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"Resilience" Looks At How Things Bounce Back


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.


And I'm Flora Lichtman. In 2007, thousands of people in Mexico took to the streets, protesting the price of tortillas. In three months, the price of corn had gone up 400 percent. Why? According to my first guest, it all started with a spike in oil prices triggered by Hurricane Katrina. That led to increased demand for ethanol, and U.S. farmers who grow a lot of the corn that Mexicans eat planted less corn for eating and more corn to make ethanol.

And so with less supply, the price of corn skyrocketed for Mexicans. Sound complicated? Well, that's the point. We live in such an interconnected world, my next guest says, that we have a hard time foreseeing how a catastrophe in one place could trigger a sort of domino effect. Or take an example from the headlines this week: The cost of corn is skyrocketing again, up about 50 percent in the last six weeks, thanks to the worst drought in decades.

Is this the tortilla riots, part two? Is there a way to make ourselves more resilient to these kinds of catastrophes? That's the question my next guest asks in his new book, "Resilience." Andrew Zolli says that by studying why some communities, businesses and people break down and others bounce back, we can learn how to survive the unforeseeable disturbances, big and small, that life brings.

Andrew Zolli is executive director and curator of PopTech, which he describes as a global innovation network. And he's also a coauthor with Ann Marie Healy of "Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back." And he's here with us today in our New York studios. Thanks for coming in.

ANDREW ZOLLI: Thanks, Flora. It's great to be here.

LICHTMAN: And if you want to get in on the conversation, our number is 1-800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK. Or tweet us @SciFri. So let's start with the drought. It seems like good resilience test case. And not to put you on the spot, but, you know, what do we do? How do we become more resilient in the face of this current catastrophe?

ZOLLI: Yeah, it's a great question. With the largest declaration of a national emergency across a thousand counties in the U.S., what we're seeing is lots more of disruptive weather events and disruptions of all different kinds. And because we are - these systems are all connected to each other - the economic system is connected to the agricultural system, which is connected to the ecological system, which is connected back to the social system.

In an environment like that, it's incredibly difficult to forecast. But the good news is there are lots of places to introduce modularity and fail-safes and various kinds of structures so that a disruption in one place doesn't cascade through a system and create all of those unforeseeable knock-on effects.

LICHTMAN: Andrew, let's take this case. What do you mean by that, modularity and fail-safes? Give me a specific example. Not to put you on a...

ZOLLI: Well, you know, I think there's a couple of different things. You have to think about something like the agricultural system as a system, at a very large scale. We tend, over time, to make systems much more efficient and more efficient and more efficient and more efficient as we tie them to things like the global financial markets. The margin of error - as we get more and more efficient - narrows.

And so if we introduce fail-safes into a system, what we're talking about are introducing firebreaks, introducing smaller-scale systems, more regional and local systems so that - that are backups, creating redundancy in systems, creating systems that are more, in the agricultural sense, more drought-tolerant. Forms of corn, for instance, is a way to do that.

If you think about the connections between the Mexican tortilla riots and Katrina, or between the drought that's happened in the U.S. and what will inevitably be the increased size of an Egg McMuffin next year in a McDonald's, there are actually thousands of places to intervene, including more local agriculture, more smaller-scale agriculture - not to replace the big dominant, vertically oriented stuff, but to compliment it.

LICHTMAN: And so in your book, you draw from examples in nature as good models as for how you might make a system more resilient.

ZOLLI: Yeah, that's right. You know, one of the stories that we tell in this book is actually about the global financial crisis. And we particularly tell the story of a group of systems ecologists from Scripps University - Scripps Oceanographic Institute and others, other places - who went and at the behest of the Federal Reserve, before the financial crisis, did a study using systems ecological principles, an analysis of the flow of payments between banks in the federal system.

They studied something called the Fedwire system, which is how banks back each other up on a nightly basis. And what they discovered was a massive, dense overconcentration in the center of the financial system. There were 25 banks in particular that were completely connected to one another in a mass that was so over-connected, that there was no such idea of a firebreak.

There was nothing separating one institution - they were like skiers all connected on a rope line, so that if one of them went over, they were going to pull everybody over.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. I think you talk about a hairball in the book, isn't it?

ZOLLI: Yeah, it's a giant, messy hairball. You pull one string, you're not sure where the other one's going to go. Now, they wrote this paper for Nature - George Sugihara and a number of others wrote this paper called "Ecology for Bankers," and began to look at how we apply ecological principles to understanding complex systems like the financial system.

Now, at the same time that this is going on, on the other side of the world, a group of pioneering ecosystem scientists studying the coral reefs - and the Great Barrier Reef, in particular - discovered something really amazing. They discovered a species of fish - which is called the pinnate batfish - which, under normal circumstances, is a kind of a boring fish. It doesn't do very much.

And, you know, this is not the subject of an international symposium. This is just one animal among many in this very complex system. And in normal, healthy reef systems, there's a parrotfish which normally eats algae, and it sort of mows the lawn. They're called, like, the cows of the reef. They basically keep the system in check. And as this group of - this researcher's name is Bellwood.

And as David Bellwood and his colleagues discovered, when the system gets close - when the coral reef gets close to a threshold, when it gets close to a moment when it's going to shift from a coral-dominated state to an algae-dominated state, the pinna batfish changes its behavior. And the ecologists didn't see this for ages, because they normally study healthy reefs.

They never actually saw this behavior until just a few years ago. And as soon as the system begins to flip into transition, the fish changes its behavior and begins to cut down a particular form of over-dominate algae to tip the system back into health. And now there are global financial regulators in the United Kingdom and here in the United States who are beginning to look for the financial equivalents of the batfish to embed within the financial system so that when the financial system, like the coral reef, begins to tip into disaster, that these species of regulations and species of organizations will be released to tip the system back into health. They're sort of embedded counter-mechanisms.

LICHTMAN: Like an indicator, and also a self-regulation measure.

ZOLLI: That's right. That's right. When you can begin to take a very complex system like a coral reef or a financial system or a complex social system or even something like the Internet and strip it away from its particulars and look at how it works as a network system, you can begin to analyze whether strategies from one domain might have application in another. And we're seeing lots and lots of that.

LICHTMAN: Let's talk about resilience in individual people.

ZOLLI: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: What makes - you know, I think we all have this experience where we meet someone who's either really good or not so good at bouncing back from a hardship. What's the difference between people and their ability to cope?

ZOLLI: Well, that's a very simple question with a very complex set of answers. There are lots of correlations and correlates of personal resilience. Your physical health, the quality of your social network and your access to social resources, the quality of your intimate relationships matter enormously. Your genes and in particular there's good indication that genetic factors interacting with environmental factors are correlated with personal resilience at scale.

And it's important to note that personal psychological resilience is actually much more widespread than our kind of doom and gloom pop literature might suggest. Right here in New York, there's a wonderful researcher named George Bonanno at Columbia who studied how whole populations of people who had the same traumatic event responded. And, you know, this is everyone from older folks who'd lost a spouse to folks who were in the towers on 9/11.

And what he discovered was that invariably somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of the whole population of people who had the experience were not disrupted. They weren't permanently impaired. But for those people who do have a vulnerability, who can fall apart in the face of real trauma, understandably so, the good news is that there are things that we can change about ourselves.

There are things we can do to bolster our resilience.

LICHTMAN: Such as?

ZOLLI: Well, there are really a couple of things in particular. One is intriguingly about your belief system and there are some interesting indicators about your belief system and there's some interesting indicators about your habits of mind.

LICHTMAN: Let's start with belief system.

ZOLLI: Well, a fellow named Kenneth Pargament, a psychologist, as been studying the role of belief. And one of the things that social scientists study, there's a whole field called hardiness research, which I just think is the coolest thing that...

LICHTMAN: It reminds me of my tomato plant.

ZOLLI: Exactly, exactly. This is sort of a psychological equivalent of studying the tomato plant. Speaking as an Italian-American, I connect very easily with this particular metaphor.


ZOLLI: And social scientists who study hardiness see a set of beliefs. If you believe that the world is a meaningful place, if you believe if your actions have agency - that you have agency and that your actions have consequences and that successes and failures are placed in your life to teach you something, then you have a greater likelihood of being resilient in the face of potentially traumatic events.

Now, what's intriguing about this is that these are the kinds of beliefs that you have to hold to hold a religious or a spiritual personal cosmological world view. And one of the things that hardiness researchers and social scientists have found is that people on average who have this spiritual world view, have a greater preponderance of psychological resilience. And it suggests an interesting reason why these belief systems have persisted in time.

It's not that they're necessarily true or false - we take no position on that - but that they're positively adaptive. They confer advantage to us in moments of crisis.

LICHTMAN: Hmm. I'm talking with Andrew Zolli, the author of "Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back" on Science Friday. And we're going to talk lots more when we come back after this quick break.

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

LICHTMAN: And I'm Flora Lichtman. We're talking with Andrew Zolli about his new book, "Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back." And when we left, we talked about that there were two ways to sort of increase your resilience, or two things that were correlated with personal resilience. What's the second thing?

ZOLLI: So the first is belief. The second is habits of mind. And here there's some really extraordinary and intriguing new lines of research. A group of pioneering neuroscientists have been studying the brains of actively meditating Buddhist monks and looking at the effects, both on neuroplasicity and again in among non-monk populations, among ordinary civilians like you and me, looking at the psychological resilience and the effects that are conferred by mindfulness meditation and mindfulness practices.

And here, what we see is an extraordinary set of outcomes. Teaching people to better regulate their emotions during high stress encounters, during periods of peak stress, giving them the tools when they're not in peak stress environments to handle stressful situations helps them dramatically reduce the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. That's why some of these tools are now being used by the military, by hospitals and emergency room physicians, by fire fighters.

In fact, just a couple of days ago, a group of researchers at Emory University found that cognitive-based compassion training, training foster children, adolescent foster children, who come automatically out of very difficult circumstances and who, by the way, the Journal of Pediatrics recently found are massively overmedicated. They're getting huge amounts of drugs to help them deal with the stressful environment.

Are able to not only change their world view and increase their hopefulness and their sense of optimism about their ability to make change, connecting to those belief systems, but also to actually reduce inflammation in the body. There's a particular protein that's a good indicator of overall cellular inflammation, which is connected with type 2 diabetes and to all kinds of other illnesses later in life, including cancer and all kinds of things.

And so there isn't just a psychological benefit to dealing with stress, but there's a deep physiological connection. And these are tools that are free. They literally can't be purchased. And for all of the people - think about the, literally, millions of people who are in places like IDP camps and who are dealing with post conflict situations. They don't have access to the mental health system. These are tools that could be deployed at scale to transform the way we think about disaster recovery and resilience in communities.

LICHTMAN: Hmm. What about a genetic component to resilience? You'd think this would be the type of thing you might select, that might be selected for in natural selection. Have people looked at selection in other organisms (unintelligible)?

ZOLLI: Well, they have and, you know, here I just want to put a big boundaries around what we're going to say here. Whenever we're talking about genes, you have to, first of all, be sure to say we're talking about correlation, not causation. And we're talking about something that's - so there is no such thing as a resilience gene. The world doesn't work that way.

Moreover, we're talking about interactions between your genes and the environment. So interestingly over the course of the last decade, there's been a lot of work on a particular gene called the 5-HTT gene, which has been shown to be correlated with all kinds of psychological responses to potential trauma at scale. In particular, there was a breakthrough paper a few years ago by two researchers named Moffitt and Caspi who looked at a population scale responses to potentially traumatic events where - in New Zealand, they got access to almost a thousand people's genetic material and could correlate it with how they - whether they experienced a difficult loss in their lives.

And what they found is that this particular gene has two alleles; it has two versions. And that people who had one version of this particular gene who experienced a traumatic event were much more likely to experience long term depressive and stress reactive post-traumatic kinds of experiences. Now, the subsequent studies and meta studies have shown that the actual affect may be smaller than originally studied.

But the important thing to say about it is that there does seem to be some good indication that there are some genetic correlates only when people with the right gene base have the right kind of life experiences. So they're really connected.

LICHTMAN: Hmm. Can you learn something about how systems, like the economic system or big systems, can be more resilient from studying individuals and how they're resilient?

ZOLLI: Yeah. In particular, you see this at - one of the things that cuts across so we see, first of all, folks - there's a group of people who study resilience in systems, like complex adaptive systems like environments and economies and ecologies. There's another group of people who study resilience in people and communities and teams and organizations. And then, there's a few things that cut across those domains.

One of them is the power of diversity. You know, systems abhor monocultures. When we become overly reliant on a single mode of value creation or we become, you know, just ask the Irish after the Potato Famine, right? When we don't allow for healthy failures in systems, just think about the wildfires that have ravaged Colorado and California and other parts out West. Those are largely byproducts of our not allowing natural cyclical processes of failure to occur.

Now, interestingly on the human side, the same kind of monoculture can occur. Cognitive lock-in can occur. And we see organizations like the U.S. military and even scientific research teams studying the impact of what's called cognitive diversity in teams; that if you get the right moderately diverse people who think - we're not talking about thinking different things about the world, but thinking in different ways about the world - to think about the same problem.

In particular, there's a researcher named Kevin Dunbar who's a kind of sociologist of scientists. He's like a Diane Fosse. He goes into the labs and he kind of sits quietly recording field notes. And one of the things that is true about science is that when scientists do research, they're constantly encountering ambiguity. You know, I did this experiment and something weird happened.

And I don't know if it's me, the equipment or a genuinely new thing. Am I getting a Nobel Prize or am I getting laughed out of the academy? They bring those results back to their lab mates and when everybody in the lab is, let's say, an e coli researcher, what they discovered is that all of the metaphors and analogies that are used to interpret the ambiguity are e coli metaphors.

When you have people who are physicists and doctors and chemists on the same team, the analogical reasoning field is expanded and those teams tend to make progress much faster.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, that was interesting, that these interdisciplinary labs to better. And, you know, I think we've seen more and more interdisciplinary work going on, at least on Science Friday, so that's hopeful. For the monoculture question, you know, this idea has been proposed in the past, that there's a danger to this. Can we do anything about that? You know, what do you think?

ZOLLI: Sure. I think a big part of it is about incentives. And, you know, in the run-up to the global financial crisis, for instance, one of the things that the securitization mechanism by which big banks made money - they turned - pooled groups of mortgage assets into virtual complex derivatives that they could then sell to each other. It was so intoxicating that banks and hedge funds and insurance companies and little brokerages all got into the same business.

The appeal - it was like the crack cocaine of the financial system and nobody could say no. It was just too rewarding. This is why people famously said, you know, I know that eventually the music is going to stop, but as long as it's playing, I have to keep playing musical chairs. And so what we begin to see is, if you can get rid of the incentives for monocultures, then, you know, in the run-up to the crisis, at the very tail end of the crisis, all of those very different kinds of institutions, which should have very different kinds of returns and very different kinds of experiences, they're all growing at exactly the same rate.

They were all locked in. And so diversity is expensive. That's the really important thing. Diversity means that we're going to have winners and losers and people in the middle. We're not all going to go up together and we're not all going to go down together. We need a meaningful diversity in the systems and that can be achieved with policy and with incentives.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. I guess the question is, is there the will?

ZOLLI: Well, I think the biggest question is - there's a - absolutely is there the will among whom? Who makes the decisions, you know, that's really the big question. Right now, we have a system where the banks are largely regulating themselves through our regulatory system.

LICHTMAN: Andrew Zolli, thank you so much for taking time to be with us today. Andrew Zolli is the author of "Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.