Stoic Philosophy and Scientific Research

Stoicism and Research(This page is a work in progress, please comment below to contribute!)

There are several areas where modern scientific research appears to lend support to aspects of ancient Stoic practice.  There’s virtually no direct scientific research on Stoicism.  However, there are many areas where well-established research may provide indirect support for certain aspects of Stoic theory and practice.

Stoic Week

Some initial research is underway to directly study aspects of Stoic practice at the University of Exeter, via the @Stoicweek project, which you can read about on the Stoicism Today blog and website.  Connected with this work, we’ve also developed a preliminary draft of a Stoic Attitudes Scale for measuring the extent to which individuals endorse beliefs central to classical Stoic philosophy, which might be relevant to future research.

Clinical Research on CBT

Albert Ellis and Aaron T. Beck, the two main founders of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), both cite Stoicism as constituting the philosophical origins of their respective approaches.  (Ellis developed Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy, REBT, a precursor of modern CBT; Beck developed Cognitive Therapy (CT), the most influential form of modern CBT.)

Large volumes of research on CBT now conclusively demonstrate its efficacy for a wide range of psychological problems, particularly anxiety and depressive disorders.  To some extent, this can be viewed as providing indirect support for the effectiveness of Stoicism as a psychological therapy.  CBT and Stoicism are both complex things, with some fundamental areas of overlap and some important differences.  More fine-grained analysis of research on CBT may be able to identify specific areas where procedures that most closely resemble aspects of Stoicism may provide better evidence for its efficacy.

Stress & Coping Research

There’s a large body of research on mechanisms of psychological stress and coping strategies known as the “stress and coping” literature, which is independent of research on psychological therapy.  Richard Lazarus’ seminal cognitive appraisal model of stress and coping provided the basis for the cognitive model of emotions employed in most CBT.  This theory states that the amount of stress experienced is proportionate to the extent by which the perceived demands (or level of threat) in a situation outweighs your perceived ability to cope (or control the outcome).

This leads to the “goodness of fit hypothesis” (GOFH), proposed by Lazarus and Folkman (1984), which states that healthy coping consists in matching our coping style to the level of control we have over problems in daily life.  In other words, the hypothesis says that people will suffer less stress if, on the one hand, they accept events appraised as beyond their control, employing “emotion-focused” coping to reduce distress, and on the other hand they actively problem-solve events perceived as under their control.

This hypothesis is related to the Serenity Prayer: Give me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the Courage to change the things I can; and the Wisdom to know the difference.  The Serenity Prayer is closely related to one of the basic premises of Stoicism, especially in the writings of Epictetus.  Research on the “goodness of fit” hypothesis and other aspects of the stress and coping literature may therefore provide indirect support for this central hypothesis of Stoicism.  There are some conceptual differences here but, nevertheless, research evidence in this area should be of interest to Stoics.  The goodness of fit hypothesis has led to some mixed findings, perhaps because some forms of emotion-focused coping are more adaptive than others.  However, overall there’s been partial support for it.  For example, see this 2001 study.

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