Sunday, October 23, 2011

Forging Steel, Part 2: Soldiers, Superheroes, and Resilience

In a previous post, I talked about military training, the ways that it "forges" soldiers, and what might be relevant to superheroes. Part of what the training does is it causes reappraisal--the (re)interpretation of stimuli. For instance, boot camp causes the cadet to reappraise what he or she can withstand, and what he or she is capable of. Similarly, the intense physical and psychological challenges that are built in to the Special Forces courses lead the soldiers to re-evaluate how they see themselves, and thus how they see what would otherwise be over-the-top experiences in adversity.

The training process also provides an opportunity for soldiers to do what elite athletes do: direct their attention away from pain (Ochsner & Gross, 2005; Troy & Mauss, 2011). You’ve probably had this experience: You can feel a headache coming on. If you pay attention to the pain, the headache will feel worse. If you try to ignore the headache, it doesn’t seem quite so bad. Athletes learn to direct their attention away from pain and so do soldiers (and superheroes). As former Army officer Craig Mullaney recounts in his memoir The Unforgiving Minute, he learned from his instructors at West Point that pain “is just weakness leaving the body.”

Pain can be emotional as well as physical. For instance, for a moment, think about some life event that upsets you. A breakup, a loss, an experience with failure. If you continue to direct your attention to that upsetting experience, you’ll likely get upset. Of course thinking about an upsetting experience can be an opportunity for learning, but you have to think about it in a specific way, asking yourself “what lessons are there to be learned form this situation?” Just dwelling on the experience, letting it rattle around and around in your mind, fills up the mental space with emotional turmoil. It does the opposite of regulate your emotions—it makes them more likely to feel out of control.

So soldiers, particularly elite soldiers, must learn to control their attention and direct it accordingly—to what is relevant for survival (Abele & Gendolla, 2007; Aspinwall & Brunhart, 1996). If they’re preoccupied with thoughts of missing family, they may not notice that tripwire or mine in the road. It’s the same with superheroes. They are amazingly able to focus their attention to the problem at hand, regardless of what is happening in their personal lives. Mullaney notes that if you aren’t paying attention to the relevant details, people under your command can die.

Controlling your attention also allows you to direct your attention to stimuli that may be less likely to induce counterproductive emotions. In a scary movie, if you find yourself being too scared, you may start to notice the actor’s makeup onscreen, or the temperature of the room, or in some other way direct your attention so that you can be less frightened. That’s adaptive. Soldiers must do this too, since being very scared on a mission isn’t adaptive. Their intensive training can become an anchor point to calm emotions that might get out of control; they might direct their attention to aspects of the current situation that are similar to ones during their training, thus providing a sense of mastery (“I handled a similar situation then, so I can now”) and momentarily diminishing the threat of the situation so that negative emotions don’t spiral out of control and interfere with the mission.

Batman’s years of training likely gave him the experience he needs both to direct his attention and to reappraise threatening situations as less threatening. For instance, when yet again facing off against the Joker, Batman can say to himself “this is just another in the Joker’s long string of plots, and in the end he always loses. That’ll happen again in this situation, one way or another.” Saying something like this makes the situation less scary.

Soldiers, police officers, fire fighters (and yes, superheroes) need either to have the ability to distract themselves from “negative” stimuli and thoughts—things that could induce too much fear, anxiety, or sadness—or develop it very quickly. Psychologists are studying ways to train these abilities associated with resilience in people who don’t naturally come by them. One type of training is called cognitive control training, and occurs as part of mindfulness training as well as cognitive therapy. (Click here for an article about this.)

Resilience doesn’t mean that folks should never focus on negative stimuli, or should never feel afraid. Au contraire! Resilience involves the ability to figure out relevant from irrelevant negative stimuli. If you hear whistling that might be coming from a grenade, you want to pay attention to that sound, not distract yourself from it—even if you get scared in the process. Being scared isn’t a bad thing because it can give you an adrenaline rush that in turn enables you to fight the enemy or flee the scene. Too much anxiety, fear, sadness, though, can paralyze. (Click here for an article that reviews this literature; Troy & Mauss, 2011.)

And with experience, soldiers, and superheroes can develop their own kind of “spider-sense”—a mental tingling sensation when a military situation isn’t quite right. That something is off. You may not know what that something is right away, but time and experience lead you to trust it. (Note, though, that the spider-sense isn’t right 100% of the time, and sometimes relying on previous experience can give way to overconfidence in the spider-sense.)


Abele , A. E. & Gendolla , G. H. E. ( 2007 ). Individual differences in optimism predict the recall of personally relevant information . Personality and Individual Differences, 43 , 1125 –1135.

Aspinwall, L. G. & Brunhart , S. M. (1996). Distinguishing optimism from denial: Optimistic beliefs predict attention to health threats . Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin , 22 , 993 –1003.

Ochsner , K. N. Ray , R. D. Cooper , J. C. , et al. ( 2004 ). For better or for worse: Neural systems supporting the cognitive down and up-regulation of negative emotion. Neuroimage , 23 , 483 –499.

Troy, A. S., & Mauss, I. B. (2011). Resilience in the face of stress: Emotion regulation as a protective factor. In S. Southwick, D. Charney, M. Friedman, & B. Litz (Eds.), Resilience in psychiatric clinical practice. Cambridge University Press.

Copyright 2011 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
 Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is

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