Resilience and 'The Practice Effect'

Blog - Resilience and 'The Practice Effect'

Robert Aurbach | Published: October 13, 2015
That resilience is learned also fits with our common experience – sometimes we “discover” new ways of coping through experience or training.
So how do we learn to be resilient?  If it’s behaviour, we learn it the same way we learn many other behaviours – through practice.  Think of any complex behaviour: playing a scale on an instrument, kicking a footy, forming words without having to think about how to move our mouths to make the correct sounds, “working the room” at a social function.  We learn by practice.
The Practice Effect is how we learn virtually all complex behaviour (ii). There is actual practice – repeating something over and over, and mental practice – rehearsing the behaviour in the mind.  Research has established what sportsmen and others have always known: mental “practice” is very nearly as effective as actual physical repetition in creating The Practice Effect.  That’s why elite athletes envision their desired outcomes – it helps the mind to practice the desired outcome.
When we’re talking about behaviour that’s more global and pervasive than a specific task – things like whether or not we can handle a new challenge – the “practice” comes from what we tell ourselves in the privacy of our thoughts.  
“I’ll do well, because I’m good at that” invokes The Practice Effect and increases the chances of success when dealing with a new stressor.  
“I always stuff up when I’m asked to do that sort of thing” has the opposite effect. 
How we talk to ourselves is highly predictive of our outcomes (iii).
So, for much complex behaviour, The Practice Effect comes from what we tell ourselves, rather than from actual repetition.  That’s where superstitions, optimism and pessimism and other beliefs about who we are and how the world is likely to treat us come from.  This kind of mental repetition is often referred to as “self-talk”.
But we don’t have to listen to self-talk.  We can drown it out, ignore it or find other ways to avoid the message it offers.  Or we can choose to attend to positive messages. 
When we attend to positive messages, or don’t attend to negative messages, our ability to respond to the stressors to which we are subjected is unaffected by the self-talk.  And we are better able to cope.  In short, we are more resilient.  
The ability to moderate or control negative self-talk is then an operational definition of resilience.
As promised, this operational definition gives us the ability to think about different styles of resilience and what we might do to enhance them.  But that’s for next time….
i. Some might argue, looking at the resilience of children, that it’s something that we forget or “unlearn” as we grow older.  For purposes of this discussion, it probably doesn’t matter which is true. But the point does lead us to understand why many people have multiple styles of resilience – one that is preferred and additional strategies that they may have learned.  
ii.  For those that want a fuller explanation, consistent with the latest research in neuroplasticity see: Aurbach, R., “Breaking the Web of Needless Disability”, WORK: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment and Rehabilitation, Volume 48 (4) – Jan 1, 2014.
iii.  Sears JM1, Rolle LR, Schulman BA, Wickizer TM, Vocational Rehabilitation Program Evaluation: Comparison Group Challenges and the Role of Unmeasured Return-to-Work Expectations.. J Occup Rehabil. 2014 Mar 30.