Why you really are stronger than you think.


We spend so much of our mental lives travelling backwards and forwards through the dark tunnel of time, gathering fragments of light that enable us to reconstruct the past and forecast the future. Psychology has provided some very counter intuitive insights on the processes by which we reach past the boundaries of the present (beyond which, nothing is certain). One of these is immune neglect.

Immune neglect is our blindness to our own psychological and emotional durability. It refers to people’s “failure to anticipate how much their psychological immune systems will hasten their recovery” when bad things happen (Gilbert et al, 1998). Subjective happiness is remarkably stable, and most events do little to change it. When bad things happen, immune mechanisms kick in, helping us to rationalize, reconstruct and minimize the impact negative events have on us. So we are able to rapidly make sense of things that happen to us, but because these processes operate outside of conscious awareness, we often don’t realize how durable we are. When asked to forecast the emotional impact future negative events will have on them, people’s estimations are significantly greater than ratings by people actually experiencing that particular event.

Part of this bias is due to focalism – the tendency to neglect other events in our lives which will influence our thoughts and emotions, as though negative events occur in vacuums. In reality, our lives are really not quite as empty as we think they are.

“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.” ~ A.A. Milne

Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2003). Affective forecasting. Advances in experimental social psychology35, 345-411.

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