Why people often recover quicker from worse events

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They say the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. Emotionally, love and anger may not be at opposite ends of a continuum but side-by-side. Anyone who’s ever been in a romantic relationship knows that it’s the people we love the most who make us the most angry.

But, somehow, these are also the people we forgive fastest. As Jane Austen put it: “She will be more hurt by it, and on the same principle will forgive him much sooner”[1]. Why is this?

The answer may relate to the “region-beta paradox”—the counterintuitive idea that intense emotional distress reactions may actually subside faster than mild ones[2].

The effect was demonstrated in a study by Dan Gilbert and his colleagues. Participants were divided into two groups, then insulted (by receiving a negative written assessment of their personality) by someone they were told they would either meet or not meet. Participants then predicted how they would feel five minutes after receiving the insult. People who expected to meet their insulter expected to dislike them more. But five minutes later, paradoxically, they actually disliked the insulter less than the other group who knew they’d never meet their insulter[2].

This paradox is due to the peculiar way human minds work, Gilbert and his colleagues believe. Although human beings can be quite good at predicting future events (e.g., “I think my partner and I are going to break up…”), we’re actually quite bad at predicting our future emotional states (“…and it will take me years to get over it”).

In particular, Gilbert argues, we’re often not aware of the healing processes that allow us to get over negative experiences. That’s why people incorrectly predict that winning the lottery or getting paralyzed will change their life forever, when in fact studies show that a couple years after such an event, their happiness levels mostly revert to their baseline state[3].

It’s natural to assume that intense emotional reactions will last longer than mild ones—after all, it takes longer to heal from a shattered patella than from mild tendinitis of the knee. But Gilbert argues that we only think this because, again, we’re not aware that intense hedonic states trigger psychological processes that attenuate them. But since these processes are triggered only when distress passes a critical threshold, we may bounce back from tough experiences quicker than merely annoying ones—when you shatter your patella, you go to the E.R. and get a cast, whereas you may let a trick knee bother you for years.

The region-beta paradox explains why residents of Enniskillen, a town in Northern Ireland where a bomb killed 11 people and injured 60 others, seemed to bounce back faster than communities that were less harder hit. Whereas people elsewhere in the country remained in denial, residents of Enniskillen actively sought social support—largely through church—and healed faster[4].

There’s an important lesson here: If you’re going through something difficult, don’t despair. You may recover quicker than you think.

?References

1. Austen, J. (1811). Sense and sensibility. Thomas Egerton: Whitehall, London.
2. Gilbert, D.T., Lieberman, M.D., Morewedge, C.K., & Wilson, T.D. (2004). The peculiar longevity of things not so bad. Psychological Science, 15, 14-9.
3. Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 917–927.
4. Brandon, S.E., & Silke, A.P. (2015). Near-and long-term psychological effects of exposure to terrorist attacks. In Bongar, B.M. (Ed.). Psychology of Terrorism. 175–193. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.