A Contrarian's View on Human Resilience

Article excerpt

Is the season for joy, but also worries, we are commonly told.

Stress from too much shopping, overindulgence from too much celebrating, and depression for those feeling left out of the festivities are as typical this time of year as packages under the tree.

But among those whose profession it is to help people cope with these and other common ailments, there is a contrarian strain of thinking that humankind actually does an amazingly good, and vastly underappreciated, job of adapting and overcoming these and other ills on its own.

Albert Bandura, author, Stanford University professor, and acknowledged heavyweight in the field of psychology, is a prominent voice for this more optimistic view of humanity. And while he may still be swimming against the popular current, he says he is "pretty optimistic" a more positive view of the human condition is emerging.

"At the conceptual level as well as the research level, this more positive view has been accelerating in the fields of health, education, child development, athletics, and even political efficacy," says the Canadian-born psychologist.

Though jocular by nature, Dr. Bandura is not beyond giving a good scolding, which he did to the American Psychological Association last year. As a past president and chairman of the board of that group, he had the stature to win applause despite a roundhouse swing at the profession's general orientation.

In his words: "The field of psychology is plagued by a chronic condition of negativity regarding human development and functioning."

Key ingredient: self-efficacy

A principal originator of the concept of "self-efficacy" and author of two scholarly books on the subject, Bandura is a firm believer that people can and regularly do overcome seemingly insurmountable difficulties. The key ingredient is self-efficacy, or the conviction that action will produce results.

"People have the power to influence what they do and to make things happen," noted Bandura in his speech to the APA. Still, he says, human behavior continues to be commonly explained - not only by psychologists but also sociologists, educators, and doctors - as the result of uncontrollable factors, whether genes or the neighborhood environment.

Of course, most experts in these fields regard human behavior and health as a combination of factors, some within a person's control and some not. But Bandura has spent much of his career attempting to nudge the balance back toward greater appreciation for people's ability to overcome problems.

It's not just a point of emphasis that concerns Bandura but, ultimately, the models by which doctors, educators, social scientists, and therapists of all stripes address prevalent social and individual ills.

For instance, he says, while researchers have in recent years pointed to physiological links between stress and a degradation of the immune system, there is also a body of research showing that stress coupled with a conviction that a problem can be overcome actually strengthens the immune system. …