Small Is Everlasting

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Science  23 Jan 2004:
Vol. 303, Issue 5657, pp. 437
DOI: 10.1126/science.303.5657.437a

Self-preservation is a wonderful thing, so much so that psychological defenses can operate without our awareness. Gilbert et al. present a trio of studies that lay bare some of these processes. In personal and impersonal behavioral situations, participants were asked to rate the intensity of their dislike for a set of experiences both in the present and the near future, and then asked at that later time to report how they felt. Remarkably, being insulted (via written evaluations) by someone they expected to meet and greet (a partner) was not as distressing as being treated similarly by someone (a nonpartner) they did not expect to see. The explanation of this unusual turn of events relies on the region-β paradox, which posits the activation of a shielding mechanism when a threshold of distress is reached. Thus, the impersonal slight is not sufficiently hurtful, but the personal critique is so devastating as to trigger healing so effective and imperceptible that an event initially thought to be dire is instead shrugged off. The corollary is that the unattended injury persists and can, in time, create a deep and lasting impression. — GJC

Psychol. Sci. 15, 14 (2004).

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