Subordination and Defeat
An Evolutionary Approach to Mood Disorders and Their Therapy
by Leon Sloman and Paul Gilbert (editors)
Review by Keith S. Harris, Ph.D. on 1 Jul 2001.
Lawrence Erlbaum; 2000 (ISBN: 080583298X)
Although depressed persons would at first hardly enjoy viewing their unpleasant symptoms and behaviors from this angle, the contributors to this volume hypothesize that not only are mood disorders the result of situations or lives that go wrong, but they also often serve important evolutionary purposes. But to understand the adaptive functions of depression (and its cousin, anxiety) holds out the promise of more effective treatment strategies.
The titles of the various chapters - - all of which were written by respected authors - - signal the general themes to come. For example, consider Varieties of Submissive Behavior as Forms of Social Defense: Their Evolution and Role in Depression; How the Involuntary Defeat Strategy Relates to Depression; and Subordination, Self-Esteem, and Depression.
In the introduction, the editors write, "[I]n any conflict situation there will often be a winner and a loser, [and] a central question arises: Which strategies have evolved to enable the one who is losing to decide when to try harder and when to accept the inevitability of defeat and adjust one's behavior accordingly?" (p. ix). However, they go on to point out, some people may find a submissive strategy inherently advantageous, and so "Such submissive behavior need not be associated with a lack of confidence" (p. x).
In the first chapter, co-editor Gilbert observes that submissive behaviors developed early in the evolution of various species, including our own. Such behaviors are even observed in reptiles, though in social species, especially in mammals, submissive strategies are much more complex and variable. Further, submissive strategies are only useful in intra-species social contexts, since submitting to a predator would be fatal and therefore (in most cases) detrimental to the individual and, in extension, to the group as well.
Gilbert inventories ten different submissive strategies that have been observed in the most social of species. These include escape, ambivalent defense, arrested flight, arrested fight, loss of control (avoidance), defeat, enclosed avoidance, reverted escape, infantilism, and affiliative alliance. Each of these strategies serves a slightly different purpose and is usually elicited unconsciously and automatically. Presumably the different types and features of depression in humans correspond to these strategies.
Interestingly, in this light, submission (and by extension depression) is not complete loss, and still affords the individual some degree of control of the situation. "However, control varies greatly according to the rank of an animal….[and] subordinates are generally more tense and defensive than dominant animals. They show reduced explorative behavior and social confidence [and] have higher levels of stress hormones . . ." (p. 37).
In another chapter, the other co-editor, Sloman, perceptively notes that "The evolutionary theorist faces the challenge of having to explain why mood disorders, which are often maladaptive for the individual, have not been weeded out by natural selection and, moreover, continue to have a high prevalence" (p. 47). He goes on to show how the involuntary defeat strategy (IDS, as he abbreviates it), which was evolved for adaptive purposes, can become maladaptive for an individual human in today's world.
When it works properly, IDS limits the level of aggression that might occur between individuals, signals "no threat" to opponents and "don't intervene" to cohorts, and puts the subordinated person in a "giving up" frame of mind. The IDS fails to accomplish these goals, however, when the defeated individual cannot effectively escape the conflict situation. When this happens, the result is often learned helplessness followed by chronic, self-reinforcing, and thereby pathological depression. Depressed people often seem to resort prematurely to an IDS, even when the conflict is simply imagined or expected. "Premature triggering of the IDS may be attributed to a history of having autocratic and punitive parents, physical abuse, or sexual abuse" (p. 58).
Other chapters delve into the complex biological correlates of IDS and depression; a proposed intersection of pride and shame; social comparison processes in depressed individuals; the role of and risks to self-esteem; and the special usefulness of cognitive mediation (cognitive-behavioral therapies) with depressed persons.
The ideas presented in this book should be exciting for therapists and depressed clients alike, because the evolutionary approach to understanding depression readily suggests the development of effective psychotherapeutic treatment strategies. Established and traditional theories are not directly challenged - - but the addition of the evolutionary perspective would certainly be possible and would be highly beneficial to them, although some theories would require a significant bit of adaptation and reformulation.
This book is well worth reading and its content deserves thoughtful consideration. I have only a couple of suggestions for future editions.
As much as I enjoyed and benefited from this book, I didn't find in it a serious consideration that there might be a biologically based, natural distribution of mood states in groups of humans. Any psychotherapist would agree that occasionally the client is encountered who, although with unremarkable developmental history, a supportive and loving family, interesting work and a decent income, still finds him or herself dysphoric, anhedonic, pessimistic, or generally unhappy with his or her lot in life. (We've borrowed from the French a word for this condition, anomie - - an inexplicable feeling of alienation from society or from our own lives, a sense of purposelessness.) In such cases it's unusually difficult to hypothesize likely causes, or in some way explain the unhappiness. It's as though nature has evolved in human groups a range of "resting mood states", just as it has provided a range of personality types. In a band of hunter-gatherers, it might have been advantageous to have both optimists ("Let's jump on that wooly mammoth right now!") and pessimists ("That thing has dangerous tusks and anyway what would we do with so much meat?").
In addition, the role of anxiety symptoms in depression received only a brief glance in this book - - this subject deserves a much fuller exploration, since a substantial percentage of clients present not with depressive symptoms but with anxiety; but later, during the course of treatment, it's quite common to discover that the client suffers, after all, from significant depression as well.
© 2001 Keith Harris
Keith Harris, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and supervisor of Victor Valley Behavioral Health Center in San Bernardino county, California. His interests include clinical supervision, the empirical basis for psychotherapy research (and its design), human decision-making processes, and the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces
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