The Blitzed Mind

Our itinerary today has shifted slightly to the Museum of London Docklands, which has a permanent exhibit on the Blitz. (Our preference would naturally be for the Imperial War Museum; alas, it closed for renovations with terrible timing). The Blitz was the first piece of World War II I learned about myself, thanks to Terry Deary’s The Blitzed Brits; it’s also a study in psychology, held up as the bomb-proof British morale that led Hitler to give up on British invasion and turn toward Russia instead.

The greatest mistake would be saying, here’s how Londoners dealt with the Blitz. While there’s something to be said for cultural psychology and societal trends, we must remember that individuals respond each according to their gifts. Although the focus of wartime propaganda and historical memory is on how the British people pulled together, people also remain people no matter what the circumstances. The was a Blitz Ripper (caught because his name was written in his gas mask), and a thriving black market and related criminal enterprises. I have been reading a Blitz Diary, complete with tales of a father not letting his grown daughter into the house during an air raid, and half the tales of children evacuated from London seem to include hosts skimming the ration books, or worse. I am sure there were cases of individuals who became stressed and depressed enough that they were drawn toward suicide.

And yet. Even as history turns more critical of the traditional Blitz narrative, and recognizes that class divisions remained and all was not unity and brotherly love, the fact remains that on the whole Londoners did “Keep Calm and Carry On”. Despite the constance presence of destruction, threat of death, sleep deprivation, uncertainty, and rationing, there was no panic, there was not chaos on the streets, and morale never shattered.

This is all the more amazing when you consider the situation that people were in: Life was suddenly completely uncertain. It wasn’t just the uncertainty of whether you would still be alive tomorrow; even if you lived, you never knew who else would live, or what state your city would be in. The news even was untrustworthy, as newspapers and radio alike kept quiet about where bombs fell and underplayed both damage and loss of life – partly in an effort to mislead Germans about the outcome of their bombing efforts, possibly also out of reluctance to damage citizen morale more than necessary.

The uncertainty, fear and stress would have been made worse by sleep deprivation. The air raids frequently happened at night (when enemy bombers had a better chance of getting away), meaning that most citizens had interrupted nights. It wasn’t enough to just sleep in an air raid shelter, either, because the bombs and the sirens would be frequent occurrences to wake you up. Sleep deprivation – as any college student learns quite quickly – brings with it a host of psychological ills. Sleep is vital to processing memory; it helps us not just consolidate memories for the long-term, but also to distance ourselves from any intense emotional content. Lack of sleep leads to poor short-term memory during the day, and weakens our immune systems. It also makes the average person more inclined to choose utilitarian moral actions – that is, more likely to steal or cheat for self-benefit. At least Londoners probably didn’t have to worry about sleep deprivation making them obese, thanks to rationing, but that would be small comfort.

Surviving or even thriving in an atmosphere like the Blitz is a question of resilience, or being able to bounce back. Resilience itself is a balance of risk factors (genetic legacy such as high anxiety, and environmental ones such as being in a city under constant bombardment) and protective factors (different genetic legacies for withstanding stress, or social support). Londoners were so resilient because in the end, the protective factors were in their favor.

First, people do seem to band together during a war. This is one of the hardest questions to study psychologically, because researchers cannot just start a war, and just having people imagine a war’s on isn’t enough. One set of researchers, though, happened to have conducted a study on social decision making nine months before the start of a month-long Israel-Hezbollah war, and were able to repeat it two weeks into the conflict, and a month after it ended.

They asked groups of senior citizens (different people each time) to complete a classic fairness task: Someone else chooses chooses how to split $10, and you will choose to accept or reject the split. If you accept the split, you each walk away with your money; if you reject, no one gets anything. Obviously you’d hope for a 50-50 split as perfect fairness, and if the other person selfishly offers something like “I’ll take $9, you get $1”, you might reject the split to punish them.

Choices to accept or reject the offer were the same in both “peacetime” (before and after the war) groups, but the “wartime” group was more likely to reject unfair offers: Rejections of a 90-10 split rose from less than 50% to 75%, rejections of an 80-20 split rose from 25% to 60%, and rejections of a 70-30 split rose from about 10% to about 40%. Approximately half the population decided anything more imbalanced than a 60-40 split was unfair, and was willing to forfeit their (real) few dollars to make sure that the person making the offer knew it.

This general pulling together would have been critical, because we know that social ties are key protective factors against depression. The government may have been wrong in its initial plans to discourage people from using Underground stations as shelters; getting together in such groups helped people realize they were not alone, and provided distractions against the fear of the raids (even if it were just smaller problems like protecting a claimed section of floor). The potential problem of learned helplessness – essentially, giving up on even trying to change things because things seem so unchangeable – can be reduced by empowering people, giving them a sense of mastery over their fate. The propaganda encouraging people to contribute to the war effort by buying bonds, complying with rationing, collecting scraps and scrap metal, all might actually have worked by giving people the sense that they were “doing their bit” for the war and so exerting some control over their lives.

And with these protective factors in place…people adapt. We habituate to noise; the unpredictability of the planes and bombs would have kept people slower to adapt, but soon enough they would learn to sleep through them. Just as we develop a tolerance to drugs, so that the same dose doesn’t produce as much of a “high”, we adapt (become desensitized) to bombs and death, and turning the corner to discover a street destroyed doesn’t produce as much of an emotional reaction. Or as one woman stated simply in her diary:

“Now we can expect bombing nightly until the end. It’s very frightening, but after a while one feels it’s ignoble to feel fear, and then ceases to worry. What will be will be. One simply takes reasonable precautions, and prays”. (Blitz diary, June 22, 1940)


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