The psychological immune system

Understanding the Psychological Immune System

The psychological immune system is a concept examined in the discipline of psychology. It is described as the system that is activated when humans are faced with potential or actual negative events in their life. The system functions to assist in protecting humans from extreme reactions to those negative events. Defense mechanisms are protective processes that are used to alter one’s perception of reality. These mechanisms work alongside the psychological immune system to help fight off bad feelings that result from unpleasant situations. The phenomena of the psychological immune system encompasses other related components of the psychology discipline such as affective forecasting(making predictions about negative feelings regarding an event) and durability biases(reasons that attribute to a person’s affective forecasting being inaccurate).

Functions of the Psychological Immune System

All human beings have both a biological and psychological immune system. However, most people are only aware of the system that works to protect the physical body from harm. Just as the biological immune system has a job to recognize, defend, and protect the physical body from harmful pathogens, the psychological immune system is put in place to protect human beings from negative events that affect their emotional and psychological well-being. Simply put, people’s psychological immune systems help them to cope with horrible life events (Fiske, Susan T. 2004). It works as a barrier in an attempt to protect people from negative emotions in the event that something bad happens. Like the biological immune system, the psychological immune system is always on alert without our being aware of it (Kagan, Herman 2005 The Psychological Immune System, Its Structure and Function pg. 94). Our mental, like our physical state must be protected at all times.

Defense Mechanisms

Like all systems, there must be defense strategies put in place to protect the specimen from harm. While the biological immune system uses mechanisms such as antibodies, people may use strategies such as the following: ego defense, rationalization, dissonance reduction, motivated reasoning, self-serving attribution, and more. These are just some of the terms that psychologists have used to describe the various mechanisms of the psychological immune system (Gilbert, D.T., Blumberg, S.J.. Pinel, E.C., Wilson, T.D., and Wheatley, T.P, 1998). Although, the system is constantly working, it will not always be successful at fully protecting one from negative feelings. As emotional beings, humans try to brace for those negative feelings. We do so by trying to plan for potential negative misfortunes.

Affective Forecasting

Affective forecasting describes people’s attempts to predict how future events will make them feel (Fiske, Susan T. 2004). This concept is applied in many aspects of human life. We make choices based on how we will feel about the end result. As Dr. Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard Psychology professor, stated for a Psychology Today interview conducted by his fellow colleague Susan Fiske, “Whether we’re trying to decide what to have for breakfast, or whether or not to get married, every decision is based on the belief that one choice will probably lead us to feel better than another choice”. Though we make attempts to predict how we may feel in the event of an unpleasant situation, we are often off-the-mark.

The Durability Bias

Human beings frequently make inaccurate predictions about our affective state because we are often the victims of the durability bias. People tend to overestimate the duration of their reactions to negative events (Fiske, Susan T. 2004). In a study conducted by Gilbert, Blumberg, Pinel, Wilson, and Wheatley (1998), they spoke of a few reasons why durability biases arise in affective forecasting. One reason given for overestimating the duration of one’s feelings is misconstrual which relates to one not giving an accurate assessment of their feelings in a situation because they have never been placed in that situation before. It is difficult to forecast one’s reactions to events that one has never experienced because it is difficult to know precisely what those events will entail (Gilbert et al. 1998). For example, most people would predict that they would feel vastly devastated if they were to lose a limb. However, losing a limb to diabetes may elicit different emotions than if you lost your leg saving a fellow soldier from a land mine. A positive, more appreciative affect may surface such as feelings of relief that one did not lose their life.

One may also overestimate their reaction to an event that they know a great deal about which could lead to inaccurate theories regarding the event. For example, some women experience physical and emotional distress before and during menstruation. One might expect that recurrent experiences with such ordinary events would cure misconceptions about them, but the ability to remember one’s own experiences accurately is subject to error, therefore, inaccurate theories about the affective consequences may result (Gilbert et al. 1998). In other words, a woman may predict that she is going to feel distressed during menses when in actuality each event may not produce the expected result.

People may predict they will feel either positively or negatively about a future event to make them feel at ease in the present, a technique known as motivated distortion. For example, a teenager may say, “Once I get my new car my social life will be great” because the thought of this prediction brings out positive emotions. On the other side, that teenager may use what Gilbert et al. terms “defensive pessimism” which involves giving a negative prediction of your emotions. That way, when the negative event occurs, it doesn’t make one feel as bad as one predicted. For instance, this same teenager may say, “If I fail my driving test I will be sentenced to being a total loser with a life-long bus pass and no social life”. The likelihood of the teen never obtaining their license is slim, but making such an extreme prediction of one’s feelings will aid in one not feeling so bad when the less-negative or positive event occurs. In other words, our teen will not end up a lifelong bus rider, just a teenager having to repeat the drivers test.

Focalism is another durability bias connected to the psychological immune system. When considering a tragic event, many people engage in focalism, assuming that the negative event will be the center of their lives and no other events will moderate its impact (Fiske, Susan T. 2004). The fact of the matter is that trauma does not take place in a vacuum: Life goes on, and non-focal events do happen and do have affective consequences (Gilbert et al. 1998). A husband may give an overestimate of how he would feel 5 years after the death of his wife. He will most likely only consider the tragedy in making his prediction and not consider the other events that will take place in his life that will alter his affective state. Because non-focal events are likely to absorb attention and thus neutralize affective responses to focal events, the failure to consider them should generally cause people to overestimate the duration of their affective responses (Gilbert et al. 1998).

1.Fiske, Susan T., (2004) Social Beings: A Core Motives Approach to Social Psychology
2.Gilbert, D.T., Blumberg, S.J.. Pinel, E.C., Wilson, T.D., and Wheatley, T.P, (1998) Immune Neglect: A Source of Durability Bias in Affective Forecasting
3.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 17, No. 3 pp. 617-638
4.Kagan, Herman 2005 The Psychological Immune System, Its Structure and Function pg. 94

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