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APPLIED PSYCHOLOGY: AN INTERNATIONAL REVIEW, 2001, 50 (3), 337±421

The Influence of Culture, Community, and the


Nested-Self in the Stress Process: Advancing
Conservation of Resources Theory
Stevan E. Hobfoll*
Kent State University, USA

La theÂorie de la preÂservation des ressources (COR preÂsuppose que la perte


d'une ressource est la principale composante du processus de stress. Un gain
en ressources, par contre, est preÂsente comme eÂtant d'importance croissante
dans un contexte de perte. Parce que les ressources sont aussi utiliseÂes pour
contrecarrer une perte de ressources, les gens sont, aÁ chaque phase du
processus de stress, de plus en plus vulneÂrables aux seÂquelles du stress neÂgatif,
cela si la succession des eÂveÁnements deÂbouche sur une spirale de pertes rapides
et douloureuses. La theÂorie COR est percËue comme eÂtant une alternative aux
theÂories du stress base sur l'eÂvaluation parce qu'elle repose davantage sur
la nature objective et culturellement interpreÂteÂe de l'environnement dans la
deÂtermination du processus de stress, plutoÃt que sur l'analyse personnelle de
l'individu. La theÂorie COR a preÂdit avec succeÁs un ensemble de donneÂes lieÂes
au stress dans des situations organisationnelles, dans le domaine de la santeÂ,
dans les suites du stress traumatique et dans la gestion du stress quotidien. Des
avanceÂes reÂcentes dans la compreÂhension des fondements biologique, cognitif
et social des reÂponses de stress se sont reÂveÂleÂes coheÂrentes avec la formulation
originelle de la theÂorie COR, mais suggeÁrent qu'il faudrait appreÂhender cette
theÂorie et le processus de stress d'une facËon plus collective que ce ne fut
d'abord le cas. On traite aussi du roÃle des gains et pertes de ressources dans le
pronostic des conseÂquences positives du stress. On discute enfin des limites et
des applications de la theÂorie COR.

Conservation of Resources (COR) theory predicts that resource loss is the


principal ingredient in the stress process. Resource gain, in turn, is depicted as
of increasing importance in the context of loss. Because resources are also used
to prevent resource loss, at each stage of the stress process people are

________________

* Address for correspondence: Applied Psychology Center, Kent State University, P.O. Box
5190, Kent, OH 44242, USA. Email: shobfoll@kent.edu
This paper is based, in part, on work supported by National Institute of Health Grant No.
RO1 HD24901 and National Institute of Mental Health Grant No. RO1 MH45669. Support
was also provided by the Applied Psychology Center at Kent State University, which was
established through an Academic Challenge Grant provided by the Ohio Board of Regents to
address the psychological study of issues of social relevance.

# International Association for Applied Psychology, 2001. Published by Blackwell Publishers,


108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
338 HOBFOLL

increasingly vulnerable to negative stress sequelae, that if ongoing result in


rapid and impactful loss spirals. COR theory is seen as an alternative to
appraisal-based stress theories because it relies more centrally on the objective
and culturally construed nature of the environment in determining the stress
process, rather than the individual's personal construel. COR theory has been
successfully employed in predicting a range of stress outcomes in organis-
ational settings, health contexts, following traumatic stress, and in the face of
everyday stressors. Recent advances in understanding the biological, cognitive,
and social bases of stress responding are seen as consistent with the original
formulation of COR theory, but call for envisioning of COR theory and the
stress process within a more collectivist backdrop than was first posited. The
role of both resource losses and gains in predicting positive stress outcomes is
also considered. Finally, the limitations and applications of COR theory are
discussed.

INTRODUCTION
Throughout history, the stress process has been alternatively envisioned as
an external, environmental phenomenon or an internal, mentalistic
occurrence. In the biblical story, Job lost home, family, and wealth and
was stricken with disease, for ``But man is born unto trouble, as [certainly as]
the sparks fly upward'' (Job 5:7). Yet, despite these external events, it was
his internal sense of faith and meaning that led him through his series of
travails. The social and behavioral sciences have likewise vacillated between
these two perspectives, but in fact have found value in both. Conservation
of Resources (COR) theory (Hobfoll, 1988, 1989, 1998) has been offered as
an integrative stress theory that considers both environmental and internal
processes with relatively equal measure. Because of the almost exclusively
cognitive nature of recent stress theorising and research, and within psy-
chology in general, COR theory may appear to be largely environmental,
forsaking the self. However, it is my purpose in this paper to delineate COR
theory as integrating the individual-nested in family-nested in tribe, set in
social context.
What I mean by ``individual-nested in family-nested in tribe'' is that attempts
to separate any piece of this unit, without reference to the greater whole, will
necessarily lead to limited predictive capacity. The self derives from primary
attachments within biological families and intimate social groups. The self
and the behavioral alternatives available to it, including thought, are reflec-
tions of cultural processes and delineated by cultural scripts and formu-
lations. Moreover, the encounter of the self with stress is primarily situated
in social context or involving social consequences (Hobfoll, 1998; Lyons,
Mickelson, Sullivan, & Coyne, 1998). This is not to say that study of the self,
and even molecular study of the brain, is invalid. On the contrary, they are
rich avenues for study. However, the moment we are seduced into thinking
that any one level is the primary active agent, we forestall the scientific

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CONSERVATION OF RESOURCES THEORY 339

process and acquire scientific tendencies to guard the borders of our theories
against the obvious veracity of broader perspectives (Baltes, 1997; Markus
& Nurius, 1986).
Although COR theory is a model for understanding stress, it nevertheless
remains difficult to define the term. The definition I favor is adopted from
Kaplan (1983). Throughout this article I refer to stress as the internal state
that:

. . . reflects the subject's inability to forestall or diminish perception, recall,


anticipation, or imagination of disvalued circumstances, those that in reality
or fantasy signify great and/or increased distance from desirable (valued)
experiential states, and consequently, evoke a need to approximate the valued
states. (Kaplan, 1983, p. 196)

Although this definition focuses in part on perception, the perceptions that


are referred to are primarily reality-based and socially common within a
culture, even if there is also an important additional individual component
to such perceptions.
Finally, I use the term tribe to refer to the complex social aggregations
of people into groups beyond the level of family. This includes formal and
informal groups of friends, colleagues, organisations, and communities.
I refer to tribes because such organisations appear to have both social and
biological components that seem to tie humans across history to a certain
way of being with others that transcends time and any particular culture
(Boas, 1911/1938; Shore, 1996). Although this could clearly fill the contents
of another article or book, suffice it to say that there is great similarity
across the principles that govern group behavior when it comes to issues as
broad as territoriality, hierarchal organisation, role differentiation, gender
relations, and meaning seeking. If we adopt the anthropological concept of
tribe, we understand much of human behavior in groups.

THE GENERAL NATURE OF RESOURCE VERSUS APPRAISAL


THEORIES IN THE STUDY OF STRESS
Resource-based theories of stress, among which COR is one, have received
increased attention (Antonovsky, 1979; Baltes, 1997; Bandura, 1997; Holahan
& Moos, 1987, 1991). They directly challenge appraisal-based stress theories,
not because they disregard appraisal, but because they suggest that the fit
of personal, social, economic, and environmental resources with external
demands determines the direction of stress responding and resultant out-
comes. Resources have been defined as those objects, personal character-
istics, conditions, or energies that are valued in their own right, or that are
valued because they act as conduits to the achievement or protection of
valued resources (Hobfoll, 1988; Diener & Fujita, 1995).

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340 HOBFOLL

Beyond the empirical basis of these approaches, the emphases on resources


may be drawing greater attention due to the increasingly precarious con-
dition of people's resources which is the product of rapid transitions in
economy, computers, and the political map. Early resource-based theories
such as Caplan's (1974) and Antonovsky's (1979) were derived from circum-
stances surrounding the Holocaust and post-Holocaust periods in Israel,
where events most clearly threatened and undermined people's resource
capacity. Recent events worldwide, such as the shake-up of the former
Soviet Union and the economic recession that threatened the economies of
seemingly unassailable economic engines such as Japan, Germany, and the
United States have brought home the message that we are all captive to
our resources, their availability, and the extent to which they are shared and
stable. With employment instability even shaking the lifetime contract
believed sacrosanct for workers in Japan, has come attention to the im-
portance and centrality of resources. For less resource-endowed members of
economically developed nations and for underdeveloped and economically
challenged nations, the keystone nature of resources has always been a
pivotal issue. These broader social trends are relevant as they serve as a
socio-cultural backdrop that interacts with research and theorizing on more
meso and microsocial levels. That is, resources are necessary and stress will
occur where resources are threatened, lost, believed to be unstable, or where
individuals and groups cannot see a path to the fostering and protection of
their resources through their individual or joint efforts.
One obstacle in the advancement of stress theory has paradoxically been
the introduction of a powerful and largely supportable theory of stress and
the self which was introduced originally by Lazarus (1966) and advanced
more specifically by Lazarus and Folkman (1984). In few instances has such
a robust theory been offered so early in an area's study. Lazarus and Folk-
man (1984) depicted stress as the primary outcome of personal appraisal
and a great deal of evidence has supported this perspective. Why I call this
an obstacle is that the vast majority of work following this theory has
directed attention at the appraisal aspects of the model, rather than their
much more inclusive transactional model in which appraisals are only one
component. This emphasis was, in large part, shared by the Lazarus and
Folkman themselves and the research in this regard clearly supports the
position that the best proximal indicator on the individual level of stress is
personal appraisal.
Despite appraisal theory's strengths, appraisal-based stress theories are
problematic on two levels that COR theory attempts to address. First, to
obtain appraisals we must wait until the proximal-moment where stress
occurs and constantly hark back to the individual for his or her assessment
at that state and time. This limits predictive strength and provides few
insights for groups or systems. Secondly, the study of stress appraisals has

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CONSERVATION OF RESOURCES THEORY 341

yielded little information about why people make certain appraisals, the
extent to which their appraisals are automatic outgrowths of learned (over-
learned) rules of interpretation (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Chaiken & Trope,
1999), and the extent that these appraisals are shared and culturally scripted.
The interpretation that has been given, instead, is that appraisals are idio-
graphic, that is peculiar or characteristic of the individual. This interpreta-
tion that appraisals are centrally idiographic is, I think, itself a reflection of
the cultural, Western bias that champions the crystalised self and sees it as
divisible from the embedded self (Baumeister, 1987; Sampson, 1988). In this
article I will attempt to show instead how appraisals are embedded in the
social context in which individuals find themselves, and that the idiographic
aspects of appraisal are secondary to biological and overlearned automatic
processes, on one hand, and socio-cultural processes, on the other hand.

. . . human thought is basically both social and publicÐthat its natural habitat
is the house yard, the marketplace, and the town square. Thinking consists not
of ``happenings in the head'' (though, happenings there and elsewhere are
necessary for it to occur) but of a traffic in . . . significant [shared] symbols.
(Geertz, 1973, p. 45)

COR THEORY
COR theory follows from a set of tenets, principles, and corollaries that
I will delineate next. The theory lays out a specific framework that leads to
certain predictions, delineates the limits of the theory, and allows for a
rejectable conclusion (Hobfoll, 1988, 1989, 1998).

The basic tenet of COR theory is that individuals strive to obtain, retain,
protect, and foster those things that they value.

They do so in a world that they see as innately threatening and requiring


a constellation of their personal strengths, social attachments, and cultural
belonging in order to survive (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986).
These valued entities are termed resources, and may be delineated into
object, condition, personal characteristic, and energy resources. Resources
are not individually determined, but are both transcultural and products of
any given culture. In our work on resources, we have found 74 resources (see
Table 1) that represent a comprehensive set that appears to have validity in
many Western contexts (Hobfoll, 1998). It follows that psychological stress
will occur in one of three instances.
Stress will occur:
(1) when individuals' resources are threatened with loss,
(2) when individuals' resources are actually lost, or

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342 HOBFOLL

TABLE 1
COR Resources

Personal transportation (car, Adequate food Adequate financial credit


truck, etc.) Larger home than I need* Feeling independent
Feeling that I am successful Sense of humor Companionship
Time for adequate sleep Stable employment Financial assets (stocks,
Good marriage Intimacy with spouse or property, etc.)
Adequate clothing partner Knowing where I am going
Feeling valuable to others Adequate home furnishings with my life
Family stability Feeling that I have control Affection from others
Free time over my life Financial stability
More clothing than I need* Role as a leader Feeling that my life has
Sense of pride in myself Ability to communicate well meaning/purpose
Intimacy with one or more Providing children's Positive feeling about myself
family members essentials People I can learn from
Time for work Feeling that my life is Money for transportation
Feelings that I am peaceful Help with tasks at work
accomplishing my goals Acknowledgment of my Medical insurance
Good relationship with my accomplishments Involvement with church,
children Ability to organise tasks synagogue, etc.
Time with loved ones Extras for children Retirement security
Necessary tools for work Sense of commitment (financial)
Hope Intimacy with at least one Help with tasks at home
Children's health friend Loyalty of friends
Stamina/endurance Money for extras Money for advancement or
Necessary home appliances Self-discipline self-improvement
Feeling that my future Understanding from my (education, starting a
success depends on me employer/boss business)
Positively challenging Savings or emergency money Help with child care
routine Motivation to get things done Involvement in organisations
Personal health Spouse/partner's health with others who have
Housing that suits my needs Support from co-workers similar interests
Sense of optimism Adequate income Financial help if needed
Status/seniority at work Feeling that I know who I am Health of family/close
Advancement in education or friends
job training

Note: * Although luxury resources, groups repeatedly admitted investing more in these two
luxury resources than other resources they deemed more important.
From S.E. Hobfoll (1998).

(3) where individuals fail to gain sufficient resources following signifi-


cant resource investment.
Although individuals' appraisals are one avenue to assess resource loss,
most resources are objectively determined or observable. Resource loss for
one individual would in most cases be perceived as loss by others in similar
circumstances, and the ranking of resources' importance is a product of

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CONSERVATION OF RESOURCES THEORY 343

culture. Indeed, how resources are ranked and valued is a reflection of what
constitutes culture (Schwartz & Bilsky, 1990). Resources gain their essential
character because they act to sustain the individual-nested in family-nested
in tribe.
These ideas also distinguish COR theory from Person±Environment Fit
(P±E Fit) theory (Caplan & Van Harrison, 1993; Edwards & Rothbard, 1999).
In this regard, P±E Fit theory made a seminal contribution to the stress
literature by arguing that it is the fit of resources to demands, or lack thereof,
that constitutes stress. However, P±E fit research has almost uniformly
assessed only individuals' perceptions of P±E fit, rather than examining or
emphasising the actual fit of resources. Still, many of the ideas central to
COR theory overlap with those in P±E fit theory's original formulation
(French, Caplan, & Van Harrison, 1982).
A number of principles follow from COR theory's central tenet, and these
will be considered next:

Principle 1: The Primacy of Resource Loss. The first principle of COR


theory is that resource loss is disproportionally more salient than
resource gain.

This means that given equal amounts of loss and gain, loss will have sig-
nificantly greater impact. Moreover, resource gains are seen as acquiring
their saliency in light of loss. That is, in the context of resource loss, resource
gains become more important. This principle distinguishes COR theory
from reinforcement theory, as reinforcement theory and behaviorism in
general do not differentially weight reward and punishment, and if, at
all, has favored reward or gains as the means of influencing behavior. This
principle also distinguishes COR theory from appraisal theory (Lazarus &
Folkman, 1984) which leaves the extent of loss and gain's impact up to the
court of individual assessment, and does not emphasise the shared cultural
nature of loss and gain assessments.
There is a great deal of cognitive evidence for the primacy of loss. Tversky
and Kahneman (1974) noted that the gradient of loss is steeper than the
gradient for gain in their prospect theory. In decision making they noted
that the framing of an event as a loss engenders greater risk-taking than will
the mathematically equivalent event if framed as a gain. Cacioppo and his
colleagues (Cacioppo & Gardner, 1999; Ito, Larsen, Smith, & Cacioppo,
1998) in an elegant series of experiments have noted a greater weighting
of negative information than positive information in what they term the
negativity bias. Positive and negative motivational processes are seen by
Cacioppo and colleagues as having separable motivational substrates, partially
separable neurophysiological substrates, and to exist at the ``automatic''
evaluation-categorisation phase of cognitive processing. This means that the

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344 HOBFOLL

tendency to overweight negative or threatening information is either innate


or learned deeply and at very early levels of learning, such that they become
automatic responses below the level of awareness.
Evidence that loss's impact is deeply cognitively rooted can also be found
in recent work on immune neglect (Gilbert, Pinel, Wilson, Blumberg, &
Wheatley, 1998). Learning theory would predict that people would adapt
over time to the fact that they typically can overcome negative life events.
That is, since the outcome of most stressful events, even rather severe ones,
is ultimately one of prevailing over adversity, people should learn to be
accurate assessors of the consequences of positive and negative events in
equal measure. Yet, individuals do not tend to learn this in the sense that
they continue over the life course to overestimate the duration and intensity
of their affective reactions to negative, loss events. That is, they ignore the
robustness of their psychological immune system. In contrast, the psycho-
logical immune system does not augment positive events. This has great
significance for forecasting behavior because people's actions are in large
part derived from their predictions concerning the emotional consequences
of events they are likely to, and do in fact, encounter.
Although Darwinian explanations for behavioral phenomena are in many
ways unprovable, there is general agreement among resource theorists that
resource loss is primary because biological, attentional, psychological, and
cultural systems found it adaptive (Carver & Scheier, 1998). For most of
human evolutionary history, the loss of a key resource meant threat to
survival for the individual or group. Although we cannot prove this idea,
evidence from traumatic stress research can be used to argue the deep-
seated, biological nature of this psychological process (van der Kolk, 1996a,
1996b). Specifically, traumatic events tend to imprint on the victim a
memory for the event that alters the startle response to similar stimuli, is
prolonged, is accompanied with the smells, sounds, and sites of the event,
and is rekindled as if during the original event by associated stimuli. Such
a trauma signature has been argued to be biologically based, as on a
psychological level alone it would be predicted that the imprint would be
counterproductive to functioning. Rather, the deep, almost indelible impact
must serve the function of a reminder of the critical nature of such loss
stimuli. Moreover, research has found that telling the story of the event has
a healing influence on the individual and social group (Meichenbaum,
1994), suggesting that the codification of trauma events into the social
history of the tribe has important survival value for the group as well.
Taken together, these studies point to a basis for asserting the primacy of
resource loss compared to resource gain. Evidence suggests that the primacy
of resource loss may be either biological, or deeply rooted in learning such
that it is incorporated in the automatic responding of individuals. Further,
these tendencies are supported by cultural processes, as the nested nature of

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CONSERVATION OF RESOURCES THEORY 345

individuals in families and tribes makes loss's primacy as important for the
group as for the individual (see Westman & Etzion, 1995). As such, we
would expect to find loss rituals strongly embedded within cultures
worldwide. The narrative storytelling following disaster or trauma by
indigenous tribes, as well as CNN media coverage, suggests that culture
must digest trauma into a narrative format that serves some basic need of
culture to protect against future loss just as the trauma signature imprints
on the individual level. On each of these levels, the primacy and restorative
rituals accompanying loss are unparalleled by any comparable process
concerning gain.

DIRECT EVIDENCE FOR THE PRIMACY OF RESOURCE LOSS


IN THE STRESS PROCESS
Consistent with COR theory, Taylor (1991) suggested that negative life events
have an asymmetrically strong impact compared to positive events on people's
physiological, cognitive, emotional, and social responses. Thoits (1983) also
noted that only loss-related events have negative psychological impact, and
that positive life events are only stressful to the extent they contain negative
subevents (e.g. job promotion may also entail leaving friends behind). It
follows that loss-related events will have marked impact and that stress will
ensue as a consequence. We and others have examined this idea in a series of
studies.
Hobfoll and Lilly (1993) had individuals report their recent resource gains
and losses and their gains and losses over the past year, along with their
depressive mood and anxiety. This was done on two occasions, spaced
two weeks apart. It was found that resource loss was strongly related to
emotional distress and that gains were hardly related to emotional distress
whatsoever. Resource gains were, however, related to psychological distress
after controlling for resource loss. This suggests, as predicted by COR
theory, that gains become important in the context of loss sequences.
Moreover, the impact of resource loss on psychological distress was much
greater than the impact of negative life events found in prior research
(Rabkin & Streuning, 1976). In other words, listing negative events accounts
for less of the variance in resultant distress than does accounting for re-
source losses. This further supported the supposition that life events are too
broad a unit of analysis, because they must be unpacked into the losses and
gains that they contain (see also Dohrenwend, Raphael, Schwartz, Stueve, &
Skodol, 1993).
The question arises as to whether resource loss only predicts negative
affect, whereas resource gain might predict positive affect. This has been
referred to as the dual valence theory of emotions, such that separate
emotional channels are seen as operating for positive and negative events

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346 HOBFOLL

and affect, respectively (Reich & Zautra, 1981; Vinokur & Selzer, 1975).
A recent study by Suh, Diener, and Fujita (1996) spoke directly to this
question. They found that loss events were better predictors of both negative
and positive affect. Positive events, in contrast, were almost unrelated to
positive or negative affect, contrary to their hypothesis stemming from the
dual valence theory of emotions, but quite consistent with COR theory.
We have also studied how gains become important in response to loss
circumstances. Wells, Hobfoll, and Lavin (1997, 1999) prospectively studied
pregnant women, many of whom were balancing career and family.
Resource loss, but not gain, was directly related to changes in anger and
depressive mood. However, resource gain became of greater importance
for women who experienced higher resource loss. Specifically, women who
experienced resource gains were significantly less negatively impacted by
loss than those who had not experienced gains accompanying their losses,
even though resource gain itself had no direct impact. Those who experi-
enced losses, but not gains, were considerably more likely to experience
psychological distress during this high demand period.

Resource Loss and Disaster


A number of studies of disaster have similarly found that resource loss is the
critical ingredient in the stress process. Freedy and his colleagues (Freedy,
Saladin, Kilpatrick, Resnick, & Saunders, 1994; Freedy, Shaw, Jarrell, &
Masters, 1992), studying the consequences of two types of disaster (hurri-
canes and earthquakes), found that resource loss was the best predictor of
motivation to cope and of the negative impact of disaster. Ironson et al.
(1997) similarly examined resource loss in the face of Hurricane Andrew,
which struck South Florida in 1992. She and her colleagues found that
resource loss was the best of a host of predictors of post-traumatic stress
disorder (PTSD) and general psychological distress. They also noted that
resource loss was the only predictor of immune compromise in the form of
decreased natural killer cell cytotoxicity and increased white blood cell
count, the latter indicating the body's response to attack.
Other disaster studies have likewise supported COR theory, including
when other theoretical models were used as comparison perspectives.
Examining the impact of Hurricane Andrew, Carver (1993) found that loss
of resources was a better predictor of PTSD and general psychological dis-
tress than optimism±pessimism. Moreover, whereas optimism only pre-
dicted to what have typically been found to be negative coping patterns (e.g.
denial, alcohol use), resource loss predicted to a general mobilisation of
coping strategies, including those typically associated with positive (e.g.
problem solving, planning) and negative outcomes (see also Benight et al.,
1999). In another investigation, researchers compared the impact of resource

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CONSERVATION OF RESOURCES THEORY 347

loss with the influence of having a strong sense of coherence following


Hurricane Hugo (Kaiser, Sattler, Bellack, & Dersin, 1996). They found that
resource loss overshadowed any positive impact of sense of coherence.
Examining whether the effects of resource loss were both immediate and
ongoing, Norris, Perilla, Riad, Kaniasty, and Lavizzo (1999) carefully
examined both initial and more long-term responses to disaster. They found
that resource loss had a marked impact on immediate traumatic responses,
and that ongoing resource losses negatively influenced the long-term
sequelae of Hurricane Andrew. Overall, the studies of Hurricanes Andrew
and Hugo also addressed the possibility that resource losses are related to
outcomes because of selective appraisal of such resources as hope, feeling
positive about the self, etc. If this were the case, there could well be a
confounding of resource loss indicators with outcome variables such as
depression. In this regard, this series of studies selected resources that they
felt were unlikely to be confounded with psychological outcomes (e.g.
destruction of housing, loss of transportation, loss of employment).
Finally, in one of the few disaster studies of the influence of resource loss
on children, Asarnow, Glynn, Pynoos, Nahum, Guthrie, Cantwell, and
Franklin (1999) examined the impact of children's resources on disaster out-
comes. They found that exposure to the Northridge earthquake impacted
children's PTSD symptoms. In particular, pre-disaster psychological vulner-
ability, degree of objective exposure (i.e. threat of loss), and actual resource
loss impacted post-disaster PTSD reactions. Most interestingly, by compar-
ing siblings they were able to show that stress appraisals did not distinguish
sibling reactions, whereas objective exposure to the earthquake threat did.

Resource Loss, Material Loss, and Burnout


COR theory has also been used as a principal explanatory mechanism for
understanding the process of burnout and stress in work settings (Grandey
& Cropanzano, 1999; Janssen, Schaufeli, & Houkes, 1999; Shirom, 1989;
Westman & Eden, 1997; Wright & Cropanzano, 1998). Burnout is virtually
opposite in stress intensity compared to disasters. It refers to the process by
which individuals experience a gradual increase of distress that is character-
ised by reduced productivity, alienation from others, and emotional ex-
haustion (Maslach & Leiter, 1997). Burnout is thought to follow from the
third stress condition of COR theory, such that there is a lack of resource gain
(and sometimes exposure to minor, chronic losses) following significant
resource investment of time, energy, lost opportunities, and borrowing from
family time and intimacy to support work.
In a meta-analysis of studies of burnout, Lee and Ashforth (1996) divided
indicators of demand characteristics of work that draw on people's re-
sources resulting in loss, and supportive elements of work environments that

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348 HOBFOLL

add to people's resources and thus constitute resource gains. The authors
interpreted their results as supportive of COR theory in that five of the eight
loss correlates were found to be strongly related to greater burnout, whereas
only a single indicator of resource gain was related to lower burnout.
Further evidence for the insidious effect of chronic, minor losses was
noted in a series of sociological studies by Siegrist and his colleagues
(Siegrist, 1996; Siegrist, Peter, Junge, & Cremer, 1990). Relying on medical
outcome data, rather than self-reported burnout symptoms, they found
substantially increased odds of heart disease and cardiac-related deaths
under conditions where workers had high resource investment in conjunc-
tion with reaping poor work-derived gains. Further, by assessing large-scale
employment and compensation trends, rather than individual reports, the
Siegrist studies are especially informative because they minimise the
confounding of self-reported stressors.
Evidence for the primacy of loss's impact was also noted by Kessler,
Turner, and House (1988). They found that loss of employment had
significant negative impact on depression. By studying economically driven,
large-scale job layoffs, this research was able to dismiss the possibility that
the individuals caused their job loss. This element in their research design
removes the possibility of a confounding between job loss and depression
that might have the opposite causal direction, because the workers' behavior
cannot be construed as the source of the job loss. Further, this study
provides special insights, as the negative impact of employment loss was
limited if individuals had other economic resources, and most importantly
was fully reversed if their job was reinstated.
Most recently, we have also examined whether material resource loss is
more impactful than resource lack. Certainly, chronic lack of resources
engenders and makes people more vulnerable to resource loss (Dohrenwend
& Dohrenwend, 1974). However, even vulnerable inner-city women may
create a life niche that is supportive and in which they can minimise resource
losses. We investigated this in a large sample of inner city women (Ennis,
Hobfoll, & Schroeder, 2000) and found that resource ``lack'' in the form
of lower education, lower income, and lower employment was almost
unrelated to depressive mood. Material resource loss, in contrast, was highly
related to depressive mood, controlling for the influence of resource lack.
This finding is instructive because we used only objectively clear material
loss items, and found that these impacted depressive mood independent of
more psychological loss indicators. Thus, even though based on self-report,
these findings limit the interpretation that loss reporting was confounded
with depressive mood. They suggest that it is the element of loss that is most
critical, and that even at low states of general resource endowment, people
can guard against resource loss and remain resilient to the potential negative
sequelae that their lack of resources might portend.

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CONSERVATION OF RESOURCES THEORY 349

Principle 2: Resource Investment. The second principle of COR theory is


that people must invest resources in order to protect against resource
loss, recover from losses, and gain resources.
A related corollary of this (Corollary 1) is that those with greater
resources are less vulnerable to resource loss and more capable of
orchestrating resource gain. Conversely, those with fewer resources are
more vulnerable to resource loss and less capable of resource gain.

The value of resources stems from their being desired goal objects, such as
in the case of love, money, and home, and from their being instrumental in
the acquisition or maintenance of desired resources. Resources such as self-
efficacy and social support, for instance, may both be desired in their own
right and important because they contribute to a maintenance of strong
resource reservoirs.
In a series of studies, SchoÈnpflug (1985) illustrated how people develop
decision and investment strategies to determine the payoff they will receive
for resource investment. The process of resource investment might sound
coldly economic, as when people determine work hour investment for financial
payoff, but it applies equally well to investment of such abstract resources as
time, energy, and trust for the acquisition and maintenance of love. Nor
should one mistake this economy as being characterised by simple exchange
principles, because since the self is attached to others, the desired goal may
entail self-sacrifice for the communal good (Clark & Mills, 1979). In general,
investment of resources exacts a price that must be considered because if
such investment does not stem the tide of resource loss or contribute to
other resource gains, then the net effect will leave the individual or group at
a state of diminished capacity. Even in the case of internal resources,
attempts at self-regulation have been found to result in diminished capacity
for sustained goal-directed effort (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, &
Tice, 1998).
There is a wealth of evidence that personal, social, and economic resources
can be invested to aid the process of stress resistance. This has been shown
for single resources such as self-efficacy, optimism, and self-esteem (Bandura,
1997; Scheier & Carver, 1985) and for broad-band resources such as sense
of coherence (Antonovsky, 1979), learned resourcefulness (Rosenbaum &
Smira, 1986), social support (Antonucci, 1985), and personality hardiness
(Kobasa, 1979).

Resource Caravans
There is strong evidence that resources aggregate in resource caravans in
both an immediate and a life-span sense. Research by Cozzarelli (1993) and
by Rini, Dunkel-Schetter, Wadhwa, and Sandman (1999) support the idea

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350 HOBFOLL

suggested in COR theory that having one major resource is typically linked
with having others, and likewise for their absence (Hobfoll, 1998). Hence,
having a sense of self-efficacy is likely to be linked with optimism and the
availability of social support in demanding contexts, whereas low self-
efficacy is likely to be associated with poor social support, low self-esteem,
and less adequate coping styles (Kobasa & Puccetti, 1983; Thoits, 1994).
Over the life-span, there appears likewise to be continuity of resources
such that being in a state of resource lack at one time tends to carry over
to future periods (King, King, Foy, Keane, & Fairbank, 1999). Change in
resource levels can occur, but consistent with a caravan concept, the retinue
of resources tends to travel together over time unless some inner or outside
forces are specifically directed to alter the constellation of resources (Baltes,
1997). Thus, while we can examine a given resource, it should be recalled
that other resources are probably underlying the overall protective influence
(Turner, Lloyd, & Roszell, 1999).

Mechanisms of Resource Investment


This article cannot go into the plethora of studies of stress resistance resources.
Rather, it is important to point out how resources may be invested or
otherwise utilised to offset the potentially deleterious effects of stress. The
first avenue is resource replacement, such as that where, for example, the loss
of self-esteem may be met with attempts to re-establish self-esteem. The
second avenue for stress resistance is resource substitution. In resource substi-
tution, a lost resource may be substituted by a second resource of generally
equivalent value from another resource domain. For example, loss through
interpersonal conflict at home can be partially compensated for, at least, by
greater investment in work-related resources (Hirsch & Rapkin, 1986). To
the extent that the resource substitution or replacement is partial or of a less
highly valued resource, the more negative would be the outcome.
Baltes and Baltes (1990; Baltes, 1997) provide further insights as to the
pattern that individuals follow in resource maintenance and replacement in
their theory of Selective Optimization with Compensation (SOC). Specifi-
cally, they suggest that the first avenue of defense following loss is an
optimisation strategy. In this way, no new resources have to be acquired, but
rather individuals select circumstances or opportunities within circumstances
that optimise their remaining resources, and in concert may fine-tune their
resources for the task. For example, a worker who cannot bend nimbly due
to an injury might rearrange her work table to make tools and task more
accessible and use skills she possesses to meet the central task demands.
Even well resource-endowed individuals are likely to utilise optimisation
strategies because they maximise both efficiency and effectiveness by chang-
ing the field of operation to one that is most advantageous to the fit of

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CONSERVATION OF RESOURCES THEORY 351

resources with demands. Hence, the duelist who is best with broad swords,
chooses broad swords and avoids pistols, and can also gain by further
sharpening the resources required.
Because resources may be too depleted or mismatched to allow optim-
isation, a second resource strategy is necessary, namely compensation. In
compensation, individuals acquire additional resources that compensate for
the loss of fit between capacity and demand. The use of a cane, the seeking
of instrumental support, and efforts at rehabilitation following injury are all
examples of compensation following either resource loss or a change in the
environment that renders existing resources ineffective. This compensation
can be external, as in seeking social support, or internal, as in going to
therapy to enhance self-esteem or social skills.
With personal events or environmental change resulting in resource loss
or poor resource fit, BrandstaÈdter (1989; BrandstaÈdter & Greve, 1994) speaks
to the role that compensatory cognitions can play. As resource reserve
capacity is increasingly inadequate following ongoing loss or in the case of
otherwise poor resource reserves, compensatory efforts are seen as having
``decreasing marginal utility''. As costs of resource investment begin to out-
weigh benefits, accommodative coping occurs. This entails downgrading goals,
reframing outcomes, and letting old battles rest. However, unlike appraisal
theorists that suggest that appraisal operates in a free field, BrandstaÈdter
provides empirical evidence for these appraisals as constrained by operating
social models. For example, the elderly no longer need to see themselves
as competing with young athletes in their running times. However, senior
executives will actually be further harmed if they attempt to make com-
parisons outside of the social strictures that they have embraced for years
concerning expected accomplishments for their age, gender, background,
and talents. This leads to the prediction that attempts to reframe events
through downward comparison, realigning goals, and altering ambitions
will have negative impact to the extent that they are integral to self-identity
or are held by a broad class of people in the society. Thus, BrandstaÈdter
makes the important point that because many stressors are central to
identity, then cognitive reframing is often counter-productive. This is the
opposite conclusion to the one arrived at by appraisal theory, which
suggests that cognitive reframing is a primary stress reduction mechanism.
Supporting this point, Krause (1999) recently found that when stressful
events are encountered in a highly valued life domain, older adults not only
do not reframe their goals, but become more committed to them.

Proactive Coping
The principle of resource investment also highlights the importance of
proactive coping. COR theory suggests (Hobfoll, 1989) that resource

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352 HOBFOLL

acquisition, maintenance, and fostering are basic motivational goals that


require effort and other resource costs. Aspinwall and Taylor (1997) have
similarly argued that proactive coping is one of the missing links in stress
and coping research. This means that the stress process is not circumscribed
by the reactive response to resource loss or threats. Rather, individuals and
groups proactively cope by (1) striving to acquire and maintain their resource
reservoirs, (2) acting early when first warning signs of some impending
problem are evidenced, and (3) by positioning themselves through selection
(see Baltes, 1997) in circumstances that fit their resources or otherwise place
them and their family or social group at an advantage. Greenglass, Schwarzer,
Jakubiec, Fiksenbaum, and Taubert (1999) have argued that proactive
coping pertains to setting goals and having efficacious beliefs concerning the
acquisition of those goals. Similarly, individuals not only do not necessarily
wait for stress and tragedy to occur, but actively set about positioning
themselves and their resources in an advantageous position. Once again,
those who are well resource endowed due to their own efforts and their place
in society (e.g. being a member of a non-stigmatised group, having wealth),
are better able to plan for future contingencies, invest resources for further
resource enhancement, and place themselves in positions that allow for risk
minimisation and resource maximisation. In contrast, those who are lacking
resources cannot risk resource investment because they either have no appro-
priate resources to invest, or must keep resources in reserve for emergency
contingencies (SchoÈnpflug, 1985, see also Corollary 4 below).
Two intervention studies speak to the need for both general and stress-
specific resources in the proactive coping process. Their ``controlled, clinical
trials''-type design, with interventions matched for intensity and time also
aids the possibility of assigning a causal interpretation to them. In compari-
son, most naturalistic studies are open to the criticism that resource absence
or presence is confounded with perceptions or that resource level is a co-
traveler with other factors that influence positive and negative outcomes.
In the first such study, Freedy and Hobfoll (1994) found that when nurses
received training aimed only at enhancing their sense of mastery, there was
little positive influence on their ability to stave off burnout. However, when
intervention included both mastery and social support enrichment, there
was a marked positive enhancement of nurses' resiliency in the face of
chronic environmental stress. Similarly, Hobfoll, Jackson, Lavin, Britton,
and Shepherd (1994) found that when inner-city women received interven-
tion that was aimed at increasing their general health skills and com-
munication competency skills, it made relatively little impact on their AIDS
risk behavior. In constrast, when intervention focused these same resource
acquisitions (i.e. health and communication skills) on specific target be-
haviors that related to safer-sex, marked changes in AIDS risk reduction
were made. This study was also unusual in that it examined objective risk

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CONSERVATION OF RESOURCES THEORY 353

behavior in the form of pharmacy reports of obtained condoms. Moreover,


a follow-up study (Hobfoll, Jackson, Lavin, & Schroder, 1999) confirmed
these findings and extended them to an objective clinical and laboratory
report of sexually transmitted disease markers. Taken together, these studies
further suggest that resources must also fit context in order to be invested
effectively.
Greenglass et al. (1999) and Aspinwall and Taylor's (1997) ideas are
consistent with the COR thesis that stress responding need not be reactive to
a given environmental stressor. Rather, people are active participants in
looking forward in their lives, considering their goals, evaluating obstacles and
advantages that the environment is likely to offer, and acting to enhance their
resources and limit their resource losses. Together, with the work of Baltes and
Baltes (1990), these theories expand an understanding of stress to the wider
arena of motivational responding to internal goals and external exigencies (see
also Carver & Scheier, 1998). Nevertheless, as COR theory and the work of
Baltes and BrandstaÈdter emphasise, proactive coping is subject to limitations
and advantages that are a product of people's life-span development and
their social status and access to societal affordances. The poor, the aged, and
underprivileged social groups may be so consumed with reactive coping that
they cannot afford to apportion resources for proactive coping.

Investment of Resources and Positive Stress Outcomes:


The Sustaining of Human Fortitude
COR theory, with its emphasis on maintenance, fostering, and protection of
resources also has implications for understanding the potential positive
impact of severely stressful, even traumatic events. Specifically, in the wake
of severe stress, individuals, families, and tribes seek to both repair the
damage and to mobilise resources for further resource protection. That is,
they are not only reactive to the stressor that has occurred, but move quickly
toward being proactive through vigilance regarding the cascading stressful
demands that are likely to occur in the wake of the lead event. This results,
in turn, in their reliance on themselves and on others in new ways. In a sense,
risk-taking is forced as old patterns are often found wanting and poorly
fitting the pressing demands.
Consistent with this thesis, Updegraff and Taylor (2000) argue that
positive changes that typically accompany severe stress lie in the domains of
self-perceptions and relations to others. Thus, Collins, Taylor, and Skokan
(1990) found cancers patients to experience positive changes in social relation-
ships and Calhoun and Tedeschi (1990) found that two-thirds of a bereaved
sample described themselves as stronger and more competent. Similarly,
Folkman (1997) noted that AIDS caregivers experienced positive emotions
as well as negative emotions.

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354 HOBFOLL

What ties these changes together is their link to sustaining active coping
behavior (Ickovics and Park, 1998). Thus, it is not that these positive
changes are not accompanied by depressive mood, anxiety, and illness, but
that they allow the individual, family, or group to sustain the behavior
necessary to preserve the self-nested in family-nested in tribe. As Aldwin,
Sutton, and Lackman (1996) argue, positive coping cycles build on
themselves, and negative coping cycles may preclude these kinds of positive
outcomes and their concomitant sustaining effect. Similarly, Meichenbaum
(1985) theorised that individuals can partially inoculate themselves against
major stressors by building on resources that were developed in instances of
more manageable stressors. This suggests, in turn, that those who have built
a stronger armamentarium of personal, social, economic, and other sustain-
ing resources will be more well suited to adapt to severe and traumatic
stress, by building on their already durable resource reserves in a proactive
fashion (Updegraff & Taylor, 2000).
In summary of these points, proactive and reactive coping are distinguish-
able, but also often occur hand in hand as threat and loss are moving
targets, not static occurrences. Individuals, families, and groups must invest
resources in the service of offsetting resource loss, building sustaining
resources, and for attempts at resource gain. Self-directed behavior plays a
large role in this regard (Carver & Scheier, 1998; Greenglass et al., 1999),
but social and cultural influences often direct, limit, or block efforts along
prescribed corridors of action and response (Baltes, 1997). Baltes' (1997)
SOC theory may be particularly instructive in this regard. Moreover, it
seems necessary to balance theories of cognitive reappraisal (Taylor, 1983)
with an understanding of the limits of those reappraisals, as delineated by
socially common constructions of the allowable self (BrandstaÈdter, 1989). In
this way, appraisals and attempts at reframing must be reconceptualised.
Hence, individuals will attempt to sustain their resources through action and
cognition and will endeavor to enlist their resources in proactive coping, but
will do so within the limits set by their resource availability and the allow-
able channels of behavior and thought outlined by culture and its strictures.

RESOURCE LOSS AND GAIN SPIRALS


The first two principles of COR theory concerning loss primacy and
investment of resources, in turn, lead to two further corollaries pertaining to
resource loss and gain spirals (Hobfoll, 1988, 1998):

Corollary 2 of COR theory states that those who lack resources are
not only more vulnerable to resource loss, but that initial loss begets
future loss.

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CONSERVATION OF RESOURCES THEORY 355

Corollary 3 mirrors Corollary 2, stating that those who possess resources


are more capable of gain, and that initial resource gain begets further
gain. However, because loss is more potent than gain, loss cycles will be
more impactful and more accelerated than gain cycles.

Because resource loss is stressful and because people must invest resources
to offset further resource loss, once initial losses occur, people become in-
creasingly vulnerable to ongoing loss. In our study of middle-class pregnant
women, we found that short-term resource loss had little psychological
impact on this relatively resource-endowed group. However, when losses
continued, there was an accelerated negative effect of ongoing loss spirals
(Wells et al., 1997, 1999).
In other work, we (Lane & Hobfoll, 1992) found that patients with
chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (a life threatening condition) en-
countered an increasing series of resource losses. As losses increased, they
became more angry. Their anger, in turn, tended to alienate potential
support, making them increasingly vulnerable to further resource loss in an
expanding spiral. In a similar vein, Rini et al. (1999) found that pregnant
women who were Hispanic and had lower income and less education had
weaker personal resources (i.e. optimism, self-esteem, mastery). Weaker
personal resources, in turn, were related to higher stress, which in turn led to
shorter gestations and underweight infants, major infant risk factors.
Although they did not follow these mothers further, it is clear that negative
birth outcomes would make further demands on resources and constitute
continued stress that might well become chronic.
The action of loss spirals has been carefully examined in a series of social
support and disaster studies by Norris and Kaniasty (1996; Kaniasty &
Norris, 1993, 1995). Following COR theory they developed the social
support deterioration deterrence model that posits that high demand circum-
stances such as disaster result in support mobilisation that limits psycho-
logical distress. However, at the same time, disaster contributes to support
deterioration, as resources that initially rally are finite and tend to dissipate
with time. Further, Kaniasty and Norris (1995) noted that poor, ethnic
minority individuals are less likely to derive benefit from support cycles,
because they are less resource endowed and less likely to be linked to societal
resource reserves. Their findings in a number of disaster settings strongly
demonstrated that resource loss is difficult to prevent and more powerful
than resource gain. Consequently, initial post-disaster mobilisation of received
support was only able to lessen, but not eliminate, lasting erosion of per-
ceived social support in affected communities.
Norris and Kaniasty's support deterioration findings are consistent with
processes noted by Atkinson, Liem, and Liem (1986), Bolger, Foster,
Vinokur, and Ng (1996), Ensel and Lin (1991), Lepore, Evans, and Schneider

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356 HOBFOLL

(1991), Pennebaker and Harber (1993), and Quittner, Glueckauf, and Jackson
(1990) in disaster, illness, and other chronic stress circumstances. The
support-deterioration model also seems to apply to more general resources,
especially when individuals experience a shared stressor on the family
(Hobfoll & Lerman, 1988, 1989) or community levels (Palinkas, Downs,
Petterson, & Russell,1993; Palinkas, Russell, Downs, & Petterson, 1992).
Further evidence for loss and gain spirals was noted in a ten-year study of a
random sample of community residents. In this investigation, the relationship
between life events and depressive symptoms was found to be completely
mediated by resource changes that occurred over time (Holahan, Moos,
Holahan, & Cronkite, 1999). Resource loss and resource gain were related
to increased or decreased depression, respectively. The authors noted that
resource gain may have had more of a positive impact than COR theory
would have predicted because it entailed substantial gains made over a
prolonged period. Consistent with COR theory, however, they found that
resource gains were most likely for those who were initially most depressed
(i.e. prior loss elicits gain seeking). This suggests an attempt on these people's
part to mobilise resources. Nevertheless, Holahan et al.'s findings may call for
a revision in COR theory such that long-term resource gain is seen as having
greater impact on reversing psychological distress than previously thought.
Finally, the very long-term impact of loss cycles has been illustrated in
several studies. King et al. (1999) noted that pre-Vietnam resource deficits
among military personnel may have led to their lack of the resources
required to address combat-related stressors. This resource depletion, in
turn, appears to have been carried into the post-trauma environment, thus
limiting the likelihood of recovery. Green and her colleagues have similarly
illustrated the long tail of resource loss spirals in their long-term follow-up
of the Beaver Creek Dam collapse. They found that when the community
itself has experienced such resource loss it may be impaired in its ability to
aid recovery on the individual level, further extending resource loss cylces
(Green, Lindy, Grace, Gleser, Leonard, Korse, & Winget, 1990).

Defensive Responding Under Conditions of Resource Lack


The fourth Corollary of COR theory posits that those who lack resources
are likely to adopt a defensive posture to conserve their resources.

SchoÈnpflug (1985) illustrated in a series of laboratory studies that


resource depleted individuals often choose a defensive strategy of not
investing coping effort and resources in order to conserve their resource
reserves. Similarly, Breznitz (1983) suggested that those who are less
psychologically capable will use seemingly counterproductive forms of
extreme denial because they so lack resources. In contrast, those who are

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CONSERVATION OF RESOURCES THEORY 357

psychologically stronger, will only use temporary and more limited forms of
denial, such as denying the need to act immediately or denying severe impact
to the self, while they allow themselves to regroup and re-enter the coping
fray with renewed effort after a short psychological respite.
Returning to the study of disaster, Carver (1993) found that disaster
victims who experienced greater resource loss were more likely to develop
PTSD, mediated by their level of denial. This suggests that greater resource
loss may lead to the defensive posture of denial, rather than active coping.
Even though denial has negative consequences, it may be that resource
reserves are too depleted to act otherwise.
Similarly, in the area of close relationships, Hazan and Shaver (1994)
found that those who have experienced interpersonal loss of important
attachments, usually in their formative developmental period, may be less
willing to invest resources in new relationships. Because they are lonelier, it
might be hypothesised that those who have experienced relationship loss
would be most likely to seek out strong relationships with others. But their
fears of further loss, and their depleted relationship skills, prevent them
from acting in a proactive fashion to alter their lacking relationships and
painful emotions. In a direct test of this hypothesis, Boon and Griffin (1996)
found that people with insecure adult attachment styles were less likely than
people with secure attachment styles to choose risky relationship strategies
that required investment of their sense of trust, time, and relationship
commitment, even though the potential gain was having a strong, close
romantic relationship.
Further evidence for this fourth corollary of COR theory is warranted.
Although research points to the validity of this corollary it must be seen as
preliminary at this time. In particular, it is necessary to study the difference
between learned helplessness (Seligman, 1975) and a resource conserving
strategy. In the service of long-term adaptation, temporary conservation of
resources might still lead to later resource investment when conditions are
more favorable or when new resources have been gained. If COR theory is
instructive in this regard, it would be distinguishable from the predictions of
learned helplessness theory. According to learned helplessness theory, indi-
viduals have essentially given up, whereas COR theory would alternatively
suggest that a defensive posture would be a strategy aimed at conserving
resources for later action. This would help explain why in many instances
individuals appear less than proactive in addressing the current or potential
stressors that they have or will encounter.

MODEL SUMMARY
There are many further implications of the COR model for life-span human
development, the nature of loss and gain spirals for groups and organisations,

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358 HOBFOLL

and regarding socio-historical processes germane to culture and society. For


these the reader is referred to Hobfoll (1988) and Hobfoll (1998). The
processes most relevant to stress and adaptational responding on the indi-
vidual level, however, are for the most part detailed in the current paper. To
aid the summary of these concepts, the pathways depicted in the current
paper are schematised in Fig. 1.
As can be seen in Fig. 1, the processes of resource conservation are a
product of both overall life conditions and chronic and acute resource loss
circumstances. Conditions of resource lack tend to generate or enable
resource losses processes. When losses occur individuals apply resource
conservation strategies, whereby they utilise resources available to them in
order to adapt as successfully as possible. Successful adaptation generates
new resources which, in turn, replenish people's resource pools and offset
the conditions that produce acute and chronic resource losses. Unsuccessful
adaptation, in contrast, results in both negative functional and emotional
outcomes and diminishment of the resources invested. Such unsuccessful
adaptation further generates secondary resource losses which result in
exacerbation of the chronic or acute loss circumstances and weakens the
resource pool.

FIGURE 1. COR Model

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CONSERVATION OF RESOURCES THEORY 359

CRITICISMS AND LIMITATIONS OF COR THEORY


There are a number of potential criticisms of COR theory. The first made by
Lazarus (1991) and Aldwin (1994) is that resource loss is itself the product of
appraisal processes. This criticism in part leads from a misunderstanding of
COR theory and, in part, has been met by substantial research findings to
the contrary. As to the misunderstanding, it is of course true that appraisals
are the best proximal indicators in the stress process and COR theory never
stated otherwise. However, as this paper has attempted to delineate, these
proximal appraisals are largely shared, scripted, and in many cases automatic.
The individual (subjective) differences in appraisals that stress appraisal
theorists emphasise also play a role, but that role is proximal and has little
long-term or even mid-term predictive capacity if stripped of its objective
and socially scripted components. Research evidence, much of which was
addressed in this paper, indicates that (1) resource loss is a stronger pre-
dictor of outcomes than appraisal-based measures that do not focus on loss,
(2) resource loss is more predictive than other indicators even when only
objective indicators of loss are included, and (3) reinstatement of the lost
resource rather immediately reverses loss's impact. COR theory does not
ignore appraisals, but states appraisals have a central objective component,
a secondary socially scripted component that is common to individuals in a
culture, a social component that is interpreted by the immediate social group,
and finally, a personal component.
The personal subjective component of stress, COR argues, has received
too much weighting and attributes of the appraisal process that are not
idiographic have been assigned to individual differences in an unwarranted
fashion because research has routinely ignored the objective and socio-
cultural components of the appraisal process. COR theory suggests instead
that subjective appraisals will be of greater importance when (1) the nature
of the stressor is ambiguous, (2) objective circumstances are not omnipresent
or overwhelming, (3) there is biological and cultural elasticity regarding the
interpretation of the circumstances, and (4) the appraisal does not require
reframing of cognitions central to people's identity. In contrast, the objec-
tive nature of events will be of greater moment to the extent that (1) the
stressor is unambiguous, (2) objective circumstances have strong impact on
major resources or a broad array of key resources, (3) there is clear bio-
logical response or cultural meaning allotted to the circumstances, (4) the
circumstances pose a major threat to the self-nested in family, nested in
tribe. Finally, COR theory suggests that these processes operate on a con-
tinuum and in no situation should we either ignore subjective, socio-cultural,
or objective elements of resource change.
A second potential criticism of COR theory is that loss evaluations are
confounded with basic personality traits such as neuroticism and extroversion.

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360 HOBFOLL

Suh et al. (1996) studied this possibility and found that loss-related events
predicted to both higher negative and lower positive affect, after controlling
for the impact of neuroticism and extroversion. Neuroticism and intro-
version may play a role by exposing people to greater loss events and
decreasing their ability to recover from losses, but resource loss has a robust
effect over and above the impact of these personality traits. Similarly,
Asarnow et al. (1999) noted that resource loss impacted PTSD symptoms in
children, even when pre-existing anxiety disorders were considered. More-
over, the impact of loss on outcomes has been found, as reviewed earlier,
when only clear objective indicators of loss were considered such as
household destruction, absence of insurance payback following disaster, and
the fact of being part of a large-scale job layoff. These findings argue against
the validity of this second criticism.
A third criticism of COR theory, mentioned earlier, relates to the long-
held, dual valence theory of emotions (Reich & Zautra, 1981; Vinokur &
Selzer, 1975). Specifically, it is possible that loss events would be related to
negative emotions and that gain events would be just as strongly related
to positive emotions. This would explain, in turn, why loss has been found
to have greater impact, because most studies in this arena have examined
outcome markers that are related to negative affect. Again, in a direct test
of this, Suh et al. (1996) found no evidence for this criticism and, in fact,
showed evidence that resource loss was clearly the best predictor of positive
and negative affect. Somewhat related to this question, Carver (1993) and
Freedy et al. (1992) noted that resource loss was the best predictor of both
positive and negative coping styles. Clearly, however, further study of this
criticism is warranted and the impact of resource loss on enhancing personal
sense of meaning and stronger social ties is a rich area for further study.
A fourth criticism of COR theory is more difficult to defend against.
Specifically, it is arguable that resources are limitless and that as such the
theory has circumscribed utility because it is too general. We have tried to
address this issue by creating an instrument that lists 74 resources that
community samples found to be key resources. Further, much research
evidence suggests that there exist key resources, such as self-efficacy, self-
esteem, optimism, and social support. Further work is nevertheless needed
in this regard. As Thoits (1994) has argued, some resources may serve a
central management function and are cornerstones to stress resistance.
Recent work on proactive coping may also contribute to this discussion, as
those resources that sustain effort at proactively solving problems are likely
to become better understood in the process. By focusing on key resources
that are broadly culturally held, we have attempted to avoid the slippery
slope of devaluing resources until everthing that is good is a resource. This
vigilance against trivialising resources will need to continue if resource
theories are to remain meaningful.

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CONSERVATION OF RESOURCES THEORY 361

A fifth criticism of COR theory that I have asserted from the outset
(Hobfoll, 1988, 1998) is that the theory delineates the general stress process,
but itself is not contextual. Indeed, COR theory provides no predictive
capacity about the relative role of, say, instrumental versus emotional
support, in a given circumstance unless the person-in-context properties are
known. To do this, we pair COR theory with an examination of the
ecological congruence of the resources within the setting (Hobfoll, 1988,
1998). COR theory can only instruct how resources, once discovered, might
operate and how resources in a general sense contribute to stress resistance
and coping processes. It is a broad-based motivational theory and loses
fidelity on the microanalytic level. At this level, appraisal theory, knowledge
of the particular ecology at work (Trickett, 1995), and empirical testing will
be the best avenues for making exacting predictions. In some instances,
resources may even be harmful, despite their general salutogenic influence.
Hence, for example, Hobfoll and London (1986) found women with greater
psychosocial resources to have greater psychological distress during a period
of widespread community stress, because they were being drained by having
so many others coming to them for support.
Finally, whether a criticism or a strength, COR theory is certainly over-
lapping with a number of other resource and stress-motivation theories.
Clearly, many of the ideas of COR theory are borrowed from the resource
theories of Antonovsky (1979), Caplan (1974), and SchoÈnpflug (1985).
Further, they are consistent and share some of the same ideas of Baltes and
Baltes' (1990) SOC theory, Holohan and Moos's (1987, 1991; Holohan et al.,
1999) resource and coping interaction work, French et al.'s (1982) P±E Fit
theory, and Greenberg et al.'s (1986) terror management theory, especially
as to how resources and culture interact. Although COR theory has fre-
quently been interpreted, no less by me, as an alternative to stress appraisal
theories (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Taylor, 1983), it contains elements of
appraisal that are consistent with those theories as well. This notwithstand-
ing, COR theory, at the same time, argues that the impact of perceptions is
more automatic, objectively determined, and socially constrained than
traditional stress-appraisal theory has allowed. These differences may also
be disappearing, as the dialogue regarding stress and coping in the literature
continues (Aspinwall & Taylor, 1997; Updegraff & Taylor, 2000).

APPLICATIONS OF COR THEORY AND CONCLUSIONS


COR theory has definite implications for practice that distinguish it from
most other currently held stress theories. First, COR theory would have
those who wish to understand stress in the various settings that people
occupy to focus on objective circumstances first. When workers are experi-
encing negative outcomes of stress in the form of illness or psychological

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362 HOBFOLL

stress, it is not their perception of resource fit or their appraisal of stress that
is the first place to look. It has been the history of management to blame
workers, rather than the conditions of the workplace for workers' maladies.
Likewise, when women complain of feeling oppressed in the home or at
work, it is not their attitude that requires adjustment. COR theory points to
a need to search for the objective sources of stress, first and foremost.
Second, COR theory leads to an examination of common cultural inter-
pretations of environmental difficulties that lead to stress. For example, the
stress of seeing oneself as a housewife might have been more related to
women's workload 80 years ago when the homemaker role was more prized.
Today, the stress of housework may be more related to more negative social
norms regarding the status in our society of being a homemaker. Culture
may also be viewed on the organisational level, and not just the broader
societal level. Hence, the US Marines have a certain culture or climate and
what it means to be a ``man'' in the Marines is different from what it means
to be a ``man'' in civilian life. Again, however, the commerce of resource loss
and gains will be judged more or less commonly by those who belong to that
culture.
Third, these first two applications have definite implications for inter-
vention. Although having people reframe their perceptions of stress may
have utility at some level (BrandstaÈdter, 1989), COR theory leads to inter-
ventions that change people's resources or their environments. Some of
these key resources may even have a perceptual component, such as self-
efficacy. However, here too COR theory emphasises that it is a change in
objective circumstances having to do with successfully meeting challenge
that will enhance perceptually based resources (Bandura, 1997). When
looking at environmental change, this will often mean removing obstacles to
people's successful application of resources or altering environments so that
they better fit the resources of those in that environment. On the concrete
level this might be translated to lowering an assembly line to meet the
average height of workers. On the more social level, this might require
removing ethnic, religious, or gender biases that prevent certain groups from
utilising their resources. One only need recall the Negro Baseball League
during a time when blacks were not allowed to play professional baseball to
see how biases can keep a whole class of people rich in resources from
reaping the benefit of their resource±environment fit.
COR theory also raises attention to the process by which resources
operate. This includes loss and gain spirals, resource caravans, and the
tendency to conserve resources in circumstances where action will not bring
likely resource gain, and may constitute major resource costs. The impli-
cations of these processes can only be alluded to here. Some key ideas for
applications include the need to stop loss spirals early before they gain
momentum, the difficulty and slow nature of instituting gain spirals, and the

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CONSERVATION OF RESOURCES THEORY 363

expectation that those lacking in resources will be most vulnerable to new


resource losses. Because resources tend to aggregate in caravans, those who
lack one set of resources may well have more generally depleted resource
reservoirs. This means that intervention will have to be broad-based and
multifaceted. In contrast, for those who are well endowed with resources,
intervention may only need to allow them respite in order that they re-
mobilise their resource armamentaria (Westman & Eden, 1997).
In the end, COR theory's value may be found in its ability to provide a
broad picture of the coping process, while at the same time making specific
predictions that allow it wholly or in part to receive confirmation or
rejection. To be scientifically valid a theory must be refutable, and indeed it
is the goal of theory to ultimately be rejected or incorporated into a broader,
more inclusive theoretical structure (albeit not too quickly). By setting forth
specific principles and corollaries, COR theory avails itself to this process
and provides a heuristic structure for past and future work unveiling the
elusive stress and coping process. To date, COR theory has been successfully
applied to extreme stress, everyday work stress, stress in acute and chronic
health circumstances, and role stress. In the future, research and inter-
vention work examining COR theory will need to focus more on both the
impact of particular ecological contexts on the stress process and circum-
stances where the principles of COR theory might apply more specifically,
and other circumstances where they might apply less well.

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