Monday, August 16, 2010

Russians Are Brooders, Not Sulkers

If we in the West have learned anything from Russian novels it is that Russia is a dreary land populated with long-faced, heavy-hearted and tragic figures. Russians are, in a word, depressed. But is this an accurate picture? Do Russians spend more time than Americans contemplating negative topics? And, perhaps more importantly, is their alleged brooding and introspection actually linked to depression. A recent study published in Psychological Science examined this aspect of the Russian temperament.

Students from universities in Michigan and Moscow participated in several experiments designed to assess levels of depression and tendency to self-reflect on negative emotions. The type of self-reflection employed was also scrutinized using vignettes in which the subjects were asked to choose the protagonist with whom they most identified.

In keeping with popular perceptions, the results demonstrated that Russian subjects did spend more time reflecting on negative emotions than American subjects. However, Russians were more likely to employ a “self-distanced” approach when contemplating these negative themes. They spent less time reliving the unpleasantries visited upon them and assigning blame. Instead, they focused on “reconstruing”, looking at the situation from the perspective of an outside observer. Furthermore, while dwelling on negative feelings was positively correlated with depression amongst the American subjects, this was not the case with the Russians. Self-reflective Russians were significantly less likely to display depressive symptoms than self-reflective Americans.

Thus, while Russians may devote more hours to meditating on negative emotions than their American counterparts, the result of this introspection is not the detrimental sulking and self-pitying that westerners tend to associate with such an approach. Brooding need not be maladaptive. Perhaps it can even help people cope with difficult memories (not to mention long, brutal winters).

A snapshot of my bleak Russian childhood.

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