by Jack Marooney, Kenyon ’18
Regardless of occupation, age, or social status, all people can relate to the difficulty of achieving ideal performance under challenging circumstances. Being able to brush off the stress of a demanding situation and produce desirable results is often referred to as ‘mental toughness.’
Mental toughness is commonly applied in a sports context, like when the main character in the stereotypical feel-good sports movie overcomes all odds to win the big game. However, mental toughness as a concept is applicable to broad range of contexts, including education. The average college student utilizes mental toughness when they deny the gratification of going out with friends on a Friday night and instead study for a difficult test. Examples of mental toughness can also be highlighted in both workplace and military environments. Despite pervasive mentions and implications of mental toughness, the term lacks a substantive definition.
A recent study by Gucciardi et al. in the Journal of Personality aimed to produce a working definition of mental toughness. The study also sought to characterize features of mental toughness, including whether or not it could be recognized as a trait or a product of certain situations. Additionally, the researchers examined if the traditional positive association between mental toughness and successful performance, as well as the negative relationship between mental toughness and stress levels, would be affirmed. The study consisted of five smaller studies, each aimed at addressing a subcomponent of mental toughness.
The first study focused on creating a composite definition of mental toughness that incorporated definitions and concepts from previous research. The researchers organized focus groups and polls with a combined 30 experts in fields related to mental toughness, including researchers, students, athletes, coaches, and businesspeople. The researchers used this consultation and sampling of experts to eliminate terms unrelated to mental toughness, and create a working definition of the term that was both face and content valid (meaning that it both seemed valid, and covered all of the theoretically relevant material). Ultimately, Gucciardi et al. (2015) defined mental toughness as a “personal capacity to produce consistently high levels of subjective (e.g. personal goals or strivings) or objective performance (e.g. sales, race time, GPA) despite everyday challenges and stressors as well as significant adversities” (p. 28).
The second study developed an eight-item measure of mental toughness. This study highlighted mental toughness as unidimensional, rather than multidimensional. This means that mental toughness can be identified as a unique characteristic, rather than a factor that is multidetermined, or dependent on the existence of other characteristics. The third study implemented the recently-developed measure of mental toughness to evaluate whether mental toughness was correlated with stress or workplace performance. The researchers surveyed the stress levels of friends, and then had the participants’ work supervisors report on their performance.
Ultimately the researchers found that mental toughness was directly associated with positive reports from supervisors, and that those who had higher levels of mental toughness were less likely to be stressed and more likely to have better stress coping methods. Apparently, the commonly-held belief that mental toughness breeds success has some statistical basis.
The fourth study explored the relationship between mental toughness and psychological health. Researchers surveyed both the presence of positive emotions and the absence of negative symptoms of mental health in order to test their prediction that mental toughness would be positively related to psychological health. Ultimately, mental toughness emerged as a good predictor of not only negative emotional states, but also positive emotions. Additionally, researchers asserted that both differences between and within people contribute to the level of mental toughness realized in a given situation. This finding is consistent with the notion that it is neither the person nor the situation that determines a person’s behavior, but rather the interaction of the two factors. Furthermore, the researchers indicated that mental toughness operates on a continuum, rather than being a dichotomous variable. Thus some people have greater mental toughness than others, as opposed to either having or not having mental toughness.
Having already shown that mental toughness is positively correlated with successful performance, the final study analyzed whether mental toughness predicted sustained performance. Interestingly enough, the researchers framed this study within the context of a military selection test. The results indicated not only that a significant association existed between mental toughness and passing the selection test, but also that this association existed even while considering additional factors like self-efficacy (an individual’s belief that they can control their own behavior).
Overall, this study provided a wealth of knowledge on mental toughness, although it was not without its flaws. Weaknesses of note include a dependence on self-report data as well as a lack of causal framework. Although self-report data is easy and cheap to obtain, asking an individual about their own characteristics can be subject to bias or lies. Regarding causality, the researchers used exclusively correlational designs. All five studies did not incorporate active manipulation of a variable or the random assignment of participants to varying conditions. This is no fault of the researchers, since you cannot manipulate participants’ mental toughness, but it does prevent them from claiming, for example, that being high in mental toughness causes individuals to be successful in the workplace.
For all five of the studies, the sample size consisted of entirely ‘white collar’ workers. This sampling choice omits a significant portion of the population, notably individuals who perform physically demanding occupations. One direction for future research could examine variations in mental toughness between job types or socio-economic status. Cross-cultural differences in mental toughness would also be worth examining.
However, this study did generate a straightforward definition of mental toughness, which is no small feat. More than anything, the researchers demonstrated that mental toughness is not just a term used to describe a composition of traits. So the next time a friend questions your choice not to go out for drinks, tell them you are exercising mental toughness and point them in the direction of this article.
Gucciardi, D. F., Hanton, S., Gordon, S., Mallett, C. J., & Temby, P. (2015). The concept of mental toughness: Tests of dimensionality, nomological network, and traitness. Journal of Personality, 83, 26-44.