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26

Sep

2019

How do people still continue to achieve in the face of severe adversity?

Written by: Yasmin Reid-Linfoot

 
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Photo by Baim Hanif on Unsplash

 

This is a question I have become increasingly pre-occupied with throughout my academic career. As a working-class woman with an “unconventional” background, I have often been told that my potential ought to be limited. Personally, I haven’t found this to be true, and I know of so many other inspiring people from similar backgrounds – so the ability of people like us to continue to thrive is of major interest. I’m much more interested in the ‘why’ than the ‘what’ – we know people can succeed no matter their environmental influences, but it would benefit the field (and our ability to design effective interventions) massively if we could figure out how and why it happens.

In my second year as an undergraduate at Cambridge, I was finally able to grapple with the concept of resilience in a formally taught environment. We tackled questions such as why resilience seems ordinary in a lot of children, and why not all children will perform the same, even given the same risks. Much of this was fascinating and built on ideas I’d already had. However, the current modelling of resilience left something to be desired for me.

I learnt that the ‘old’ model of childhood resilience was one of diathesis-stress. Some children were characterised as vulnerable: those who underperformed in unfavourable conditions. Others were termed resilient and performed the same under negative conditions as they did under favourable ones. Over time, this model has shifted to a differential susceptibility perspective – namely that some children are more malleable than others. These malleable individuals are more affected by their situation, underperforming in negative environments but overachieving compared to their fixed peers in more favourable conditions.

For me, even the later model left something to be desired. Neither snapshot of behaviour recognised people who thrive specifically because of the negativity they have been exposed to. Even when I widened my reading past my recommended papers, I couldn’t find much research conducted on this idea. I think this lack of evidence and theory misses a key component of the experience of a challenging environment – namely that through overcoming difficulties, skills are developed which can really help in future.

Since completing my second year, I’ve been exposed to the idea of ‘antifragility’, a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This concept, he writes, is the true opposite of fragility (while resilience is a related but not totally opposing idea, where people are able to stay the same under difficult conditions). He defines antifragility as an ability to gain specifically from experiencing challenge. This concept places importance on the experience of challenge itself, and re-centres it in shaping the individual.

Though Taleb applies antifragility to many disciplines outside of developmental psychology, I think the concept could be useful in informing developmental research in the coming years. Through focusing on what people gain from ‘disadvantageous’ environments (as well as continuing focus on what they might be deprived of) we are likely to get a more comprehensive view of how people continue to not only cope, but to thrive, in the face of a challenging experience or environment.

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About the Author: Yasmin Reid-Linfoot

Yasmin Reid-Linfoot is a final year Psychological and Behavioural Sciences undergraduate at the University of Cambridge. Her research interests lie primarily in childhood resilience, and she is a keen champion of social mobility, having been recognised at the 2018 Student Social Mobility Awards. She is also the recipient of the 2018 and 2019 Cambri...

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