Resilience as a positive force

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Disruption has the power to upend our lives. But approached constructively, disruption and resilience can be positive.

Disruptions can affect individuals, society or technology and are almost impossible to avoid. So what’s the best way for humans and machines to respond to these glitches? And how can they bounce back stronger from challenging situations?

Two sides of the same coin

Disruption often creates uncertainty because we are unsure how to deal with it. "We sense that our power and control over the situation is limited," says psychologist Petra Schmid, Assistant Professor in the Department of Management, Technology and Economics. Disturbances in our day-to-day life trigger a chain reaction. "When our routine is interrupted, we have to exert more self-control to compensate for the disruption," she explains. That makes it harder to concentrate and means we are more likely to lose focus, but how this affects our resilience varies from one person to the next. "Depending on how vulnerable an individual is to disruption, they may actually emerge stronger from a negative experience if they apply the right resilience strategy," says Schmid.

The key to progress?

Disruption may be undesirable, but it can have a positive knock-on effect by paving the way for change. "Disruption creates a sense of flux or upheaval that we can use to our advantage," says the psychologist. Times of change offer an opportunity to reflect and focus on our core values. They prompt us to ask what really matters - and what we really want. "People tend to be less inclined to address these kinds of issues when things are running smoothly," she adds. History shows that disruption leads to remarkable change and progress as people strive to escape disorder and return things to a state of equilibrium. So might disruption actually be a prerequisite for progress?

Petra Schmid believes it is: "Disturbances in our day-to-day lives inspire creativity and innovation." If everything always ran smoothly, we wouldn’t want to make many changes - which is why Schmid sees positives even in the coronavirus pandemic. She argues that it has given rise to new forms of working and encouraged people to spend more time on hobbies they would have neglected in normal times, from new sporting activities to language learning and self-improvement.

Yearning for normalcy

Cognitive scientist Christoph Hölscher is interested in resilience in all its forms - and not only in humans: "The concept of resilience can be applied to various disciplines." That’s because all systems can be in one of two states: their normal state or a disrupted one. A system in this context might be a human being, a piece of technical infrastructure or a combination of the two. When a system is disrupted, it yearns to be restored to its normal state.

Thus, the principle of human resilience can also be applied to technical systems, provided that these systems are capable of responding adaptively to their environment. "One way to develop resilience is through adaptive cognition," says Hölscher. This is the ability to react appropriately to one’s environment and to learn from challenges. "Whether you’re a machine or a person, learning takes place when something happens that doesn’t fit within your standard framework."

Recipe for greater resilience

Hölscher is particularly interested in how this applies when machines learn from their users and vice versa. For example, how can medtech companies design ventilators that can be used quickly and appropriately in a stressful situation? He suggests there are two key strategies: "The first is to acknowledge that the perfect system doesn’t exist. But even more important is that the user acquires the necessary expertise in operating the device." Specifically, this means practising how to use the system under normal, non-stressful conditions and then steadily raising the levels of stress as the training continues. This is the principle behind pilot training, which requires humans and machines to work closely together.

"But however much expertise someone has - and however well the system is designed - what ultimately counts is the individual’s ability to cope with stress," says Hölscher. The degree to which we attribute a disruption to ourselves or to an external event is key. In other words, do we blame ourselves or the situation? "It’s important to take a certain amount of personal responsibility, but attributing too much blame to ourselves can end up blocking our way forward," says Hölscher.

Driver of change

The fact is that we need disruptions to set transformation processes in motion. "Disruptions create opportunities for long-term change," says Hölscher. Like Schmid, he views the pandemic as a disruptive event that is serving to accelerate certain trends and innovations such as working from home and video conferencing. Disruptions can have positive consequences on both an individual and societal level but they always come at a price, says Hölscher. Coping mechanisms are important here, as is the ability of the systems involved to adapt to change. With plenty of reflection and the necessary expertise, we can let disruption and resilience reveal their positive side.

This text has been published in the 21/01 issue of the Globe magazine.

Angelika Bühler