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What Is Our Psychological Immune System? How We Should Really Protect Our Mental State

Emily Balcetis, Ph.D.
Social psychologist
By Emily Balcetis, Ph.D.
Social psychologist
Emily Balcetis, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Psychology at New York University and the author of Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See the World.
Image by Brkati Krokodil / Stocksy
March 2, 2020

Just as our bodies have ways of fighting off bacteria and viruses to improve our physical health, our minds have ways of maintaining our mental health. It's called our psychological immune system, and it shields us from some pretty disastrous maladies, but it also can be the root cause of some damaging outcomes. How does it protect us? When does it backfire?

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First, a case study.

Marjolein Feys and Frederik Anseel, researchers at Ghent University, interviewed about 400 Belgian singers auditioning for a spot on Idool, the Belgian version of a television program that launches otherwise amateur singers' professional careers. A week before their audition, the researchers asked the contestants to predict how they would feel if they lost the competition. Unsurprisingly, the group expected they would feel really unhappy. Unfortunately, for most, their dreams of stardom were dashed. Most were not selected to advance to the next round. 

But when the researchers followed up two days later to ask how they were doing, the same individuals who expected to be heartbroken reported feeling something more like "meh." They didn't feel the pain they had anticipated. In fact, the magnitude of their mistaken prediction of despair was even greater when they felt that the competition was fair. In other words, knowing that they had been given a fair shake, the disappointment they actually felt when they lost was far less than they thought it might be when imagining it in advance. 

The reports of unfortunate people's relatively positive emotional status flummoxes many of us looking at their lives from the outside. We think, "You really came up short. That had to have hurt." We expect them to feel as bad as they themselves predicted they would. But they don't. And it turns out to be a fairly universal and scientifically proven phenomenon. To wit, research with preschoolers who received only one sticker as a prize rather than two from a teacher, with adults who lost their jobs, who experienced a traumatic personal injury, or who witnessed a tragedy shows that we often experience a resilience we don't expect. 

All of this to say, the psychological immune system is at play.

What accounts for unexpected positivity is the protective power of the psychological immune system. Life's unfortunate circumstances pack a weaker punch than they seem like they should. Life's maladies don't pull us down as far we think they will before we experience them. This is because our cognitive system is capable of some impressive trickery. It can take the really rather sour lemons in our lives and make some unexpectedly delicious lemonade. 

I conducted a survey asking people to predict whether they would support a local charity raising funds for a national cancer research initiative. Eight of 10 individuals said absolutely and explained that generosity is an important part of who they are as people. But it's challenging to foresee the hiccups of daily life that might stand in the way of translating our plans into behavior. When we measured support for the event from survey respondents drawn from the same pool, we found that only three out of every 10 actually made a financial donation of any sort. The best of intentions did not always translate into real actions. 

But this is a fact that we try to hide, perhaps most readily from ourselves. And it's our psychological immune system that does it. 

Consider this nuance. In another survey, I asked people a few days after a different high-profile charity event occurred whether they had supported the cause in some way. The time commitment was more and the financial buy-in bigger, so rates of support were lower than with the other event. Here, six out of every hundred people I asked said they had. And this percentage tracked well with what the local media reported. People were honest in telling me that, despite the fact that they found the charity deserving, they had not, in fact, done what they thought was the right thing.

I checked back with the group a month later, asking whether they had, in fact, supported the event. Now, the levels of reported support somehow climbed high. People were mistakenly misremembering their intentions as actions. They reported having acted in a way they had only hoped they would. 

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It can hurt our sense of self to feel like we have not lived up to our own expectations of ourselves. 

One way we protect ourselves is by remembering the past in more favorable ways. Our brains craft summaries of our past deeds that are like little white lies to help us feel better about what we did or didn't do. This can help us feel better when we, for example, practiced for months for that audition on Idol but lost. Or got fewer stickers from our teacher than we hoped. We can still think we did well and simultaneously convince ourselves that the others in the room deserved the prize. I can still be good, even if they were excellent, we might say to ourselves. 

But that protective process can backfire in other regards. The problem is that accurately recalling not only our successes but also our shortcomings is essential for real growth and progress.

Nick Powdthavee is a scientist at Warwick Business School who studies the economics of happiness. I asked him if our psychological immune system is always helpful. Is it useful for us today to have our minds and memories forget our misgivings of the past? Powdthavee had a clear answer: "When people reflect on just the best parts of an experience, in that very moment, people are happier, but in the long run they may not be." He went on to explain, "When we're trying to decide what we should do in the future, all those incomplete memories might lead us to make the wrong decision. Knowledge is power, in this context too." 

We make wiser choices when we have more information to draw from. Consider this. Would we be better off remembering or forgetting the name of the restaurant that gave us serious food poisoning? Our gut might have something to say about this. 

Could we have better relationships with friends and family if we remembered or forgot the thing we said that hurt someone's feelings? Sure, we might want to forget the guilt, but we might create stronger and healthier emotional ties to others if we recalled what that triggering talking point was that we said. And don't say it again.

The psychological immune system, then, is double-edged. 

It protects our positive sense of self by pushing us to forget our transgressions against our own good intentions. But that protection might be shortsighted or cutting in other ways. To prevent influenza, many people preemptively take a low-dose of the virus in a yearly flu shot. In the same way, to prevent future missteps or regrettable lapses in judgment, we might consider taking a low dose of reality. 

We might let our minds experience some of the emotional sting of recalling our mistakes that we'd rather forget. Remembering the bad alongside the good can help us make better choices in the future. And that will make us happier in the long run.

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Emily Balcetis, Ph.D.
Emily Balcetis, Ph.D.
Social psychologist

Emily Balcetis, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Psychology at New York University and the author of Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See the World. She earned her BA in Music Performance and BA in Psychology from the University of Nebraska, and she earned her Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from Cornell University. She is the author of more than 70 scientific publications, conducting scientific research for almost 20 years investigating how our motivations and goal impact the ways we see, think about, and act in the world. She has been featured in ABC, MSNBC, Forbes, Newsweek, Time, Telemundo, National Public Radio, Scientific American, The Atlantic, Cosmopolitan, and GQ. Emily has received awards for her research from the Federation of Associations in Behavior & Brain Sciences, the International Society for Self and Identity, the Foundation for Personality and Social Psychology, and the Society for Experimental Social Psychology. She has also guest lectured at numerous institutions, including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, Berkeley, and the University of Chicago.