In the previous chapter we discussed the question of search activity as a guarantor of physical health. This chapter covers the psychological prerequisites of search behaviour.
It may be more productive, though, to begin by examining the psychological prerequisites of its opposite, renunciation of search, because this condition is much easier to produce in an experiment. A certain type of renunciation of search has been called “learned helplessness” (Martin Seligman). This is an interesting and important phenomenon.
The first experiments took place on animals. They were put in a cage with a floor that was wired to generate an electric shock systematically, but at irregular intervals. This meant the animal could never feel secure. At first, the animal raced around the cage after every shock in search of safety. Later, as though convinced there was no escape and all efforts were useless, the animal lost heart, huddled in a corner of the cage and waited submissively, without hope, for the next shock. It was typical renunciation of search, and the animal paid for it with its health: clumps of fur fell out (and what was left stood on end), it began to suffer gastro-intestinal disorders and gastric ulcers, it lost appetite, arterial pressure rose. The phenomenon was called “learned helplessness” because an animal in this state was unable to exploit any possibilities of saving itself, even when they did appear suddenly. If a lever that could cut off the electric current was placed in the cage, the animal never worked out how to use it. However, an inexperienced animal that had not been subjected to lengthy exposure to this treatment was quick to try the lever and so began to control the situation. Consequently, in the process of developing “learned helplessness” the animal was taught that nothing depended on its behaviour.
A different method was used in experiments on humans. They were not given electric shocks, that would have been illegal. Their treatment was even harsher, if anything. They were given various intellectual tasks to solve, supposedly to test the level of their intelligence. None of the tasks had a solution, but the subjects were not aware of this. They tried to find solutions, but failed. They were reproached in tones of friendly surprise: “How come you can’t complete such a simple task? We expected more of you. The others found them so easy!” And so on in similar vein. After a few such remarks aimed at undermining their self-confidence, the majority became anxious, despairing, in a word deeply stressed, since their self-esteem had been dealt a severe blow. At this point they were given a relatively simple task that was capable of solution, and they failed this one, too. The learning process (of helplessness) had been a success.
At first, researchers supposed that the key to the feeling that nothing depended on a person’s behaviour was the prolonged experience of failure. But then they had the idea that maybe you could raise a person’s resistance to “learned helplessness”, immunise him as it were against this condition.
To achieve this, it should be enough to provide him in advance with the experience that he can master a task easily and is in full control of the situation. The researchers reckoned that, armed with this experience, a person would no longer give up when confronted with a challenging situation, he would not succumb to a feeling of helplessness on encountering insoluble tasks and he would retain the ability to solve those tasks which did have a solution. An experiment was set up. One group of subjects was given very simple tasks which could be solved using a stereotyped algorithm. In 100% of cases the subjects solved the tasks, giving them experience of success. The other group were given fairly complex, but solvable tasks. These subjects coped with the tasks in around 50% of cases. After this, both groups were given a series of tasks that could not be solved, and then checked whether they had developed “learned helplessness”. For this purpose, they were set a task of moderate complexity, which had a solution.
Despite the initial hypothesis, it was the subjects who struggled to solve half the more difficult tasks who proved the most resilient. This means that it is not so much the experience of success as such, as the experience of overcoming difficulties, the experience of active search behaviour that immunises, so to speak, a person against failure, that raises his resistance. Success which is easily achieved, on the contrary, deactivates search activity and does not, in essence, enable the raising of confidence in one’s abilities.
The experiment has its analogy in real life. Roughly thirty five years ago, when Soviet school leavers who had won a gold medal for academic achievement were guaranteed entry into higher education without having to pass an exam, there suddenly appeared the problem of the gold medallists. These very able students, once they got into higher education, often could not manage the workload and had to leave because they failed to keep up. What was happening was this. Schools often created most favoured status for pupils who teachers felt could win a gold medal. Their blunders were ignored, wrong answers considered as random errors and passed over. They were often allowed to improve their marks by re-sitting an exam, answers that really deserved a mark of only four would be pulled up to make a five. As a result, these students formed the unspoken, but justified assumption that it was not they who were working on the situation, but the situation was working for them. The need for search behaviour, to make an effort, was diminished or fell away altogether. Comfortable conditions led to a lack of mental fitness. When subsequently after entering higher education on privileged terms, they found themselves in a situation where they were no longer privileged, they were not in a condition to mobilise themselves for overcoming difficulties.
So, experience of search behaviour in the past is an important factor, ensuring that search behaviour persists even in the most unfavourable circumstances. In addition, though, basic psychological attitudes are very significant. A person who thinks any success is fortuitous and the result of pure coincidence (luck, help from somebody, etc.), while failure is to be expected and the norm, capitulates in the face of difficulties quicker than a person with the opposite attitude. A person who feels he has failed in this particular type of activity alone, while in other areas he can still be successful, is less inclined to “learned helplessness” than someone who imagines that a concrete instance of failure will be repeated in any other kind of activity. A person who believes that his failures are caused by his personal defects, which cannot be corrected, is more susceptible to learning helplessness than one who connects failure with outside circumstances.
To sum up, we can draw the conclusion that a person with a high self-esteem, who preserves his self-respect under all circumstances, is more resilient against failure than a person with a feeling of inner defectiveness. High self-esteem and self-respect are an inexhaustible reservoir of search activity. This is especially evident in creativity. During any creative activity, whether artistic or scientific, some failures are inevitable. A person with high self-esteem will draw a lesson from failure and look for other ways. He is oriented on the task and not on confirmation of his abilities. A person with low self-esteem will regard any failure as a personal catastrophe, he is primarily evaluating himself and, giving himself a low score, falls into despair.
In the previous chapter we discussed the relationship of search activity with health and how concentration camp survivors managed to preserve their physical health even under these inhuman conditions. Some outstanding psychologists, such as Viktor Frankl and Bruno Bettelheim who also survived the camps, wrote about their experiences. The most resilient of all turned out to be the prisoners who engaged in quite mundane activities: washing regularly, physical exercise, taking care of their clothes, trying to help their fellows. In the conditions of a concentration camp, following what appear at first sight to be simple routines required a high level of self-discipline and serious effort, since it was much easier and more natural not to care, to go with the flow. The flow, however, ran straight into the River Styx, to an early grave, and these trivial, unregulated activities were a manifestation of search activity.
But for our present purposes, what is most interesting is that the most resilient social class in these conditions turned out to be the aristocracy. This may seem paradoxical: after all aristocrats might seem the least prepared by their past experience for such a life. However, much more significant was that aristocrats had been educated from earliest childhood in traditions of self-respect, respect for oneself as a personality and as a representative of the family line, regardless of outside conditions. This self-respect, this retention of personal dignity, gave them the strength for what is, at first sight, trivial behaviour. But renunciation of this behaviour would have signified a lack of self-respect.
At the same time as prisoners were struggling for survival and self-preservation as individuals in the concentration camps of Europe, another drama was playing out in Palestine. German Jews from the intellectual elite (doctors, engineers, lawyers, journalists, university professors) who had fled the Holocaust found that their knowledge and experience were irrelevant. The country had only one university, there were no law practices, no big factories, insufficient hospitals. People with higher education found themselves building houses and roads, or sweeping the streets. Unfortunately, it was not to be the last incidence of mass re-qualification as builders and manual labourers. But the heritage the German Jews left in the history of the country was a legend, one rooted in reality, and this legend is very important for an understanding of the psychology of resilience to stress. As they passed bricks to each other on a building site, these labourers would address each other not by name or family name, but as they had in their old life on the streets of Berlin and Munich: “Herr Doktor… Herr Professor… “.
What was this? Identifying oneself with a lost profession? An unwillingness to face the facts? A demonstrative refusal to recognize an unpleasant reality?
I don’t think it was. They were not identifying themselves with a profession, because to do so in these new conditions could have led only to depression and nostalgia, while the German repatriation was exceptionally sturdy in the face of difficulties. They were identifying themselves with their past achievements, with their ability to reach a goal despite everything, through their own talent and ability to work. This is something nobody can take from a person, he alone can suddenly begin to doubt it. A person can be prevented from working in his profession, but a person cannot be deprived of his self-respect for being at one time an expert in his field. Past success can become a cause of endless nostalgia that paralyses any activity: but it can also be a source of self-respect and belief in oneself, stimulating search activity in a new, difficult situation. The German Jews provided a model of precisely such behaviour, and so at the first opportunity they opened law offices and engineering firms, acquired professorial chairs and posts in new hospitals. It is an example worthy of study and imitation.
Such a high level of self-respect permits a playful attitude to a difficult situation: that approach didn’t work, let’s try this: that step proved a mistake, let’s try the opposite way. Winston Churchill once said: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts”. Other quotes from him in the same vein include: “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm” or “Never give in, never give in, never; never; never; never”. But every failure comes with a blow, quite a painful one at times. So as not to give up trying, you have to regard hard knocks as a natural part of the process. The pain is easier to bear in the excitement of the game. But it is only possible when the blow is not to your self-esteem and you are still able to make a joke of your own failure. The British Prime Minister’s own experience demonstrates the truth of his words. When at the end of World War 2 British voters chose not to re-elect the man who had inspired them to fight Hitler, Churchill refused to accept defeat and was soon back as Prime Minister. He was supported by an inexhaustible search activity, rooted in an unshakeable faith in himself. It also helped him stay active and healthy until he was ninety something, despite ignoring all medical advice, despite excessive weight, lack of exercise, Havana cigars and cognac. I would even go so far as to give search behaviour the metaphorical label of “Churchill Syndrome”.
And finally: our self-respect, our self-perception forms our children. For them to grow up with the psychology of a spiritual aristocrat, and not the psychology of the bureaucrat (“I’m the boss – you’re a fool, you’re the boss – I’m a fool”, as they used to say in the Soviet Union) they must have a model of such psychology and behaviour before them.