Psychological Resilience

by Colin Lorne, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham

As part two of six, this seminar considered the implications of ‘psychological resilience’ and how and why new techniques of psychological governance are being deployed within state-citizen relations. These technologies of governing individuals have witnessed widespread adoption of late, within education, in the workplace, the military as well as public health initiatives, and leading on from the previous seminar, within architecture and urban design. The prevalence of such ideas was reflected in those present on the day bringing together researchers from psychology, politics, philosophy, sociology, education and geography alongside several practitioners who are engaging with psychological and ‘well-being’ interventions within their working practices.

Enthusiasm towards psychological and neuroscientific approaches can be witnessed through the backing from the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team, the ‘Nudge Unit’, as well as the ‘Nudge Squad’ in the US with the intention to steer or orchestrate individuals to make particular decisions. The focus on the individual, and more specifically the brain, connects with demands that individuals should be ‘psychologically resilient’, that we should be able to cope with anxiety and uncertainty and bounce back happier and stronger.

If we’re living in an era of brain culture and at once, a political age of austerity – where deep cuts to services are met with a further shifting of responsibility from society to the self, increasing instability among those most vulnerable – this seminar questioned the benefits and dangers of these psychological technologies, asking what is at stake politically, ethically and socially, and therefore, asking what responses are demanded.


Jessica Pykett, Introduction

From the outset, I was wary of calls for the need to be ‘psychologically resilient’ whilst being uncertain as to the ways in which the ‘psy’ disciplines and particular techniques were being deployed and for what particular ends. Helpfully, this was neatly introduced by geographer Jessica Pykett who outlined the aims of the seminar series and the day’s event. With the wider aim to investigate the uses of different kinds of psychological knowledges and techniques in governing, the effects of those uses of psychology and to think through the cultural ideas surrounding how we think of ourselves and social relations in these psychological terms, this seminar discussed what political, research and practical challenges these moves pose.

Jessica discussed the ideas and concerns surrounding moves towards psychologisation and an emergent brain culture being deployed in governance whereby the self is being increasingly understood through the brain driving behaviour. These techniques can be said to be producing and governing vulnerable populations, emphasising personal autonomy and control through ‘neuroliberalism’. This form of governance targets the intricate space of cognitive and affective action for governing anxiety Jessica suggested, and from this position claims are made that we must learn to manage anxiety in the context of instability. In other words, we must adopt particular character traits in order to become more ‘psychologically resilient’.

Opening up the debate, Jessica raised a series of questions for the day: If we are to pursue happiness, does that imply that we are currently lacking and that the responsibility to increase this lies on the individual? Who cultivates ideas of psychological resilience and for what reasons? Can resilience be a morally-neutral character trait and is it necessarily desirable? What are the dangers of assuming ‘resilience’ as universal and timeless, that of an ahistorical and ageographical personal character strength? These debates connect with the increasing use of experimental policy initiatives and the use of randomised controlled trails to evaluate their success. As such, where do we draw the line between evidenced-based policy and political scientism? Are their limits to use of evidence-based policy and ‘neuromania’? Likewise, with the adoption of randomised controlled trials, what are their consequences? Are these approaches about gaining evidence or governing experimental citizens? With these questions opening up the day’s event, the seminar started with Jan de Vos.


Jan de Vos, University of Ghent – Why does the brain need a party? Neuropower and the spectacle, assessed via (para)governmental campaigns related to brain and mental health in Flanders

cory doctorow brain jelly mouldWhy does the brain need a party? This may sound like an unusual question to pose, but it was asked by philosopher Jan de Vos in response to rising spectacle of the ‘amazing and fascinating world of our brain’. Jan discussed what he said was the ‘almost indisputable hegemony of the spectacle of neuroscience’ through a Flemish school project entitled MOM4U. He asked, why this eagerness to educate our youth about the brain, and particularly, why do so with a party? He suggested that where psychological discourses once said to ‘be yourself’, today this has shifted to ‘be your brain’.

Within neurological discourses in both popular and academic forms, the brain is being understood as an intermediate or transitional object which Jan likened to a teddy bear or ‘mother substitute’. He suggested that the brain in image form saturates contemporary culture, but it is a medium, not just simply a reflection or container of psychological traits of a person. Drawing upon Baudrillard, he suggested that the brain could be considered as ‘iconoclastic’. The brain is not a mirror unveiling the truth of human existence (in Lacanian terms). Rather than a reflection of the brain, it is a simulation, a screen of ‘hyper-real’ things (in Baudraillardian terms) ‘simulating our fleshed our full presence’.

Retracing this framing through the use of the initial school project which use the celebration of brain to teach and entertain youths about the brain and neuroscience, Jan reads this project such that the brain is being framed as a mum-for-you, as the ultimate transitional object to provide psychological comfort, for which Jan suggests is also a ‘party mum’.


Erica Burman, University of Manchester – Manifesting Resilience

Following on from Jan, Erica moved from initial theoretical discussion towards an analysis of the UK Government’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility who recently published its Character and Resilience Manifesto directly primarily towards government, but also in one particular call, towards employers. This document makes links between ‘doing well’ at school and then onwards in the workplace assuming a association between ‘soft skills’ (suggested as social and emotional skills) and social mobility in terms of labour market outcomes and pay. In this document, resilience gets equated to character with Erica noting that resilience has become a term that has been emptied of specific meaning, and its deployment warrants interrogation. She suggests that we need to take seriously how resilience manifests itself and is reproduced in action, and we should be attending to the ways it is used, by whom and the reasons for this. She further notes how resilience is not a new term but has shifted, or been co-opted, from environmental understandings onto people, from the exceptional to the everyday and the geographical to the biographical. This, she suggests, is part of a contemporary culture of psychologisation.

character-and-resilience-appgUsing the cover of the manifesto, and drawing on the text from this work and connected resources, Erica neatly deconstructs the symbolism of this image. In an abridged version of her analysis, it pictures children running a race moving away from the viewer, one boy-child is covered in mud suggesting personal effort. The children in the image also appear to be predominantly white. The mobility of the children is in the same direction, but there is suggestion that movement is at different speeds where the overarching social relation is competition. The image, concepts and methods throughout the document, as Erica stated, can be crassly surmised as ‘it’s up to you, you’re on your own, and the government won’t help you so you better man up and get on with it’.

She raised concerns that the discussion of emotions seems to drop out over the course of the report. Instead, it favours decontextualized, individualised cognitive skills. In other words, these ‘soft skills’ are being ‘hardened up’; the masculinity of the vulnerable, feminised subject is ‘restored’. Within the manifesto, its pedagogy has lost its origins, with large-scale retraction of the immediate neuroscience and this, she suggests, may be in part surrounding concerns over the use of neuroscience, or, as I would suggest more likely, because this model demands money to compensate for deficits. Emphasising resilience places responsibility onto individuals. The focus on character as resilience in this document therefore seeks an austerity hardiness.


Katherine Ecclestone, University of Sheffield – Governing psycho-emotionally viable citizens: new subjectivities in an inclusive neo-liberal therapeutic state

Katherine started by emphasising that there has been a ‘therapeutic turn’ not just in schools, but across all areas of education and workplace learning. This therapeutic turn, along with the ‘vulnerability zeitgeist’, has risen over the last 15 years across many countries through different interventions aimed at changing the behaviours and characteristics. For example, this tends to draw in discussions about emotional well-being, resilience, character and mental toughness as well as engagement, inclusion, aspirations and achievement. These characteristics get connected to issues of mobility and social justice and it is psycho-emotional vulnerabilities that being raised as barriers to achieving these outcomes. Katherine noted that there has been a failure within analysis of behaviour change because the work of the Behavioural Insights Team runs in parallel, not separately, to these developments. Therefore she is interested in how interventions, in this instance in education systems, involve changing ideas about human subjects.

socialisbetter at flikr homer simpson brainKatherine echoed comments raised by Erica on the rise of interventions such as ‘character and resilience’ noting that the debate seems to be not whether we should intervene, but simply which targeted intervention is best. Recently, there has been a shift from targeted interventions undertaken by psy specialists towards universal ones by pseudo-psy experts, such as consultants and teachers, recognising her own pseudo-psy position when she was teaching in the 1970s and 80s. There is an ad hoc use of these terms to enable policy makers to connect with older discourses such as determinist assertions about ‘dysfunctional parenting’. For example, the Tories’ idea of ‘troubled parents’ has a psycho-emotional emphasis which builds on Labour’s presentation of these issues as individual vulnerabilities. Katherine turned to the ‘denigration of the neoliberal subject’ which is evident across these understandings of human behaviour in myriad forms. The Behavioural Insights Team invoke a lazy, disorganised Homer Simpson who seeks the right lifestyle choices, but needs a little nudge in the ‘right’ direction. This is a logical continuation of psychological-orientated role of welfare state under New Labour’s Third Way.

Whilst it can be tempting to present this as the neoliberal state relinquishing its social responsibilities, this gets trickier as radical and critical responses are also increasingly incorporated into projects of behaviour change. There has been a de-centring of psy expertise and Katherine gives the example of young British Muslims who have been problematized in terms of their mental well-being, making them suitable for intervention for the state and their surveillance. She concludes that the irrational human subject becomes the target of decidedly rational forms of governance.


Sam Binkley, Emerson College, USA – Happiness as Enterprise: Video Interlude

Following lunch a recording of Sam’s brief video on happiness as enterprise was shown which you can view here. This provoked later discussion on the range of critical frameworks available to those researching psychological resilience and the value of adopting textual and/or practice based analyses.

Binkley on happiness as enterpriseYou can watch Sam’s contribution to the seminar


Vanessa King, Action for Happiness and Change Able: Building Resilience – Practical Interventions to help people survive and thrive in today’s world

Following Sam, there was a shift in focus of the seminar where Vanessa discussed her approach to her work which involves the implementation of building resilience. Her practice is a not-for-profit organisation which involves taking insights on psychological resilience out of the research world and making a difference in people’s lives, which could be through of as something of a movement. She suggested that as a country we’re are historically richer than previously, yet when looking at our psychological well-being it is not increasing, perhaps even lowering. She asks is there more to life than money?

This work involves looking at what makes us function at our best, not just looking at psychological dysfunction. She suggests that we are, by definition ‘naturally resilient’ and that it is possible to learn to have a bit more of it. This is dynamic so that if bad things happen in life, we respond to that, and we need to cope with the normal stresses from day to day, if not everything that life throws at us. Interestingly, Vanessa suggests that resilience, well-being and sometimes even happiness can be used interchangeably depending upon the audience. She outlines their ‘GREAT DREAM’ approach of ‘10 keys to happy living’ to take action in one’s own life, which has been taken up by teachers (as Katherine might suggest, pseudo-psy experts). Five elements of the approach relate to ‘external’ factors and the other five are ‘internally’ related. As an organisation they work in workplace, community organisations, universities and schools. She reflected on the speed at which this positive psychology is hitting policy and her experiences are that people are very drawn to the idea of happiness, and even a billionaire Sheikh in Dubai is suggesting that the role of government is to make people happy.

We then participated in a short intervention to think about three things that we enjoyed, what they were and why, suggesting that it provided a moment to reflect upon particular satisfactions in life which often go unnoticed and uncelebrated. She suggested that more thorough versions of these interventions can provide some support, although acknowledges that these are by no means a panacea. Vanessa ran through a series of approaches that she uses working with different organisations. In one instance she outlined one targeted at managers, involving teaching skills at work and home which she posits is a corporate social responsibility recognising that a lot of distress among workers. Personally, I am concerned that there may be too much emphasis placed on individual workers needing to ‘do well from the inside out’ rather than tackling the causes of this stress and uncertainty among workers caused, for example, by their managers deploying these interventions. Engaging with Vanessa and other practitioners within these debates proved to be very helpful in understanding some of the potential tensions involved in developing change-based interventions based on psychological research.


John Cromby – Psychology as practical biopolitics

Following Vanessa was John’s paper which drew, in part, upon some of the work he’d undertaken with the Midlands Psychology Group, who are concerned that parts of psychology are detaching people from the world’s in which they live in. He takes Foucault’s ideas of biopolitics to help frame his analysis, a politics of the human body as individuals but also of the human population. He looked at a paper by Packard et al., noting that there was no use of resilience within the paper, which struck him as unusual perhaps hinting at a lack of interaction with Westminster politics. Their work suggests that people have particular personality characteristics associated with their health behaviour. Based upon research on affluent and deprived people, these personality characteristics were said to only have association among the deprived participants. The researchers were concluding that ill health inequalities may relate to interactions between personality, mental well-being and the adoption of good health behaviours. He sought to pick away at the ‘magic of science’ of this paper.

He raised several problems with this work. He was concerned that these results were predictions based upon a model, rather than real-world predictions, that the response rate was low and was higher in the affluent rather than deprived participants. Looking in more detail, at the sample questions used, such as ‘would you call yourself a worrier?’, ‘would you call yourself tense?’ he questions the extent to which it is ever possible to separate people’s circumstances from their apparent personality traits. He also noted the concerns around psychometrics, with a lack of reliability towards measuring amorphous, unquantifiable experiences (i.e. does happiness occur on a scale from 1-10?), problems with binary responses (i.e. are you a happy person? Yes or no?) as well as biased responses where people tend to answer in alignment with perceived social and cultural norms.

Stressing this previous remark, upon returning to the study, John reflects on the questions: ‘Do you have many different hobbies?’ He suggests probably not if you’re poor. ‘Would being in debt worry you?’ Well yes, if you’re poor it is hardly surprising that you may have money worries. ‘Do you worry about your health?’ All these things seem to relate to a loss of control and fewer resources. He suggests that the patterns in their data don’t respond to some kind of inner psychological state, indexing not what is inside their heads but things going on in their people’s lives. Personality questionnaires function as a technology to individualise and decontextualize, losing the link with people’s material circumstances. The intense focus of the paper is on the people in the deprived areas in an underlying form of demonization. In John’s account, psychologisation and demonization jointly enact a neo-liberal biopolitics that makes resilience an issue about individual choices and legitimates a public health research agenda that positions the poor as the creators of their own ill health. This obscures the politics of food availability, the closer of leisure facilities etc. By focusing on personality traits these socio-economic issues get pushed into the background.


Will Davies, Goldsmiths – The Politics of Silent Citizenship: historical lessons for contemporary psychological government

Thinking through his recent work, Will sought to put forward certain provocations roughly surrounding psychological government starting by raising the question how do psychological techniques get used once out of the hands of psychologists? A key controversy seems to revolve around the claim that people don’t really know what they want. There is the notion that humans have some kind of ‘real’ interest that they may not know about, that experts may be able to work out what that interest is, and if they can’t get direct access to that ‘real’ interest they can use tools that operate as a proxy. Neuroscience, Will suggests, muddies the water somewhat, if perhaps because of the reportage of neuroscience alluding to ideas that we can now ‘see’ happiness, treating dopamine as its emotional source, for example.

Will discussed some historical and philosophical interests starting with Jeremy Bentham, the role of money in William Stanley Jevons as well as calling for something of a move beyond Foucauldian conceptualisations. He was particularly interested in describing some of the ways in which subjective affect has historically been measured and conceptualised, and the cross-overs between psychology and other disciplines such as engineering and economics. Will cited a paradox at the heart of Bentham’s influential work. Bentham placed an attack on what he deemed to be abstract, philosophical language. He saw things as either ‘real’ or ‘fictitious’. Things like ‘freedom’ are deemed to be nonsense. Utilitarianism (and notable within the recent work of Richard Layard) has naturalistic assertions, but there seems to be no real reasoning between the psychological (fictitious) and pleasure, pain and happiness (empirical). This divide has historic implications. Politics becomes a predictable science (the nudge unit is in a way a latecomer to this) and is anti-deliberative; in this world, people’s views get in the way of experts.

Picture_of_jevonsMoving onto discuss economist, Jevons, Will described how people were supposed to revel their minds and how this was to be measured, picking up on how Jevons considered how money should be used to quantify their pleasure and pain experiences. For Will this was indicative of the roots of psychological government which move out from psychology towards management, marketing, behavioural change policy where different devices, money, the body, become ‘privileged ways of accessing subjective affect’. At times of crisis, there are attempts to re-anchor money and these pleasure and pain experiences (and I would propose that this ties in with those practitioners mentioned by Vanessa who are making the connection between GDP and well-being). Jevons employed mathematical and mechanical principles of the balancing device and applied this to psychology to describe how people ‘weigh up’ their subjective experiences. Psychology becomes a sort of cost-benefit analysis where the mind is a set of scales. The price system of the market for Jevons was similarly used for ‘embedding the authority of price within psychological mechanics of the mind’; economic concern should be to maximise pleasure. Over the 20th century neoclassical economics abandons this link in favour of a belief in the authority of prices and a separation of the economic from the psychological sphere. Richard Layard’s work as well as things like neuroeconomics has returned to this link at a time when capitalism’s inherent crises have been exposed to try to link money to something tangible or ‘real’. We must caution where these arbitrary lines surrounding the ‘real’ are drawn, relating back to Bentham.


Peter John, UCL – Changing bureaucrats and citizens: the transformative potential of an experimental public administration

The final paper of the day came from political scientist and self-confessed ‘randomista’, or enthusiast of Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs), Peter John. He discussed the use of these trials or evaluations within government agencies who are concerned with ‘what works’ in public policy. He is interested in their implications for policy making and how might they impact upon bureaucrats’ work themselves, not just upon those ‘experimental’ citizens. The RCTs can test bureaucrats’ preconceptions and processes, Peter argues, and forces them to think about a whole range of things that they may have otherwise not be concerned with. Peter notes a tendency to treat RCTs as a top-down citizen-state relationship, but argues that they might be applied in a more deliberative way.

Running through the basics of RCTs, he said there has been huge interest in experiments in economics, but he focuses here upon artificial RCTs to test something specific. You start with baseline data, allocate a two control groups, one with the intervention, one without, and if there is a difference this change is attributed to the intervention. This is their claim. He notes how the limitations of these experiments are recognised by many of those who undertake these experiments. Within RCTs there are all sorts of things that can go wrong which undermine strong results.

Whilst there was resistance to use RCTs by politicians under New Labour, things have changed since 2010, with greater interest in behaviour change and the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT). They have introduced these insights into government policy with almost no resources. RCTs have been used on tax letters, charitable giving, DVLA reminders and the like. The media gave them a pretty light time of if for several years considering right-wing press would be expected to be hostile to a nudging nanny state. There seems to be expansion within political science and economics in RCTs, and even policies experimenting with RCTs. These needn’t be expensive. He gave the example of RCTs used to collect court fines, where they personalised the mobile phone text communcations to those due to pay court fines to some improved level. He reiterated that these approaches are good for people who want to test things and ask ‘does it work?’ There are risks, they need buy-in and can be difficult to put into place particularly with government data. To conclude, Peter asked whether RCTs have a more decentralist, localist approach. He suggested that RCTs almost feel like action research, getting out and creating something and he used a book donation RCT to exemplify this. Peter would like to see politicians to do more of this, to engage with testing ideas as part of their job. He suggests that these RCTs might change things for the better, and his work with the BIT is a testament to his enthusiasm for this approach.


About Colin: I am a geographer currently undertaking doctoral research on the emergence of co-working spaces as a place of work for entrepreneurial mobile workers constituted through working identities and architectural practices. My other research interests relate to cities and the built environment with recent work on the UK Localism Act and Neighbourhood Planning, as well as developing new ways of engaging with people through arts-based and technology-led methods.