July 25, 2013, by criticalmoment

The Psychology of Resilience

Readers of Radical Philosophy will have noticed over the last couple of issues the heated spat between Mark Neocleous and David Chandler regarding the politics of ‘resilience’.[1] Readers of this blog will also have noticed our own Sitting Room University (SRU) pondering the possibility of a more militant conception of resilience, one compatible with anti-capitalist resistance. Personally, I admired the SRU’s proposal of an ‘intellectual resistance’ that tarries with ‘pragmatic resilience’, but if the term needs reclaiming at all, it is clearly because ‘resilience’ now operates as a quilting point for diverse discourses and practices: from adaptation in corporate organizational cultures, to ‘post-traumatic growth’ in the military; from risk management in security studies, to capacity-building in development discourse.

Here, I want to expand slightly on some of the observations made by the SRU by making just a few points about the psychology of resilience specifically, which focuses on building the mental toughness needed to ‘flourish’ in the wake of a trauma. Specifically, I want to highlight its links with the recent uptake of ‘positive psychology’ in the US army and the implications for civilian life.

Before doing so however, it’s worth noting that this uptake is in keeping with a much longer tradition of ‘military psychology’. For obvious reasons, the US army has had an enduring interest in the psychological limits of soldiers, and in forms of conditioning that might extend or even eradicate those limits. Many of the psychological tests that have become routine screening measures in civilian life, from IQ tests to psychometric profiles, were originally developed to recruit soldiers and predict their performance under duress. By the Second World War, military psychology had moved beyond merely screening recruits to maximizing the combat effectiveness of serving troops, with psychologists even being deployed in the battlefield. The influence between psychology and the military-industrial complex then, has always been multifaceted and reciprocal.

For example, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) – which dominates the clinical application of mainstream psychiatry and psychology in many countries around the world – has its origins in a War Department Technical Bulletin of 1943, entitled ‘Medical 203’. Not surprisingly, this wartime bulletin focused on ‘fight or flight’ responses to situations inducing stress and anxiety, seeking measurable indicators of susceptibility to the latter. Despite outwardly aiming to standardize diagnostic criteria for the civilian population then, the first edition of the DSM which emerged from ‘Medical 203’ was covertly tailored to the needs of soldiers rather than of patients in traditional mental institutions (let alone of ‘ordinary’ people experiencing ordinary difficulties). One particularly troubling consequence of this was the projection of homophobia within the military as a pathologization of homosexuality in general: DSM-I categorized homosexuality as a ‘sociopathic personality disorder’ and this was not changed until 1974 after intense lobbying by gay rights activists.

That this link between the army and the DSM persists today is clear from the controversial expansion of a diagnosis with origins in the documented difficulties of Vietnam veterans in the 1970s: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Just as the diagnostic criteria of depression expanded exponentially with the explosion in anti-depressant drug treatments in the early 1980s,[2] so the number of potential triggering events for PTSD has proliferated since the turn of the century.[3] This is thanks partly to the US and UK militaries paying compensation to ex-servicemen receiving a PTSD diagnosis, and partly to the multi-billion dollar private health insurance market that, Obamacare notwithstanding, continues to shape the politics of health in America. 

It is against this backdrop that we should see the new enthusiasm of the US army for ‘positive psychology’ generally, and the psychology of resilience in particular. Just as positive psychology defines itself by breaking with the ‘miserable’ concerns of pathological psychology and psychiatry, so the psychology of resilience emphasizes mental robustness over and against fragility. A sense of this can be garnered from the work of former president of the American Psychological Association (partner to the American Psychiatric Association that publishes the DSM), and self-promoting advocate of Happiness Studies and Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman.

Two chapters of Seligman’s latest book are devoted to detailing the work he has done with the American military since 2008.[4] With transparent glee,[5] he has embraced this opportunity to put psychology explicitly at the service of the US military and its various ‘humanitarian’ interventions. Very much in the long tradition of military psychology, he has developed a new test for mental fitness called the Global Assessment Tool (GAT) which tests in five domains (emotional fitness, social fitness, family fitness and spiritual fitness). Now extended to the entire army, well over a million soldiers have taken the GAT test to date. The information thereby generated is linked to the Soldier Fitness Tracker (SFT), a vast database used to monitor the psychological resilience of all soldiers, whether on active duty, in the National Guard, or among Reserves. Seligman has developed additional online modular training courses that purport to provide techniques for increasing resilience in each of the five areas. Drawing on the army’s own previous Battlemind Training programme, he has also designed and helps to run the Master Resilience Training course out of his home institution of Pennsylvania State University. This ten day course teaches approximately 150 sergeants each year how to train the soldiers under their command in resilience techniques. If the army is happy to spend a significant chunk of its $650 billion budget on the psychology of resilience as part of its new Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme,[6] it is because it believes it can convert Post-Traumatic Stress into Post-Traumatic-Growth. As Seligman puts it with a superficial nod to Nietzsche, the US army is investing in the principle that “What does not kill me makes me stronger” (Seligman: 2011, p.159).

In fact, the fuller and more precise quote from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols reminds us of the larger stakes in this appeal to the psychology of resilience: “out of life’s school of war: what does not destroy me, makes me stronger”. Life’s school of war – a phrase reminiscent, not by chance, of Clausewitz’s definition of politics as the continuation of war by other means … While one should probably expect the army to explore ways of eradicating psychological ‘fragility’, it is really the implications for an increasingly militarized civilian life to which we, as critical theorists, should be attending. A more faithful reader of Nietzsche than Seligman (which is admittedly not saying much!), Michel Foucault recognized in Discipline and Punish that disciplinary technologies tend to be transferred laterally amongst the various institutions of modernity, such as schools, prisons and hospitals. Yet of all these institutions, it has arguably been the army that occupies the pre-eminent position in the initial development of such technologies. According to Seligman, the surgeon general of the United States – under (guess who!) George W. Bush – inadvertently expressed this Foucaultian point directly: “If resilience training works, it will be a model for civilian medicine” (Seligman: 2011, p.128 – my emphasis).

Sure enough, we now find the UK government rolling out resilience strategies within emergency protocols that cover natural disasters and health epidemics, as well as within schools, hospitals and the workplace. All of this is informed by Cameron’s new (as of 2010) ‘Well-Being Index’ which supposedly maps life satisfaction and guides policy, even as, with the other hand, he dismantles the welfare state under the banner of ‘austerity’. If the psychology of resilience is being called upon across so many sectors, from the army to occupational health, is it not because of the intensifying depredations of neoliberal capitalism? Shouldn’t we see it as the corollary to what Naomi Klein rightly calls the ‘shock doctrine’, a kind of balm to ease the way for the venture capitalist’s conviction that every crisis is an opportunity? The SRU are probably right that we will need a different kind of resilience to resist this widespread imposition of the pseudo-military psychology of resilience.

Colin Wright

[1] See RP 178 and RP 179

[2] Leader, Darian, The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression, London: Penguin Books, 2009.

[3] Whereas DSM-IV classified PTSD as an anxiety disorder, DSM-V, published only a couple of months ago, places PTSD at the centre of a new cluster of ‘Trauma and Stress or Related’ disorders, in which the definition of ‘trauma’ is considerably expanded.

[4] Seligman, Martin, Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being – and How to Achieve Them, London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2011.

[5] To cite just one of many cringe-worthy examples: “I got invited to lunch at the Pentagon with the chief of staff of the army […] and I noticed that the three-star general on my left had headed his notes with ‘Seligman lunch’!” (Seligman: 2011, p.127).

[6] See http://csf2.army.mil/index.html

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