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Ego Resiliency: Definition, Theory & Scale

Instructor: Emily Cummins
How resilient are you when something difficult happens? In this lesson we'll talk about a psychological theory known as ego resiliency that tries to understand how well people can adapt to difficult situations in their environment.

Ego Resiliency Theory

How well do you adapt to new situations? How easily do you respond to change? How do you handle uncomfortable situations? Can you 'bounce back,' as they say, from traumatic situations? These are all questions that psychologists have studied. The theory of ego resiliency tries to understand just how well people recover from difficult situations and adapt to changes in their environment. For example, if we are experiencing stress at work or strife in our personal lives, ego resiliency is all about how capable we are of handling this.

To be sure we are on the same page, what is the ego? Basically, psychologists think of the ego as kind of like our identity, including our thoughts about ourselves and our abilities. For example, thinking we are or are not smart, talented, or capable, are all thoughts that are related to our ego.

The psychologist Jack Block and his colleagues developed an influential theory of ego resiliency. Think of this theory as having two sides of the same coin. Ego resiliency is intertwined with ego control, which basically refers to things like our ability to control anger and aggression. So ego resiliency is all about how we can adapt to factors in our environment that stress us out, and ego control is our ability to resist impulses when we are stressed. One of the best-known examinations of ego resiliency comes from Block and his colleague Adam Kremen. They made a significant contribution to the theory of psychological resiliency when they developed a scale capable of measuring just how ego resilient someone might be. Let's talk about this scale now.

Ego Resiliency Scale

Block and Kremen argued that ego resiliency is a dynamic concept, meaning that our degree of resiliency can shift over our lifetime. We might have some flexibility in adapting differently to difficult situations. But how can we measure this? Block and Kremen decided to develop a scale and used what's known as a Likert scale, which is a common scale in questionnaire research. They used a 4-point scale that included a number of items such as, ''I quickly get over and recover from being startled,'' and, ''I get over my anger at someone reasonably quickly.'' The questionnaire is scored 1-4, with 1 being the lowest and 4 the highest. Here's the scale the authors used:

  • Does not apply at all (1)
  • Applies slightly, if at all (2)
  • Applies somewhat (3)
  • Applies very strongly (4)

What does this mean, exactly? Let's take the example of the item ''I get over my anger at someone reasonably quickly.'' If you answer 1, this means it probably takes you a long time to get over being angry at someone. If you answer 1 or 2 for most of the items, this means that you have fairly low resiliency. Conversely, if you select 3s and 4s for many items, you probably have much higher ego resiliency.

Ego Resiliency Experiment

Let's talk a little bit more about an experiment that the authors conducted using this scale. Block and Kremen drew their participants from students at the University of California, Berkeley, and the sample consisted of 49 women and 46 men.

Overcontrolled vs. Undercontrolled

The authors found that participants who were low on the ego resiliency scale tended to be characterized by what they termed overcontrolled. This means that these participants often felt vulnerable, had a difficult time trusting, and were generally very worried about being adequate. These participants generally displayed less ego resiliency.

On the other hand, participants who scored higher on the scale were considered to be undercontrolled. This means that these participants were better equipped to handle stress, could adapt more easily, and were generally happier and more comfortable with themselves. However, studies have also found that undercontrolled individuals might be too impulsive. For example, an inability to delay gratification is associated with undercontrolled individuals. This can lead to irresponsible decisions.

Overcontrolled individuals might be better at delaying gratification, but this is not always beneficial to us and these individuals might be too inflexible. So in fact, being either extremely undercontrolled or extremely overcontrolled can make being resilient and adapting to our environment more challenging.

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