Predictors of explanatory style among Holocaust survivors / by Susan Orenstein
Includes bibliographical references (p. 81-85)
Typically, Holocaust survivors have been characterized as a dysfunctional group suffering from "survivor syndrome," a collection of psychological symptoms including anxiety, chronic depression, impaired familial relationships, psychosomatic disease, and personality changes such as "masochistic life patterns" (Krystal, 1980). These characteristics were thought to result from the trauma suffered during the Holocaust. More recent studies which use non-clinical samples of subjects have found that many Holocaust survivors were able to rebuild their lives with few symptoms. They developed successful careers, stable marriages, and caring families after the war. The objective of these studies has been to identify the characteristics that enabled many survivors to cope with past traumas and adjust to new environments. Optimism is one quality proposed to account for the resiliency found among this group. Optimism may enable a person to cope more effectively with stress. In this study, the investigator examined a related concept, called explanatory style: the way individuals habitually explain negative events. According to the reformulated learned helplessness theory (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978), explanatory style determines whether individuals exhibit learned helplessness, characterized by passivity, decreased motivation, and feelings of hopelessness in response to uncontrollable events in their environment. Those who explain negative events using external, unstable, and specific attributions will exhibit an optimistic explanatory style, while those using internal, stable, and pervasive attributions exhibit a pessimistic explanatory style. The goals of this study were to identify the explanatory style of survivors and determine which variables could predict this construct. The explanatory style of each survivor was measured by coding the transcripts of their interviews, using the CAVE technique (Peterson, Luborsky, & Seligman, 1983). The potential predictor variables included characteristics of the trauma as well as characteristics of the survivor and his or her social context. These variables include: the condition of persecution during the war, the survivor's age when the war began, religious background, the presence of social support in the form of famiiy members' presence during the worst trauma, and the survivor's current, preferred coping style, as measured by the COPE Scale (Carver, Scheier, & Weintraub, 1989). The data from this study revealed that the survivors overwhelmingly held an optimistic explanatory style for negative events. Twelve percent of these survivors' explanatory style was accounted for by the social support variable; i.e., those with family members present during the worst trauma of the Holocaust exhibited a more optimistic explanatory style than those who did not have this type of social support. Dyadic social relationships may have provided emotional support and resources during times of extreme duress, which helped the Holocaust survivors preserve an optimistic explanatory style and prevent them from demonstrating learned helplessness. Surprisingly, the other predictor variables (condition, age, religious background, and coping style), which are frequently considered moderators of stress, did not predict the subject's present explanatory style. Future research will be conducted to identify predictors of survivors' explanatory style such as early attachment, present social support, current religious faith, and ability to find meaning in painful experiences. By further understanding trauma survivors' explanatory styles, mental health professionals can develop therapeutic techniques for enhancing their clients' recovery process.
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