Mental defeat

It is, of course, a huge step to jump from animal studies of social harassment and defeat to those of human depression, and for all such attempts the devil is in the detail. Nonetheless, guided by animal work, Steven Allan and I decided to test whether perceptions of defeat were related to depression (Gilbert & Allan, 1998). We designed a defeat, self-report scale that asked about feelings of 'having lost important battles in one's life', 'fallen in social standing', and 'feeling defeated by life'. Note that, for humans, a sense of defeat can come from many sources; for example, one may feel one's life goals are defeated by a health problem or financial loss, but the key sense of defeat is of being knocked down, squashed, worse off than other people, and unable to recover (Gilbert, 1992, 2000a). Our defeat scale was highly correlated with depression (Gilbert & Allan, 1998; Gilbert et al., 2002).

We did not make the distinction between feeling defeated and mental defeat. However, important research in the field of post-traumatic disorders after torture has found that severity of symptoms and duration are related to experiences of mental defeat. Ehlers et al. (2000) point out that many victims of torture may feel defeated and sign false confessions, but they may not feel inwardly or personally defeated in the sense that they have lost autonomy. Mental defeat, however, is defined as 'the perceived loss of all autonomy, a state of giving up in one's mind all efforts to retain one's identity as a human being with a will of one's own' (p. 45). Mental defeat, in this context, was also associated with total subordination, such as feeling merely an object to the other; and with loss of self-identity, as if prepared to do whatever the other asked, and not caring whether one lived or died. Those who experienced mental defeat had more chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and higher depression. In the social-rank model, mental defeat would be related to feeling personally inferior in some way. Indeed, Ehlers et al. (2000) indicated that refusing to feel personally inferior to one's torturers (or perhaps others in the same situation) might help to avoid mental defeat.

Gilbert (1992, pp. 209-217) noted that similar themes (of feeling controlled by others and not caring whether one lives or dies) are common in some depressions. Clearly, for humans who make symbolic representations of the self and develop identities, the mechanisms of defeat will operate in and through these competencies (see below). Scott's (1990) anthropological studies indicate that, even though groups can be beaten down (for example, slaves in North America), their ability to hold on to their own identities and values affect their adjustment and resistance. Clearly, more research is needed on the differences between feeling defeated, loss of status and control, and mental defeat related to an internal sense of inferiority and a loss of self-identity. Interestingly, severely depressed people may feel that the illness itself robs them of their identity and makes them into a 'no-thing', and may feel mental defeat as part of the experience of being depressed. Such experiences raise questions of what evolved mechanisms may underpin defeat states and can be triggered by various routes.

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