Risk and Protective Factors, Processes, and/or Mechanisms

The things that go right in our lives do predict future successes
and the things that go wrong do not damn us forever.

-– Drs. Kirk Felsman and George Vaillant, 1987

Rutter’s 1987 article in which he stressed the dynamic quality of resilience marked a true turning point in the field of resilience research. In it, he notes that, in the prior decade, "not only has there been a shift of focus from vulnerability to resilience, but also from risk variables to the process of negotiating risk situations. It is in that context of risk negotiations that attention was turned to protective mechanisms." [Rutter’s italics; all following italics are mine unless stated otherwise.] Protective factors, he says, are "highly robust predictors of resilience" and "likely to play a key role in the processes involved in people’s response to risk circumstances. But they are of very limited value as a means of finding new approaches to prevention. ... we need to focus on protective mechanisms and processes.... to ask why and how some individuals manage to maintain high self-esteem and self-efficacy in spite of facing the same adversities that lead other people to give up and lose hope. ... The search is not for broadly defined protective factors, but rather, for the developmental and situational mechanisms involved in protective processes" (Rutter, 1987, 316-317).

Rutter further differentiates among vulnerability and protective mechanisms and risk situations or factors. The "essential defining feature" of vulnerability and protective mechanisms, he says, "is a modification of the person’s response to the risk situation. Thus, it requires some form of intensification (vulnerability) or amelioration (protection) of the reaction to a factor that in ordinary circumstances leads to a maladaptive outcome. The effect is indirect and dependent on some type of interaction. It must be in some sense catalytic, in that it changes the effect of another variable, instead of (or in addition to) having a direct effect of its own.... In this respect vulnerability and protection are the negative and positive poles of the same concept..... The essence of the concept is that the vulnerability or protective effect is evident only in combination with the risk variable" (1987, p.317).

Rutter further notes that "the protective process may even stem from a variable that itself provides a risk to health or to social functioning" (p.318). He gives the example of adoption which "probably carries with it an increased psychiatric risk for children from advantageous backgrounds but it may be protective for those born to deviant parents living in discord or deprivation. ... It is the process or mechanism, not the variable, that determines the function. ... The search is not for factors that make us feel good but for processes that protect us against risk mechanisms" (pp.317-318).

Since the "defining feature of an interactive process applies to both vulnerability and protection," we might ask, with Rutter, if there is "any point in retaining two concepts, if in reality they are no more than opposite poles of the same concept?" (1987, pp.318-319). Rutter gives several reasons why we should indeed retain both concepts:

(1) "Even with only one concept, we need a word to describe each pole (just as we use ‘up’ and ‘down’ rather than ‘up’ and ‘not-up’)." Moreover, it is useful to have terms that emphasize the focus (‘not-up’ is not quite the same as ‘down’) and using a positive concept to describe action taken at the positive pole, and a negative concept to describe action taken at the negative pole "highlight(s) where the action lay."

(2) "Many vulnerability or protective processes concern key turning points in people’s lives; what happens then determines the direction of trajectory for years to follow. It seems helpful to use the term ‘protective mechanism’ when what was previously a risk trajectory is changed to one with a greater likelihood of an adaptive outcome.... Conversely, the process would be labeled a vulnerability one when a previously adaptive trajectory is turned into a negative one. It is not enough, for example, to say that academic success or self-efficacy are protective (although they are), we must go on to ask how those qualities developed and how they changed the life course."

(3) Another situation "in which ‘protective processes’ is a better term than ‘absence of vulnerability’ is that in which the mechanisms involved in protection seem different from those involved in the risk process. For example, it seems that a shy, socially withdrawn personality protects against delinquency although an outgoing personality does not predispose to delinquency."

(4) Another "situation suggesting use of the term ‘protective mechanism’ occurs when the main effect seems to derive from the positive end of the variable." For example, if we look at, say, the value of social support, "the focus on the positive terminology focuses one to ask what it is about the support that leads to the protective effect."

The critical message from Rutter’s 1987 article as we examine research on the concept of resilience is that we must not only identify the risk and protective "factors" the researchers discuss, but we must look to see to what extent they elaborate on the "mechanisms" or "processes" involved in the development (or lack thereof) of resilience.

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