Experimental Science of Human Motivations and Relations


What makes people resilient? Much of it certainly has to do with heritable tendencies toward anxiety. Some people have an anxiety system that is more easily aroused than others’, which tends to make them less resilient in anxious circumstances—they are easily immobilized by the anxiety and less able to mount constructive responses. 

Beyond the good luck of genetics, another influence on resilience is secure close relationships. Human children and adults are intricately wired for warm, close, and responsive connection and confidence in one’s secure relationships can take the edge off of other insecurities and anxieties in life. In a recent social neuroscience study we found that securely attached participants showed no neural evidence of anxiety at all after a threatening experience in the lab that caused a spike in anxious brain activity among insecurely attached participants. In other studies we’ve found that various anxiety-arousing experiences in the lab cause defensive reactions only among insecurely attached, but not securely attached participants. Attachment security, however, is also at least partially beyond people’s control, because it arises in part
from childhood experiences with parents who may have been invasive, controlling, or absent, and subsequent relationship experiences over the life course that are difficult to predict or control. Selecting responsive partners
and learning relationship communication skills can increase security but attachment scars from childhood are difficult to completely erase. 

Intentional anxiety-management techniques can be more under people’s control. Aside from anxiolytic medication, the simplest are basic health, sleep, and exercise disciplines. Beyond that, somatic and concentration techniques related to thought management and self-distancing from distress fall under the rubric of mindfulness. Diaphragm breathing has been linked to parasympathetic nervous system activation and anxiety relief. Identifying merely as a breather in the here and now can also psychologically distance one from distressing thoughts and experiences, as can training attention onto single points of focus. Breathing and focusing exercises are often further paired with techniques that help people disidentify with anxious, intrusive thoughts by noticing them coming and going from a detached, non-judgmental, and objective perspective. Thinking about oneself in the third person perspective or from a physically distant vantage point can have similar effects. With these techniques, whirring, anxious thoughts about the self and one’s future can seem more remote and less linked to one’s current motivational state. We are currently probing the capacity for mindfulness interventions to activate approach motivation and relieve anxiety among people with anxious personalities. 

Goal efficacy—building competence—is another strategy for increasing resilience. Developing confidence that goals can go well and be likely to succeed can keep people from feeling anxious or becoming defensively biased and extreme in anxious circumstances. We’ve found that both measured goal efficacy in participants’ everyday personal projects, and manipulated goal efficacy in the lab (making people momentarily feel successful) can increase resilience. These measures and manipulations predict decreased anxiety and defensiveness in response to subsequent anxious-uncertainty threats. Accordingly, one strategy for boosting resilience is to build competence and learn goal- management skills that can sustain realistic hope for accomplishing goals. 

Meaning-seeking is another way that some people increase their resilient capacity to function well in anxious circumstances, and it may be particularly important for trait-anxious people and those caught in frustrating
circumstances. Having a meaningful goal to approach in anxious circumstances can be a reliable way to activate approach motivated states that quell anxiety. In some of the earliest psychological observations on meaning in life, Victor Frankl observed that orienting toward meaningful commitments could sustain resilience even for people in a Nazi concentration camp. In our own research we have found that people orient towards meaning by identifying with diverse values and ideals beyond the self. Commitment to values linked to relationships, groups, values, or worldviews can accordingly orient people toward meaning, provide resilience by stabilizing the anxiety system in anxious circumstances, and thereby increase performance. Personal values about the importance of loving and giving are particularly popular and are usually at the heart of the meanings people seek. ​​

*Note: to see in context of other research topics in our lab, click on the RESEARCH link at the top of this page.