Guinness World Records recently announced that a 112-year-old survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp is the world’s oldest man. The fact that Israel Kristal not only survived one of history’s worst nightmares but also bounced back and lived a life filled with love and success is astounding proof of human resilience. In fact, scientific research supports the idea that not only Kristal but all of us possess great resilience. Since we’re naturally buoyant, even major setbacks won’t sink us.

Having questioned and tested this upbeat premise, however, Arizona State University researchers offer evidence to the contrary. So-called “natural” resilience, the ability to maintain a usual level of functioning, is not altogether common, their new study indicates. When confronted with major, life-altering events, many people not only find it difficult to overcome, they also struggle for longer periods of time than previously thought, the researchers say.

Psychologists Frank Infurna, an assistant professor, and Suniya Luthar, Foundation Professor, said they arrived at their disheartening conclusion after analyzing data in a more nuanced way than past researchers.

They began their study with a glance backward. In particular, they studied the work of Bonanno and colleagues who reported resilience, or maintaining a stable equilibrium, is the “most common response” following significant negative life events. Specifically, Bonanno and his co-researchers estimated 68 percent of people showed resilience after a heart attack; 72 percent after the onset of chronic pain; 74 percent after a cancer diagnosis; 61 percent following a college campus mass shooting; and 85 percent after deploying for military service.

Replication, though, is essential to the scientific method; researchers are obliged to disregard as an “anomaly” results from any experiment that cannot be repeated. Wondering if researchers had properly tested past claims, Infurna and Luthar wondered: Can we duplicate resilience studies?


They decided to walk in the very same footsteps as past scientists and use updated data from the same studies they were attempting to replicate. Each of the studies used life satisfaction scores as a measure of resilience focused on three negative events — loss of a spouse, divorce, and unemployment. Participants included about 50,000 residents of Germany, including immigrants and resident foreigners. Face-to-face interviews and questionnaires provided most of the data for each.

Infurna and Luthar made one key change in the collection of data. While the original study ran from 1984 through 2003, they looked at an additional 8 years of data for each participant so their study covered a longer period, from 1984 through 2011.

Finally, Infurna and Luthar ran statistical models and performed an analysis based on updated methods and, more importantly, new assumptions. For example, the original researchers assumed life satisfaction measures would track the same for everyone in each of the two groups, the resilient people and the non-resilient people. However, Infurna and Luthar allowed for the possibility that non-resilient folks might travel unique paths. Comparing two people who are relatively non-resilient, it might take one person many years to recover after a negative life event, while the other might regain herself in a shorter amount of time.

Another important assumption underlying the original research was that people experienced similar peaks and valleys. By contrast, Infurna and Luthar assumed non-resilient people might undergo greater extremes than resilient people — testing lower on the life satisfaction scale after a bad time, they also might test higher once recovered.

Study Results

The researchers discovered their new assumptions made a dramatic difference. While the original researchers calculated 81 percent of people to be resilient following unemployment, Infurna and Luthar, by contrast, estimate a much lower rate. Less than half (48 percent) of participants functioned as usual after losing a job, with most people taking several years to return to normal life.

Similarly, previous estimates suggest 59 percent of people will function normally after losing a spouse, while Infurna and Luthar calculate a much lower 47 percent. And, though the original researchers estimated rates of resilience following divorce to be 72 percent, the new figure is just 36 percent.

The implications are significant, the authors said. If we believe most people are naturally resilient, this also implies anyone suffering some trauma needs little or even no help. At the same time, believing we have some innate ability to bounce back might lead us to expect too much of others — and ourselves — following a devastating life event, which may influence us to “blame the victim” whenever recovery is not immediate.

Source: Infurna F, Luthar S. Resilience to major life stressors is not as common as thought. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2016.