Defining Resilience

We all know perfectly well what resilience means
until we listen to someone else try to define it.

-– Dr. George Vaillant, 1993

In existing research studies, the construct resilience has varied meanings. In the early days of research on people who did well despite adversity, the terms "invulnerable" and "invincible" were used. However, these terms proved to be not quite accurate as, in the words of Dr. Michael Rutter, they implied an "absolute resistance to damage." Rutter goes on to note:

... no one has absolute resistance; rather, it is more appropriate to consider susceptibility to stress as a graded phenomenon. Some individuals are more resistant than other but every one has their limits. Secondly, the term suggests that the characteristic applies to all risk circumstances. Obviously, that is a biologically implausible suggestion. There is a range of mechanisms by which risk factors operate and it must be anticipated that the features that constitute resilience will vary according to the risk mechanism. Thirdly, the concept seems to imply that the characteristic is an intrinsic feature of the individual. That is misleading because research findings indicate that resilience may reside in the social context as much as in the individual as such. Fourthly, the term suggests that it deals with an unchanging characteristic. That, too, is wrong because there is every reason to suppose that developmental changes will influence resilience just as they influence any other characteristic" (Rutter, 1991).

Masten and Coatsworth (1998) define resilience globally as manifested competence in the context of significant challenges to adaptation or development." They note that researchers must make two judgments to identify resilience:

  1. there has been a significant threat to the individual. This threat is usually either high-risk status or exposure to severe adversity or trauma. These are more pathogenic when severe adversity or trauma is superimposed on a person of high-risk status.

  2. the quality of adaptation or development is good. That is, the child is behaving in a competent manner.

Luthar and Zigler (1991) suggest that the term resilience be used for "a circumscribed construct that implies behaviorally manifested success at negotiating salient developmental tasks, in spite of major stressors and possible underlying emotional distress: that is, in terms of overt social competence among high risk resilient people, not necessarily paralleled by covert mental health." Luthar (1991) found that highly stressed but overtly socially competent adolescents reported increased levels of depression, anxiety, and self-criticism, much more so than competent children from low stress backgrounds. Similarly, in their ten year study of children of parents with affective disorders, Radke-Yarrow and Brown (1993) found somatic symptoms in 56% of the resilient children, compared to 21% of the control children. Vaillant (1994) poses the question this way: "Does resilience merely mean survival in the face of vulnerability and multiple risk factors, or should we think of resilience only when it also permits happiness? Is it enough that the vulnerable patient survives the operation and that the orphan survives the concentration camp, or, in addition, should they be able to run and laugh and feel joy as well?"

Wolff (1995) expresses concern about those definitions of resilience which stress only behavioral success and which sometimes call depression and anxiety "the price of resilience." While stating that "behavioural deviance and educational problems have more ominous consequences than inner suffering," she goes on to point out that "internalising difficulties and depression – more common in girls and later in life – can also make for profound interpersonal difficulties, especially in marriage and child rearing .... We need to judge resilience in terms both of externalising and internalising difficulties."

Foster (1997) distinguishes among coping, adaptation, and resilience. He sees coping as "a complex response to a stressful or challenging situation that is often defensive in character." Adaptation, he says, is "a somewhat broader term which "moves beyond defensive or protective responses to ones that deal with improving or maximizing environmental fit." He reserves resilience for "positive changes in maintaining active or latent coping and adaptation capacities through various mechanisms (such as healing, restitution, refinement, and enhancement) that may not be immediately apparent but become evident over time." The latter point is very important because it stresses the necessity of carefully considering the time at which we measure resilience, and of the necessity of remembering that one’s resilience may change over time and in different domains.

In a highly influential article written in 1987, Rutter insists that "resilience cannot be seen as a fixed attribute of the individual.... If circumstances change, resilience alters" (p. 317). He goes on to discuss the social and intrapsychic processes which interact in a manner that enables people to overcome adversity and set their life trajectory on a positive course. Increasingly, researchers follow Rutter’s lead and stress the dynamic quality of resilience, but they do not necessarily address the mental health question. Dyer and McGuinness (1996), for example, see resilience as a global term describing a dynamic process, highly influenced by protective factors, whereby people bounce back from adversity and go on with their lives. They define "protective factors" as "specific competencies that are necessary for the process of resilience to occur," and "competencies" as "the healthy skills and abilities that the individual can access."

Not only is there lack of consensus about the global definition of resilience (especially with regard to the issue of one’s mental health/internal world), but operational definitions of the term understandably vary from one study to another according to the specific factors being investigated. This is essential for manageable research projects, but it makes it difficult to compare findings from different studies. Yet another complicating factor is that both global and operational definitions of the term differ among and within different domains of resilience. For example, several researchers focus mainly on the domain of Educational Resilience, one global definition of which is "the heightened likelihood of success in school and other life accomplishments despite environmental adversities brought about by early traits, conditions, and experiences" (Wang, Haertel, and Walberg, 1994). But within this domain, there are several different ways to operationalize the term ranging from grades and standardized test scores in mathematics to overall grade point averages (GPAs).

In order to move the field along, researchers very much need some consensus on matters of definition. Perhaps there should be (1) a generally agreed upon "Macro" global definition of resilience, plus a "Macro" operational definition of the term; and (b) a global definition of the term within each domain, which would guide researchers as they develop the operational definition for their specific projects. This would enable us to compare different studies more readily, and it is absolutely critical if we are to compare different interventions designed to promote the development of resilience or to compare the effectiveness of a single intervention in different settings and with different populations.

One promising approach to global and operational definitions of resilience is the Ego-Resiliency (ER) construct as defined by Drs. Jack and Jeanne Block. In the early 1950s, as doctoral students at Stanford University, the Blocks empirically derived five personality types as they analyzed personality continuity and change among 84 men in the Berkeley Guidance and Oakland Growth Studies (J. Block, 1950; J.H. Block, 1951). The types they described are:

  1. Ego Resilients -- well-adjusted and interpersonally effective
  2. Unsettled Undercontrollers -- highly impulsive and antisocial
  3. Vulnerable Overcontrollers -- rigidly overcontrolled and maladjusted
  4. Belated Adjusters -- maladjusted during adolescence but functioning effectively by adulthood
  5. Anomic Extraverts -- well adjusted in adolescence but maladjusted in adulthood.

Two of the core constructs in the Blocks’ theory are ego-resiliency and ego-control, "dynamic individual-difference variables that organize and shape behavior across time and contexts" (Robbins, et al, 1996, p. 4). For our purposes, the more important of these is ego-resiliency (ER), which the Blocks define as:

resourceful adaptation to changing circumstances and environmental contingencies, analysis of the "goodness of fit" between situational demands and behavioral possibility, and flexible invocation of the available repertoire of problem-solving strategies (problem-solving being defined to include the social and personal domains as well as the cognitive.
(J.H. Block and Block, 1980, p.48)

The typical ER adolescent, Block says, "evidences an ego structure already well-formed but by no means foreclosed from new experiences and new values. He avoids the rashness of undercontrol without assuming the constriction of overcontrol, he has inner direction and an acceptance of responsibility, and both respect for and respect from his parents and peers" (1971, p.149). In a study of 300 African-American and Caucasian adolescent boys, Robins and his colleagues (1996) found that boys classified as "Resilients" had an intermediate level of ego-control.

The ER construct combines several distinct personality attributes: active and meaningful engagement with the world, a positive and energetic approach to life, confidence, autonomy, competence, a sense of mastery within multiple life domains, perceptiveness, insight, the capacity for warm and open relationships, good interpersonal skills, and social poise, Moreover, various studies have found that ER relates to secure attachment and personality consistency over time and to moderate delay of gratification (Klohnen, 1996). Moreover, one study found that ER at age seven predicted friendship understanding and moral judgment at age nineteen (Hart, et al., 1998).

Klohnen elucidates how ER relates to general definitions of psychological health and adjustment. She notes that many such definitions have been advanced, and while they differ somewhat in breadth and emphasis, they all generally include:

  1. the ability to be happy and contented with a sense of direction and purpose;
  2. the capacity for productive work and a sense of competence and environmental mastery;
  3. emotional security, self-acceptance, self-knowledge, and a realistic and undistorted perception of oneself, others, and one’s surroundings;
  4. interpersonal adequacy and the capacity for warm and caring relating to others and for intimacy and respect.

She notes that these general criteria resemble four components of ER: (1) confident optimism, (2) autonomous and productive activity, (3) interpersonal insight and warmth; and (d) skilled expressiveness (1996, p. 13). She notes further that the major components that she has found to define ER in adulthood are similar to those that Garmezy and Werner have shown to characterize resilient children.

ER has usually been operationalized using the California Adult Q-Set (CAQ, J. Block, 1961, 1978), in which observers familiar with the subjects generate personality descriptions of the subjects via the Q-sort procedure using the set of 100 Q-sort items; ratings of multiple observers are then averaged. This time-consuming, labor intensive procedure has probably limited the use of the ER construct. Recently, however, Klohnen (1996) developed an empirically derived, 29-item self-report scale which has good internal consistency, good reliability, substantial convergent validity with the CAQ-based observer measure, and solid external criterion validity with another index of psychological adjustment. This measure may result in the ER construct’s being used more frequently in the definition of resilience.

Resilience Main Page | Next Page