American Psychological Association

118th Annual Convention
San Diego, August 12-15 2010




Sir Michael Rutter

Sir Michael Rutter


From Individual Differences to Resilience: From Traits to Processes


The introduction to Sir Michael Rutter, by past-APA President Richard Suinn, was extensive and effusive: While Sir Michael Rutter is to some synonymous with "resilience", long before the recent attention to this subject, he was already considered to be "the father of modern child psychiatry", with more than 40 books to his name, and numerous awards and honors, not least of which was Knighthood.

[At the end he was asked by Dr. Suinn to describe his experience of being knighted, and naturally obliged, with good nature and great humility.]

Sir Michael Rutter described the development of his interest, from his family origins to his work studying stress and coping mechanisms (op cit Gamezy & Rutter, 1983) to his growing interest in longitudinal studies suggesting there may be some "protective factors". As a medical practitioner he was aware of the ongoing tension between genetic factors versus environment, and throughout this presentation referred to their interaction [GxE], and how there is a process, distinct from static traits, which can inoculate.

"My book on 'Maternal Deprivation Reassessed' in 1972 concluded that children differed greatly in their responses to deprivation and suggested that genetically influenced variations in environmental susceptibility might be important."

During 1979-1980, while at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences, Sir Rutter became engaged by the early research looking at stress, coping, and development. (op cit. Garmezy & Rutter, 1983). It became apparent to him that single variables or events might not tell the whole story, as in some cases we see good adaptation in adults who had to overcome early negative experiences.* Neither genetic nor environmental variables alone seemed to be plausible explanations. Sir Michael Rutter continued in his quest to better understand (and potentially harness) the power and nature of "protective factors". He was influenced by animal research into stress responses as well as in genetic and other human factors. One specific variable which may interact with genetics and environment to be preventive or foster resiliency, may be prior exposure to risk.



Prior Exposure to Risk as a Preventive Factor

"During the 1979/80 year at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences, I took part in a group dedicated to understanding 'Stress, Coping, and Development' (See Garmezy & Rutter, 1983). For me, that was a formative year in numerous ways but one aspect, through talking with 'Gig' Levine, was to renew my appreciation for animal models.... [Levine's rodent studies in the 1950's] were influential through the demonstration that animals subjected to physical stressors showed an increased resistance to subsequent stress.

I also became aware of parallel human studies by Glen Elder (1979) showing that adolescents who coped successfully with the stressors of the great economic depression emerged strengthened."


[*Two points for possible discussion: First, the notion which captured Sir Michael Rutter - how under fortuitous circumstances, one overcomes prior disadvantages - is consistent with Harry Stax Sullivan's notions (e.g., in The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry) about "fortuitous circumstances" being able to counteract one bad period stage later on. Secondly, Sir Michael Rutter, whose name is synonomous to many with the study of "resiliency" made the point that there is no basis at all for applying formulaic resiliency training programs and expecting them to have positive results.]

We are clear now in understanding that there is a gene/environment interaction which acts along with other factors to work preventively, or contribute to what is now being widely discussed and despite his trepidation, "taught" - "resilience".


Resilience = Relative resistance to environmental risk experiences, OR the overcoming of stress or adversity, OR a relatively good outcome despite risk experiences. - Sir Michael Rutter


"Resilience is NOT", said Sir Michael Rutter, "just social competence or positive mental health".

There are various coping mechanisms which may inoculate against damage, which Sir Michael Rutter refers to as "the steeling effects" of coping strategies. One example might be parachute jumping, where "parachute jumping leads to physiological adaptation" and a normal sort of steeling against fear or physiological survival responses. Generally, "if you want to be resistant to infection the worst possible thing you could do is avoid ALL exposure". One needs to develop some resistance/coping mechanisms. Add to this psychological defenses in addition to physical, and notions such as Bandura's sense of self-efficacy come to mind.

Sir/Dr. Rutter posed and answered some "provocative questions" such as "Is resilience just a fancy way of re-inventing concepts of risk and protection? No, because risk and protection start with a focus on variables and move to outcomes with an implicit assumption that the impact of risk and protective factors will be broadly similar in everyone, and that outcomes will depend on the mix and balance between risk and protective influences."

Do resilience concepts reject traditional study of risk and protective factors? No, because " 1) there is an abundance of evidence that much of the variance in psychopathological outcomes can be accounted for by the summative effects of risk and protective factors; 2) Resilience is an interactive concept that can only be studied if there is a thorough measurement of risk and protective factors."

One last point he made, for now: "Schools trying to teach resilience like the ABC's are bound to fail."
Real-life education about coping techniques is more likely to work. Schools, take note!

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INDEX OF 2001 APA Convention Articles:
Behavioral Telehealth | E-biz of Mental Health | 2001: A Cyberspace Odyssey

INDEX OF 2002 APA Convention Articles:
CyberSex & Cyber-Infidelity | Beck & Ellis 2002 | Behavior Therapy | CyberPsychology | E-Ethics

2003 Convention Highlights: Full Text | Beck 2003 | Quality of Online Health Info | Sternberg's Vision

2005 Convention Highlights:   Opening Session | Pioneers of Behavior Therapy
Distinguished Elders of Psychotherapy | Legends Discuss Psychology | Online Clinical Work | Town Hall Meeting

2006 Convention Highlights:
Opening | Online Psychotherapy & Research | Psychological Vital Signs | Advances in Cognitive Therapy
Brok on Chaplin | Conversation with Aaron T. Beck - 2006 | Dr.Phil | 21st Century Ethics | Media: Town Hall '06

2007 Convention Highlights:
Humanizing an Inhumane World | Opening Session | Albert Bandura | Linehan, on Suicide
Psychology's Future | Conversation with Aaron T. Beck - 2007 | Evil, Hate, & Horror

2008 Convention Highlights:
Grand Theft Childhood | Opening | Malcolm Gladwell | College Success, Love, Hate, More | My Life With Asperger's
My Space, You Tube, Psychotherapy, Relationships... | Aaron T. Beck - 2008 | The Mind and Brain of Voters

2009 Convention Highlights:
Internet: Pathway for Networking, Connecting, and Addiction | Opening | Virtual Psychology & Therapy | Q&A with Zimbardo
Seligman: Positive Education | Future of Internet Media | Sex, Love, & Psychology | How Dogs Think


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