Psychological Capabilities for Resilience
When the National Socialists assumed power in Germany in 1933 and ushered in a series of laws that segregated Jews from “Aryan” society, most Jews believed that the Nazi regime would not remain in power for long. It was not until the “Night of Broken Glass” in 1938 — when Nazis coordinated violent, widespread attacks against Jewish synagogues, schools, businesses, hospitals, and homes — that most German Jews realized the gravity of the threat and urgently tried to flee. Resistance movements did not begin in earnest until 1943. Today in 2022, the need for the will and ability to protect civil liberties and defend sovereignty is once again clear, after Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and China’s escalatory threats to use military force to annex Taiwan. In any society, the capacity to defend itself hinges on resilience.
A resilient populace is prepared to resist — to fight to regain power and sovereignty when it is lost. The Resistance Operating Concept describes resilience as a foundation for resistance. The NATO Special Operations Headquarters’ Comprehensive Defence Handbook echoes this idea, stating that “[r]esilience is the foundation atop the whole-of-society bedrock.” And most recently, the 2022 U.S. National Defense Strategy highlights resilience as a means for deterrence. Each of these foundational documents underscore a critical point: If a nation lacks the will to defend its sovereignty, then its overall resistance capacity is severely impacted.
Despite a renewed focus on resilience and resistance among security planners and practitioners, there is a gap in the current understanding of the psychological capabilities people need to defend and regain sovereignty. Resiliency-building efforts tend to focus almost exclusively on civil preparedness for natural, accidental, or malicious disasters through infrastructure resource management, emergency response protocols, communication networks, and educating the public. This type of preparedness is necessary but insufficient. Preparing individuals and populations for invasion requires cognitive readiness. Determination. Motivation to get in and stay in the fight. Psychologically resilient individuals feel a sense of connection and belonging to their social circles and community environment. They trust their local forces and civilian services. They are knowledgeable about enemy influence attempts. They believe in their country’s narratives and purpose and feel a sense of national identity and pride.
To achieve these outcomes, resilience building must also equip people to deal with the psychological challenges pre-invasion (anticipation and uncertainty), during invasion (coping, acceptance, and unity), and post-invasion (psychological change). Ukraine provides a model example. After what some call a weak and divided defense against Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, Ukraine’s response to Russia’s 2022 assault is nothing short of impressive. They have so far taken back 50 percent of the territory Russia occupied at the start of the war. What accounts for the difference? After 2014, Ukraine adopted a whole-of-society approach to help bolster its government and civic sector capabilities to include psychological resilience. The result is a Ukraine that remains determined, confident in victory, innovative, and united. Other nations should follow step.
Anticipation Pre-Invasion: The Psychology of Uncertainty
Preparing without knowing if, when, where, or how a threat will occur is psychologically challenging. Uncertainty causes angst. It is also linked to decreases in motivation, focus, cooperation, and sense of purpose. For example, runners are most likely to slow their pace and “give in to pain” when faced with uncertain conditions during a race, or that the reality of losing a job has less of a negative impact on one’s overall health than experiencing job uncertainty. According to neuroscientists Heidi Grand and Tal Goldhamer, “[t]hreats of uncertainty literally make us less capable, because dealing with them is just not something our brains evolved to do.”
Fortunately, people can learn to navigate uncertainty. Indeed, top athletes intentionally train for it. Performance expert Steve Magness writes: “Similar to how we adapt to the stress of a physical workout by increasing the strength of our muscle fibers, building mitochondria, or producing more red blood cells, our brains adapt to the stress of uncertainty, by adjusting our stress response, establishing and reinforcing memory connections, and being better equipped to handle that formerly uncertain situation.” With exposure to uncertainty comes more psychological preparedness, not necessarily for specific incidents, but for the discomfort that unanticipated incidents may bring.
As such, in the same ways athletes train for uncertainty that they may face during competition, societies must also psychologically train for the unexpected. One way to develop this capability is through interagency training and scenario planning and simulation that intentionally injects elements of uncertainty. This not only helps participants learn procedures and practice their responses, but it also provides a forum for participants to develop important relationships with others involved in planning and preparation processes. As evidenced in Ukraine, a comprehensive defense approach is crucial. Comprehensive defense is defined as “an official Government strategy, which encompasses a whole-of-society approach to protecting the nation against potential threats.” This means fostering relationships across government entities (political and military, including conventional and irregular forces) and civilian sectors of society (e.g., community-based organizations, religious leaders, and societal influencers) to serve a critical role in coping if an invasion occurs.
Coping During Invasion: The Psychology of Acceptance and Unity
Resilient people display two essential coping skills during a crisis — the ability to accept what is happening and the ability to adopt a unified front to implement solutions. Psychological acceptance, or “the active embracing of subjective experience, particularly distressing experiences,” is cognitively challenging. When facing distressing events, suppression and denial are often more attractive than acceptance because avoidance offers temporary comfort. But acceptance is critical for action.
People must also be prepared to innovate in the face of unanticipated circumstances. Organizational resilience research underscores the importance of bricolage, or the “capability to improvise and to solve problems creatively.” Ukrainians, for example, must use everything at their disposal in their current defense against Russian invaders. One Ukrainian woman reportedly threw a jar of pickles from her balcony to crash a drone. Ukrainian farmers have used tractors to tow Russian tanks, and one brewery made Molotov cocktails in their bottles, re-labeling them “Putin is a Dickhead.” These examples demonstrate a mastery of bricolage — quickly innovating with whatever available resources one has during a crisis.
Coordinated actions are even more impactful. The most successful groups are those that can unite to achieve a common goal. Sports teams provide a good example. The typical baseball team is made up of very different types of individuals from different regions, backgrounds, ethnicities, beliefs, etc. Oftentimes these various social identities might not easily mix. But the teams that can put aside these individual identities and focus on their team identity tend to win more games.
Similarly, a strong national identity is widely recognized as crucial to successful resilience. However, unity is not automatic. Social psychology research has identified several mechanisms that help bring groups together to collaborate more effectively. Much of this research focuses on the power of contact, which again demonstrates the importance of adopting a whole-of-society approach throughout planning and preparation efforts. Inclusion and consensual (but not co-opted) cohesion generally enhance resilience. But aside from simply getting different entities together, there are four conditions of intergroup contact that can maximize effects: establishing common goals; dedication to cooperation; the development of equality in status; and the presence of institutional support.
These conditions translate into recommended actions to facilitate effective whole-of-society collaborations, the first of which is to focus on common objectives. Bringing different stakeholders together, each of which has their own agendas, requires changing an “us versus them” mindset to a “we” mentality. Individual motivations to collaborate might differ, but emphasizing a clear, overarching mission can assist in bridging differences and facilitating team productivity. The second recommendation is to get genuine buy-in from all participants. This recommendation is obvious on the surface yet is often minimized or ignored entirely. This is not without consequence, as dedicated cooperation rather than passive participation is fundamental to group cohesion and productivity. Genuine buy-in does not come from direct orders that force people to participate. It comes from knowing that one’s participation is needed and valued. As such, recommendation three centers around psychological research on status equality. Successful intergroup cooperation involves the recognition of team members strengths, skillsets, and expertise. Leaning on expertise diversity can lead to more successful, unified action.
Adaptation Post-Invasion: The Psychology of Change
After crises comes a period of learning and adaptation. Reflection and learning require cognitive capabilities to evaluate a crisis and enact change based on “lessons learned.” In organizational psychology research, this process of learning post-crisis is described as an “ongoing process of reflection and action characterized by asking questions, seeking feedback, experimenting, reflecting on results, and discussing errors or unexpected outcomes of actions.” Organizational-level learning also comes from observing others’ successes and failures. For example, airline and railroad accidents decline as accidents by other firms in the same industry increase.
However, simply identifying lessons learned does not necessarily mean effective adaptation. Change is a process. People resist change for a variety of reasons, including the increased work that comes with change and the previously discussed psychological challenges associated with uncertainty. We cannot simply ignore resistance to change. To adapt, we must determine the individual and group drivers of resistance to change and address them. Armed with this understanding, leaders can develop more effective strategic communication. This sounds obvious on the surface, and yet research on organizational change finds that while most senior managers understand the reasons behind major decisions, a relative minority of lower-level supervisors and employees think that management adequately explains the reasons behind these decisions. Leaders must communicate clearly, repeatedly, and reinforce the deeply held societal values that further promote national identity.
Many of the psychological capabilities to improve societal resilience can be integrated into three broad focus areas: education, information, and inclusion. Education should not only raise awareness about trends that may affect national safety or potential threats to sovereignty, but it should emphasize a country’s unique strengths, national history, culture, and values. Mongolia, a democracy bordered by authoritarian Russia and China, has taken several measures along these lines. For example, this year’s Nadaam festival, Mongolia’s most important national holiday that celebrates its independence and nomadic culture, coincided with the Gobi Wolf 2022 exercise, “the Pacific Resilience Disaster Response Exercise and Exchange Program, which focuses on interagency coordination and foreign humanitarian assistance.” Emphasizing resilience during important cultural events is something other nations can do.
A psychologically resilient population must also be informed about the modern information environment and how it plays a role in shaping thinking and behavior. Disinformation education and media literacy, for example, are critical, as disinformation erodes national cohesion, trust, and inclusion. According to a recent study, Taiwan is one of the most frequent targets of disinformation, which has led civic groups such as Taiwan FactCheck Center, Cofacts, and News Helper to improve public media literacy through educating the Taiwanese people on how to more critically evaluate digital information and distinguish between true and false content. According to Taiwan FactCheck Centre Chairman Hu Yuan-hui: “All stakeholders need to be involved – members of the public, the media, tech companies, fact-checking organisations, academia, the government.” This again underscores the importance of a comprehensive, whole-of-society approach.
A whole-of-society and whole-of-government approach is inherently inclusive. Inclusion efforts often focus on bolstering national identity to give people a sense of pride and belongingness, but it can simultaneously train critical skills. For example, in response to Polish citizens’ concerns about the war in Ukraine, the Polish Ministry of National Defense recently established a “Train with the Army” project that offers Polish military-led courses to civilians on survival skills, how to properly handle weapons and gas masks, self-defense, and other critical skills. One participant commented that “Even a very strong army can have very big troubles with simple people who can fight in the woods or in the streets, who can resist against regular soldiers … So I think we should all be prepared at least a bit to stay safe, to use arms — even simple ones — and to have some knowledge of survival.”
These three broad means to build resilience serve as a general guidepost, but using them to build specific psychological resilience capabilities is, of course, not easy. It takes time and sustained effort. It also requires dedicated leadership that prioritizes long-term resilience. And unfortunately, there is no “one-size-fits all approach” to cultivate psychologically resilient societies given the unique needs, culture, and threats in different regions. But the psychological capabilities discussed in this article provide a goal to work towards and initial recommendations to iterate on. For nations fighting to keep their democratic values in the face of authoritarian pressures — nations like Ukraine, Georgia, Taiwan, Mongolia, Baltic and Balkan states, and many others — the need is urgent.
Dr. Shannon Houck is an assistant professor in the Defense Analysis Department at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. She is a social psychologist with expertise on the science of influence and persuasion, psychological resilience and resistance, and extremism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this article are the views of the author alone. They do not reflect the official position of the Naval Postgraduate School, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any other entity within the U.S. government, and the authors are not authorized to provide any official position of these entities.