How would you adapt? (Nov-05)

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Could you cope and find happiness if you were living with paraplegia? Think about what it would be like to have paraplegia and to imagine the impact of this disability on your life. Although some aspects of your life will become more difficult, there are ways to make your daily life a little easier.

List something that would help you to adapt physically if you had paraplegia. (For example, if you lost your eyesight, you could learn Braille, and/or use a cane). Just as there are ways to help you to adapt physically to paraplegia, there are also ways to help handle the immediate and long-term emotional reactions. List a strategy that you would use to emotionally cope with having paraplegia.

Please think about the two most upsetting things about developing paraplegia. Do you think these two things would become more or less upsetting over time?

  • More upsetting over time
  • Less upsetting over time
  • Equally upsetting over time

Please rate paraplegia on a scale from 0 to 100, where 0=quality of life as bad as death and 100=quality of life as good as perfect health.

How do your answers compare?

Those who were given the adaptation exercise rated paraplegia much higher, 62. That means considering adaption tends to have people look more favorably on paraplegia than they otherwise would. For most people, the adaptation exercise resulted in higher ratings. Let's take a closer look at the actual study and explore the importance of considering adaptation.

A discrepancy in perceptions of quality of life

When people first think about a disability, it might seem pretty catastrophic. At first glance, you might think that people living with paraplegia must be miserable. Patients who actually have paraplegia, however, report their quality of life to be significantly better than the public estimates that it would be. It appears, then, that there is a discrepancy between the self-rated quality of life of people with paraplegia, and healthy people's estimates of what their quality of life would be if they had this condition.

Why this discrepancy?

CBDSM director Peter Ubel teamed up with researchers Christopher Jepson and George Loewenstein to conduct a series of studies that aimed to explain why this discrepancy exists. Past research has suggested that patients do not overestimate their good mood, which led the researchers to hypothesize that, in fact, non-patients truly underestimate the quality of life experienced by people with disabilities. The researchers speculated about two explanations that could account for this underestimation. One possibility is that non-patients may be subject to a focusing illusion. That is, they might fail to appreciate that not all life domains or life events will be affected by the disability. Another possibility is that non-patients may be failing to consider adaptation, unable to realize how their feelings and their ability to cope will change over time.

In one study, each subject received one of several defocusing tasks in addition to rating paraplegia. For example, one of these tasks asked subjects to rate how much better or worse their life would be with regards to eight specific life events (e.g., visiting with friends). Another task asked subjects to think of five events that took up the largest amount of their time the preceding day and to rate how much better or worse these events would be if they had paraplegia. In a second study, subjects received one of several adaptation exercise in addition to rating paraplegia. One of these was similar to what you read on the previous page, although more extensive. Another had subjects consider their quality of life both 1 month and 5 years after developing paraplegia. In both studies, sujects rated paraplegia either before and after or only after completing an intervention.

The researchers found that none of the defocusing tasks had any effect on ratings of paraplegia. In fact, these tasks actually caused many participants to give lower ratings than they would have otherwise. All of the adaptation exercises, on the other hand, increased subjects' ratings of paraplegia. Taken together, these results support that the tendency of nonpatients to underestimate the quality of life associated with disabilities is not the result of a focusing illusion, but rather the result of failure to consider adaptation.

Read the article:

Disability and sunshine: Can predictions be improved by drawing attention to focusing illusions or emotional adaptation?
Ubel PA, Jepson C, Loewenstein G. American Journal of Psychiatry 2005;11:111-123.