. Automatic response cannot be allowed to continue. But this is so inefficient a system that it becomes a cognitive burden, in itself stressful (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice; 1998). Hence, recalibration occurs when the change has stabilized to the new reality. Now the square and the bus become places of danger.
This cultural recalibration of groups is also critical to adaptation for another reason. Specifically, as circumstances worsen in some chronic pattern, if people continued to rely on their original cultural standard they would become overwhelmed with a sense of loss. Instead, people seem to hold to the old standard until they are convinced, and the culture and setting inform them convincingly, that things are worse and are likely to stay that way. Indeed, during periods of prolonged hostility or economic downturn, shared reality would suggest that people may adaptively choose a baseline that is more negative than subjective. They do this because it is functional to prepare for the new demands and stressors that await them (i.e., the worst case scenario), and so that they can make positive comparisons if things do not deteriorate to the extent prepared for, “we were expecting a lot worse.” This cultural reframing and ultimate recalibration has not been discussed or studied in stress literature, but I believe it is the key to understanding how resilient most people are, even as disaster, war and personal tragedy surround them.
This recalibration, and the depth by which it occurs, is captured poignantly in the account given to me of a young woman who grew up in the former Yugoslavia. She thought it was natural to run zig-zag, darting back and forth as she ran, and not in a straight line. It had never crossed her mind to just run straight! Zig-zag was how everyone ran in the street to avoid snipers. She had unlearned the natural rule that running in a straight line was the fastest way to reach her goal. In Sarajevo it was no longer true that a straight line was the shortest distance between two points. The dead do not arrive. In Sarajevo, the laws of physics had changed.
The Role of Political and Religious Leaders in the Recalibration Process
What is, is, except when what is, is not. Religious and political leaders often use their bully pulpit to redefine what is safety and what is danger. This process is especially evoked when danger has created a change in the fundamental rules of safety and culture that previously allowed an automatic evaluation. September 11 was a clear example. The continental US had been unassailable, a place of perceived safety. In a few minutes, the attacks of September 11 destroyed the sense of safety that allowed for certain automatic appraisals by members of the culture. President George W Bush stepped in quickly, and some have argued not quickly enough, to announce that the full resources of the US military and police were being mobilized. He communicated that Americans were in some continued danger, but that everything possible was being done to limit that threat. In time, a reevaluation took place of relative safety; this allowed for a return to a barely changed set of rules. Americans were mostly safe; an attack on them as individuals was unlikely, although an attack on someone, someplace, could occur.
Political and religious leaders, however, often play a more insidious role. Because people look to them as meaning-makers, they can also create reality. Hence, since political and religious threats are vague and outside of people’s ability to appraise based on their immediate surroundings, they must turn to others for opinions. When Ehud Barak made his peace proposal to Yasser Arafat in June 2000 at Camp David, there was a possible opportunity for peace, even if not a perfect opportunity. But immediately leaders, who tended to be from extremist groups in both Israel and Palestine, declared the offer an ultimate threat to their side. Had they just allowed negotiators to work further, perhaps a peace arrangement was possible. Instead, a potential opportunity precipitated the Al Aqsa Intifada. I am not making the argument that Barak’s offer was or wasn’t a good one. My point is that, even before citizens of either Israel or Palestine could make their own assessments based on the facts, they were informed of the meaning of those facts. The speed at which these leaders labeled that stage of negotiations an imminent threat, the prologue to the worst possible outcome, is suspect. That extremists on both sides took this viewpoint even defies some logic, as one side or the other must have been wrong if the end product of this offer was as one-sided as each extreme camp argued.
Cognitive Recalibration of Groups as a Gateway to Peace
Until this point we have discussed how cognitive recalibration of groups is used in adjusting to sustained negative change in culture or surroundings. However, this cognitive recalibration is also a potential gateway to peace and helps explain how enemies can become partners in peace.
An enemy is seen as such not only for perceived past wrongdoings, but also because seeing them as enemies is adaptive. Knowing one’s enemies enables us to know how to remain safe from them or how to limit the ways they might hurt us and those resources we value. However, if peace is seen as possible, if it is convincing, then these “truths” become lies. We may continue to hate our enemies for what they have done in the past, but the very rejection of peace is what threatens us. Peace with the enemy, instead of knowing the enemy and reacting to them, becomes the gateway to safety. Continuing to fight the enemy, to see them as enemies, is now what threatens us, our children, our nation and our future.
But, if my thesis about the deep-seated nature of recalibration is correct, then such recalibration from enemy to peace partner is resisted. We refer back, automatically, to what we know. According to COR theory, negative change that produces resource loss is faster moving and more powerful than positive change and the potential for sustained resource gain. Ironically, we can accept the reality of war much more quickly than the reality of peace. Our survival depends on the acceptance of war and threat as being rather instantaneously digested and quickly automated. However, our survival also depends on the acceptance of peace as being slow and judged warily. Our will to survive is biologically encoded to resist peace unless it is assured.
But peace is always tentative; it is hard to distinguish it from a mere period of regrouping by the enemy who is only restoring resources for another attack. Hence, for peace we must take a risk. Not risking peace must be viewed as worse than continuing war. And if this risk can be taken, cultural recalibration will follow. The new reality of peace will forge new learning that at first will be carefully judged and not automatic, but the adaptive nature of adjustment will provide a segway for automatic learning of the new reality. Running in a straight line is so much more adaptive that it becomes as natural as...well, as peace.
Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (1999). The unbearable automaticity of being. American Psychologist, 54, 462-479.
Farina, R. (1966). Been down so long it looks like up to me. New York: Random House.
Hobfoll, S. E. (1988). The ecology of stress. New York: Hemisphere Publishing Corporation.
Hobfoll, S. E. (1998). Stress, culture, and community. The psychology and philosophy of stress. New York, N.Y.: Plenum.
Hobfoll, S. E. (2001). The influence of culture, community, and the nested-self in the stress process: Advancing Conservation of Resources Theory. Lead article. Applied Psychology, 50, 337-370.
Kitayama, S., Markus, H. R., Matsumoto, H., & Norasakkunkit, V. (1997). Individual and collective processes in the construction of the self: Self-enhancement in the United States and self-criticism in Japan. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 1245-1267.
LeDoux. J. (1966). The emotional brain. New York: Simon and Shuster.