Global Trends: Psychology:

Knowledge that Helps and that Which Hinders

Dr. Erica Frydenberg
University of Melbourne, Australia

The thousands of academic publications and equally numerous books devoted to the topic of globalization each carry a different definition of the subject. The term itself is a heuristic to describe a borderless world where geographic distances become of diminishing importance, where culture and knowledge can proliferate with lightening speed, where influence is immediate, and opportunities for support in the form of information or technology are readily available. Thus globalization is the rapid increase in cross-border economic, social, technological exchange under conditions of capitalism.

As a psychologist, researcher and academic, globalization provides me with the opportunity to become part of a world community where knowledge knows no borders, data in any given field is accessible, and influence can be rapid and far reaching.

Like all things, globalization is a mixture of costs and benefits. The benefits are readily evident in that there is instant access to knowledge and ideas which can penetrate and permeate into far-scattered communities. Information, both beneficial and potentially harmful, can be disseminated to all corners of the globe with one press of a button.

The costs, in contrast, are more about the lack of acknowledgment that much of the research in the social sciences is specific to the setting from which it has been derived. Generalization to other settings cannot automatically be assumed to be appropriate. Caution is required when, for example, ideas and knowledge are adopted from a Western perspective to non-Western settings. 

Recent movements in the discipline of psychology have reflected a potential for outcomes that could benefit the world. Since the beginning of the 21st century the term "positive psychology" has become the focus of research and professional activity. This was, in particular, due to the leadership of Martin Seligman during his presidency of the American Psychological Association. In a special issue of the American Psychologist in January 2000, Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called for a positive psychology that moves away from a model of human behavior that identifies inadequacies, to one which helps us to move to a 'good life' in which actions lead to "well-being, positive individuals and thriving communities."  Since World War II, psychology has become a science largely about healing, repairing damage within disease, and human functioning. This emphasis on pathology has overlooked the circumstances under which people thrive and flourish. As Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi point out, the field of positive psychology concerns “valued subjective experiences: well-being, contentment and satisfaction (in the past); hope and optimism (in the future); and flow and happiness (in the present)" (Seligman & Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 2000, p 5). To continue the theme, Paul B. Baltes reminded us at the International Congress of Psychology in Stockholm in July 2000 that genetics make us better human animals, but the hope is that positive psychology will make us better human beings. In "good human beings" the means and the ends converge -- that is, what we accomplish serves a common good. This is a message that needs to reach the world.

In line with this view, my own work has been underscored by the need to develop adequate responses to the growing prevalence of young peoples' depression and the need to curb the high incidence of suicide in Western communities. Depression has readily entered the vernacular of Western communities to the extent where we are considered by many, including Seligman, to be experiencing an ‘epidemic’ of depression. This, like any other epidemic, can sweep the globe. It is that which we want to arrest and prevent. Talking about coping, rather than about stress and depression, is a way forward in that regard.

Coping has become the most widely studied topic in contemporary psychology. Coping research had its origins in stress research. It represents the positive psychology movement by focusing psychological research on identifying strengths rather than repairing weaknesses. Historically, the human stress response has been metaphorically characterized as fight-or-flight in the face of threat (Cannon, 1932). Recently there has been a major challenge to this theorizing by the work of Shelley Taylor and her colleagues (Taylor, et al, 2000) who point out that the evidence for fight-or-flight has not adequately taken into account the typical responses of females of the species. To Taylor and her colleagues the bio-behavioral female stress response can be more accurately construed as tend-and-befriend. This response is more particularly directed at maximizing the survival of the self and the offspring through nurturing and protecting the young from harm and affiliating with others to reduce risk. This work throws into question much of our understanding about the gender-neutrality of responses in the stress and coping area, and challenges ideas that have to date been readily accepted. The field will continue to flourish as the emphasis moves toward examining the factors that lead to success and achievement, rather than hopelessness and despair, continuing to challenge our current thinking

The focus of my own research in the area of coping has been on workplace and school-related coping. The adolescent coping research has included a substantial longitudinal study and was extended to a multinational study that examined the coping of young people in different communities. We were able to show that age, gender, ethnicity and culture are important factors in the coping process -- an important reminder that we cannot adopt ideas from one community to another unquestioningly. We have developed coping skills programs and others are adapting these within their own communities.

The emphasis on positive psychology continues to be a feature of my work. By bringing distinguished researchers together in three recently edited volumes, namely, Learning to Cope: Developing as a Person in Complex Societies (1999), Beyond Coping: Meeting Goals, Visions and Challenges (2002) and Thriving, Surviving or Going Under: Coping with our Everyday Lives (in press), we call on our strengths and virtues and emphasize how people move to systematically build competency rather than correcting weakness.


Cannon, W. B. (1932). The wisdom of the body. New York: Norton.

Frydenberg, E. (ed.) (1999). Learning to Cope: Developing as a Person in Complex Societies. Oxford: Oxford University Press. vii + 360 pp.

Frydenberg, E. (ed.) (2002). Beyond Coping: Meeting visions goals and challenges. Oxford: Oxford University Press. v + 253 pp.

Frydenberg, E. (ed.) (in press). Thriving Surviving or Going Under: Coping with our Everyday Lives Greenwich: Information Age Publishing.

Lazarus, R. S. (2000). Towards better research on stress and coping. American Psychologist, 55, 665-673.

Seligman, M. E. P.  & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology. The American Psychologist, 55, 5-14.

Taylor, S.  Klein. L., Lewis, B. P., Gruenwald, T. L., Gurung, R. A. & Updegraff, J. A.  (2000). Biobehavioural Responses to stress in females: tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review, 107, 411-429.

Dr. Erica Frydenberg is a clinical, organizational, counseling and educational psychologist who has practiced extensively in the Victorian educational setting before joining the staff of the University of Melbourne in 1990, where she is currently an Associate Professor in Psychology in the Faculty of Education.  She is head of the Educational Psychology Unit, and is a Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society. Dr. Frydenberg has authored and co-authored more than seventy publications in the area of Coping.  In 1993 along with Ramon Lewis she developed the "Adolescent Coping Scale"  (Spanish edition published 1996, Slovenian edition published in 2002), an instrument used by researchers and practicing counselors and published by the Australian Council for Educational Research.  "The Coping Scale for Adults" was published by ACER in 1997.  Dr. Frydenberg has co-authored with Dr Leonora Cohen, "Coping for Capable Kids" which was published by Hawker-Brownlow in Melbourne in 1993 and a revised version was published in the US by Prufrock Press in Texas in 1995. Her book, "Adolescent Coping: Theoretical and Research Perspectives" was published by Routledge: London in February 1997 (Italian edition in 2000), and her edited volume "Learning to Cope: Developing as a Person in Complex Societies" was published by Oxford University Press in the United Kingdom in 1999. A sequel to this volume, "Beyond Coping: Meeting Goals, Vision and Challenges" was published in late 2002. Dr. Frydenberg's latest edited volume, "Thriving, Surviving and Going Under: How People Cope with Their Everyday Lives", 2004 is published by Information Age Publishing, Greenwich, USA. "Tough-minded and Tenderhearted: The Life and Work of Morton Deutsch", 2004, is published by Australian Academic Press. Additionally, "The Best of Coping; Instructors' Manual and Student Workbook" has been developed as a program for adolescents in school settings to teach them coping skills, and was published by Oz Child in 2002. In 2003 Dr. Frydenberg was the recipient of the Inaugural Faculty of Education Excellence in Research Award. She is mother to Joshua and Lexi.


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