Why 1 in 3 People Adapt to Change More Successfully

When a big change occurs in someone’s life, some people find inspiration in it while others find imprisonment. A psychologist named Salvatore Maddi and an executive named Carl Horn asked themselves why in the 70s, and it resulted in one of the most interesting experiments in history.


The experiment

In 1974, Maddi read an article in the Family Circle Magazine which talked about the importance of avoiding stress. Avoiding change was the recommended way of avoiding stress. Maddi was shocked to read this – at the time, his studies on creative people were looking to reveal how flashes of insight and originality were more likely to come from people who enjoyed stimulating experienced and fluctuating environments. The article “implied that, from what my research was showing, creative people are trying to commit suicide,” Maddi said. This didn’t make any sense, and Maddi quickly realized that there were certain changes between the article and his research.

Maddi was already friends with Horn whom he met while he was working for his employer, the big communication company known as “Ma Bell”. Knowing that Ma Bell’s monopoly in the USA would soon be cut off, Maddi reached to Horn about his idea to study Ma Bell’s employees before, after and during the breakup. Horn agreed and even offered to fund the project himself. For the next 12 years, Salvatore Maddi and his team used the Illinois Bell division of the phone company as their lab. They took notes, asked questions and measured the blood pressure of the employees regularly as the American economy went back and forth. When the breakup finally occurred, half of the people in the study were laid off, while the other half stayed. Maddi and his team however, continued studying both groups for another 6 years. The results were incredible.

The adaptive third

The majority of people havebeen literally torn apart – they suffered strokes, cancer, suicides, divorces, heart attack, alcoholism… However, a third of the employees didn’t just survive – they thrived under the difficult circumstances. They didn’t have any health problems, and those who stayed in Illinois Bell were soon high-ranking leaders. Those laid off became leaders in new companies. And most of the people in the so-called Adaptive Third were ordinary. They looked like anyone else on paper, and weren’t more adaptive due to lower stress levels. They weren’t more adaptive due to better bosses or happier lives either. What separated them was simple – while everyone bounced back, the Adaptive Third took a step forward. This is what Maddi called an “existential courage”.

When changes strike, the brain asks the question “What does this mean?” In order to clear up the confusion, our mind goes searching for answers, but we never look in the same place twice.

According to Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychologist from the University of California-Irvine, 2 out of 3 grieving widows and bereaved parents as well as victims of terrorism, child abuse and natural disasters were trying to search for answers in the past. For decades, psychologists around the world thought that this was a universal reaction to change – but they were wrong.

According to a study conducted for the past 3 decades, Silver has discovered that 1 out of 3 trauma victims won’t search for a reason why. Thisgroup of people will adjust best in the coming weeks, months and years after the change.

When the employees lost their jobs at Illinois Bell, they did what most of us would do – retraced their steps and searched for answers in the past. They were consumed with how things used to be in the good ‘ol days, and had anxious reactions when the scientists asked them about their future plans.

The Adaptive third was different – these people asked the same question (What does this mean?), but reacted differently to it. Instead of trying to make sense what they have done wrong, they tried to make sense of what they could do. This is probably the greatest adaptation lesson. When change strikes, don’t look back – focus on looking forward in order to overcome it.

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