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Optimism predicts resilience in repatriated prisoners of war: A 37-year longitudinal study


  • This research has been sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery Clinical Naval Investigation Program. The authors are thankful to Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, Headquarters, Department of the Army, Arlington, Virginia, and Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology and Director of the Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania for guidance on this manuscript.

  • The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the policy of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.


Resilience, exhibiting intact psychological functioning despite exposure to trauma, is one perspective as to why some people who are exposed to trauma do not develop symptoms. This study examines the prisoner of war experience to expand our understanding of this phenomenon in extreme cases of trauma such as prolonged captivity, malnourishment, and physical and psychological torture. The study examined the United States' longest detained American prisoners of war, those held in Vietnam in the 1960s through early 1970s. A logistic regression analysis using resilience, defined as never receiving any psychiatric diagnosis over a 37-year follow-up period, as the outcome was performed (n = 224 with complete data). Six variables showing at least small effects emerged: officer/enlisted status, age at time of capture, length of solitary confinement, low antisocial/psychopathic personality traits, low posttraumatic stress symptoms following repatriation, and optimism. Odds ratios (ORs) and confidence intervals (CIs) confirmed the significance and relative strength of these variables, with a range from OR = 0.54, 95% CI [0.13, 2.29] to OR = 1.11, 95% CI [1.04, 1.17]. When all variables were examined continuously and categorically, dispositional optimism was the strongest variable, accounting for 17%, continuously, and 14%, categorically. We discuss optimism as a protective factor for confronting trauma and the possibility of training to increase it.