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Stress and political decision-making

Stress and political decision-making: A model of traumatic thinking and behavior in politics.

Trauma is the dysadaptive outcome of extreme stress. The thought and behavioral patterns associated with trauma are evident throughout the world -- particularly in war-torn regions. The impact of traumatic thinking and behavior surrounds us. The model that follows provides one way to understand it.

Intrapsychic and Interactive trauma characteristics

Becoming "like" a traumatized individual means adoption of that individual's intrapsychic representations[?] and interactive behaviors. In the contexts in which trauma has been studied, recurring core beliefs and behaviors appear. These form the basis to determine whether individuals and groups exhibit trauma behavior and include:

  1. Hypervigilance--characterized by generalized feelings of myriad threats and anxiety about contradictory new information.
  2. Rigid beliefs--which are used to predict one's own and others' behaviors and provide emotional distance from those defined as "enemy".
  3. Rigid behaviors--including physical withdrawal and the use of violence to control others' behaviors.
  4. Information disruption--characterized by the downgrading, discarding, or repressing of outside, past, or internal sources of information. This mechanism maintains and reinforces the rigid beliefs and behaviors.

The pathological action of these core components damages systemic integrity, reduces individual and systemic autonomy, and results in events likely to confirm traumatic representations.

When individuals feel generally anxious and threatened, they are predisposed to perceive particular events as threatening. Their hypervigilant state increases the likelihood of a hostile response to others (Nye, 1973). Childhood experiences of rigid discipline and punishment, lack of love, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, and an atmosphere of tension and aggression in which the child cannot express the experience of painful traumata, result in a general perception of the world as a threatening place. The restrictive, overwhelming, and unpredictable nature of the early environment leaves the conscience immature and predisposed to treat new information as dangerous (Lasswell, 1977). As these individuals have little room to experiment with new behavior, they become emotionally fixed in childhood (Kritsberg, 1985). Consequences in the adult include the development of extreme cognitive distinctions and corollary authoritarian behaviors in an attempt to control one's own and others' behaviors. (Adorno et al., 1950; Frenkel-Brunswick, 1954; Lipset, 1959; Rokeach, 1960; Miller, 1983, 1986).

Rokeach (1960) investigates this phenomenon based on a belief/disbelief continuum. Beliefs are accepted truths and disbeliefs are all rejected subsystems. Socially, this is represented by an ingroup vs. a continuum of outgroups. Groups protect themselves by shutting out other groups they perceive as "the enemy". At the same time, individuals within the group are uncritically accepted. As a result, extreme cognitive distinctions arise "between faithful and unfaithful, orthodox and heretical, loyal and subversive,...and friend and enemy" (p. 45). Paradoxically, as intimacy with other groups or individuals is disrupted and closure occurs, internal information is inhibited because individuals, fearing expulsion, conform to group expectations. When an individual or group becomes "closed minded" in this way, authority is likely to be seen as absolute.

In a traumatic response to an event, the individual's closed belief system is reaffirmed. The core belief, that the world is a hostile place, is revalidated, human relationships are reaffirmed as unreliable, and the individual's relationship to the ingroup is strengthened. Antagonistic groups experience "tunnel vision[?]" whereby each stereotypes the other. These stereotypes are projected onto outgroup members to predict behavior, generating prejudice and an expectation of hostility. Individuals become concerned with duty to the ingroup and with meeting group expectations, not with their own actions, thereby providing a mechanism by which brutal actions toward outgroups are implicitly or explicitly authorized (Kelman, 1973; Lifton, 1988). As the delusional systems interact, the projections become self-fulfilling (Bettelheim, 1960).

Thus, rigid belief and behavior systems resulting from human-induced disaster disrupt and/or suppress information necessary for the growth and autonomy of individuals and organizations. Deutsch (1966) identifies three informational flows crucial to individual and social well-being:

  • 1) information from the outside world,
  • 2) information from the past, and
  • 3) internal information.

It is characteristic of traumatized individuals that one or all of these information flows is disrupted.

Childhood trauma is particularly insidious. Often traumatic information from childhood is not consciously suppressed; instead, it is buried in the unconscious by the defense mechanism of repression. The repression of childhood trauma can lead the individual to repeat the trauma compulsively. As Alice Miller observes (1986), "only in the intrapsychic world of the individual does the past go on running its unwavering course and keep on being enacted anew in his or her present surroundings" (p. 198).

Bettelheim noted the power of repressed trauma when he wrote about Jewish children who were Holocaust victims:

Why are the victims in the position of not being able to speak about what happened to them in those days; why is it still dreadfully difficult for them, even twenty or thirty years later, to tell what they experienced as children? And why is it so important that these things be discussed? I am of the opinion that these two questions are closely related. For something one cannot talk about also cannot be buried, finds no resting place. If one doesn't refer to it, the wounds continue to fester from generation to generation. It is as Raphael says: "The world must realize that these deportations have branded us even into the third generation".... All [the victim's children] have suffered from their parents' inability to be open about their experiences and the marks left by them. (In Miller, 1986, p. 181)

The silence about what is seen and felt functions to maintain rigid behavioral patterns in the family. However, this results in the development of individuals who fear their emotions and lack the basic skills to do "reality checking" (Kritsberg, 1985, p. 20). In other words, their internal information flow is distorted. This dynamic is interjected through generations unless there is a healing intervention.

Institutionally, information disruption is equally pathological. Deutsch (1966) postulates that a system's long-term prospects depend on the integrity of the three informational flows. He defines integrity as "the unimpaired functioning of the facilities that carry the processes of self-determination" (p. 131). Cannon also (1932) recognizes the importance of integrity when he states that "the integrity of the organism as a whole rests on the integrity of its individual elements, and the elements, in turn, are impotent and useless save as parts of the organized whole" (p. 309).

Integrity is impaired by disrupting information flows from the past, from internal sources, or from external sources, or by overloading a channel of informational flow. The loss of integrity compromises systemic autonomy. The system then loses "power to change goals and to add new ones," and systemic survival becomes problematic (p. 140). Information disruption destroys integrity and imperils the organism's "health" by generating "pathological traffic patterns" (Deutsch, 1966, p. 137). These pathological patterns themselves become a source of disruption, and the pathology becomes self-sustaining in the organism.

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