How Stress Can Change Your Mind
Laura was playing a board game with her husband and two small children the night two masked men with guns burst in through her unlocked garage door. They ordered her family to lie face-down while they ransacked the house. Even now, seven years later, she vividly remembers the scratchy feeling of the carpet on her cheek and the squeezing terror. And even now, seven years later, she says her view of people has notably dimmed. Reflecting on the aftermath of this event, Laura, now age 40, says she has a hard time believing that strangers are entirely trustworthy or good.
Laura's sister, Janel, age 43, also remembers a night that changed her life—the evening that she sat at home alone, sobbing, after learning of her diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer earlier that day. That night, she began mourning all she would miss. Her two children were grown but not yet married. They were still exploring careers. She did not yet have grandchildren. And the odds were high that she would never get to watch these events unfold. Yet, in the face of her grief, Janel maintains that life is very much worth living and, moreover, that the world is a fundamentally good place, filled with much more good than bad.
These sisters' stories illustrate the fact that painful experiences are a part of the human experience and that such experiences can sometimes make us question our beliefs about the world. But when does this happen? When does experiencing adversity lead us, like Laura, to view the world and people in it as less good? Conversely, when is it the case that, like Janel, adversity may not affect our core beliefs about the world?
These are questions psychologists have been asking for close to 30 years, but they’ve found it hard to get conclusive answers. Why? Because researchers find it difficult to ask people questions about their beliefs about the world—their "worldviews"—both before and after they experience adversity in order to see how their worldviews change. After all, we rarely see adversity coming.
But in a study I conducted with my colleague, Roxane Cohen Silver, we managed to do just that. How? Not by correctly predicting when adversity would strike, but instead by surveying a large sample of people from across the U.S. at several points in time and counting on the fact that adversity would naturally befall some of them during the course of the study. In that way, we could measure people's worldviews both before and after they experienced adversity, allowing us to examine factors that predict whether and how people’s worldviews changed.
This research taught us five lessons about when adversity leads people’s worldviews to change:
1) All adversity is not the same.
Although all adversity is by definition distressing, different kinds of adverse life events can affect worldviews in different ways. In our research, events that involved negative interactions with other people—such as being the victim of crime or experiencing relationship upheaval—were the most likely to change people's beliefs about the goodness, or "benevolence," of the world. In contrast, events such as serious illness or injury were most likely to affect the degree to which people perceived the world as fair or controllable. So, it may not be surprising that crime victim Laura had her views of the goodness of other people tarnished, while Janel, in suffering a serious illness, did not. But we might have expected Janel to disagree more than most people with the notion that life is fundamentally fair.
2) Life experience matters.
When we looked at the question of who in our study was most likely to experience worldview change following adversity, such changes were more likely among younger than older adults. Although our data did not tell us exactly why this is the case, we think that sheer life experience—including prior adversity—may shape and strengthen our worldviews such that they are more resistant to change when adversity occurs again in the future. Although the three-year age gap between Laura and Janel probably isn't big enough for age to make a difference, a bigger difference in age might predict that the older sister would have more stable worldviews.
3) The consistency of our beliefs can change, too.
When asked to rate their belief in the benevolence, fairness, or controllability of the world, most people have no trouble doing so on any given day. However, that doesn't mean a given person's beliefs are always the same: your sense that the world is a good place, for example, may fluctuate over time, perhaps depending on your mood, recent social interactions, or even the weather. But in general, the stronger you hold a belief, the more consistent it tends to be over time.
In our research, people who experienced more adverse events tended to have benevolence beliefs that were less consistent and that fluctuated more from time to time. This finding suggests that adversity may not just change what you believe—such as whether the world is good or not—but also how certain you are in your beliefs. In other words, adversity may make both Laura and Janel more tentative in their conclusions about the world.
4) Most change is subtle.
An important big picture finding from our research was that changes in people’s beliefs and worldviews were fairly small, on average. Although some psychological theories suggest that people's worldviews should radically change, or even "shatter," in the face of adversity, our study did not provide evidence for that. In all likelihood, while Laura and Janel's views of the world may have shifted in ways notable to them—and detectable by our research—their beliefs after experiencing adversity probably resembled their beliefs beforehand.
5) Adversity is common
Although this wasn't the original focus of our research, doing this study revealed the proportion of people in our study who did and did not experience adversity between surveys, which were spaced roughly six months apart. In any given six-month window, between 40% and 50% of people experienced some sort of serious adversity such as illness, injury, the death of a loved one, violence, or other highly stressful event. This sobering and thought-provoking statistic can lead us to reflect on our own recent experiences of adversity and how they may have affected our worldviews.
But, for me, this statistic also serves as a reminder to act with kindness: I never know which of the people I interact with on a given day are walking in a Laura’s or a Janel’s shoes. I only know that a lot of them surely are.
For Further Reading
Poulin, M. J., & Silver, R. C. (2019). When are assumptions shaken? A prospective, longitudinal investigation of negative life events and worldviews in a national sample. Journal of Research in Personality.
Michael Poulin is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University at Buffalo and director of the Stress, Coping, and Prosocial Engagement (SCoPE) Lab.