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Adaptability—what it is and what it is not

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Abstract

Chandra and Leong (2016) propose a new model of adaptability: the diversified portfolio model (DPM) of adaptability. Further thought and research on adaptability is a welcome addition to the limited body of work conducted on this topic to date. However, in their discussion there is a lack of definitional clarity, and there is frequent conflation of adaptability and resilience. It is also the case that the hypothesized adaptability model is general and could apply to many psychological constructs and processes (not just adaptability). In addition, there are gaps in research suggested by the authors that have been addressed by other researchers and there is a good deal of contemporary adaptability research that is not cited. Addressing these limitations in future work is vital to the further development of theory, research, and practice in the area of adaptability.
Adaptability: Comment on Chandra and Leong (2016) 1
Martin, A.J. (2017). Adaptability - What it is and what it is not: Comment on Chandra and Leong
(2016). American Psychologist, 72, 696-698. DOI: 10.1037/amp0000163.
This article may not exactly replicate the authoritative document published in the journal. It is not
the copy of record. The exact copy of record can be accessed via the DOI: 10.1037/amp0000163.
Adaptability: Comment on Chandra and Leong (2016) 2
Adaptability - What It Is and What It Is Not: Comment on Chandra and Leong (2016)
Abstract
Chandra and Leong (2016) propose a new model of adaptability: the diversified portfolio model
(DPM) of adaptability. Further thought and research on adaptability is a welcome addition to the
limited body of work conducted on this topic to date. However, in their discussion there is a lack of
definitional clarity and there is frequent conflation of adaptability and resilience. It is also the case
that the hypothesized adaptability model is general and could apply to many psychological
constructs and processes (not just adaptability). In addition, there are gaps in research suggested by
the authors that have been addressed by other researchers and there is a good deal of contemporary
adaptability research that is not cited. Addressing these limitations in future work is vital to the
further development of theory, research, and practice in the area of adaptability.
Adaptability: Comment on Chandra and Leong (2016) 3
Adaptability - What It Is and What It Is Not: Comment on Chandra and Leong (2016)
Chandra and Leong (2016) propose a new model of adaptability, the diversified portfolio
model (DPM) of adaptability. The DPM integrates numerous perspectives on human functioning
and draws on the concept of portfolio diversification to posit that diversified investment in a variety
of life experiences, relationships, and life roles promotes an individual’s capacity to deal with life’s
challenges. The authors’ contribution is a welcome addition to the literature in that - as they rightly
note - relatively little work has been conducted in the area of adaptability, a vital capacity to
navigate today’s and tomorrow’s world. However, when considering their model and key concepts,
it is important to contextualize some of their ideas with other contemporary accounts of
adaptability. In so doing, theorists, researchers, and practitioners will be in a stronger position to
better understand how individuals adapt to the inevitable changes and uncertainties encountered
through life.
Turning to definitional issues first, the American Psychological Association (APA) is clear in
defining adaptability as “the capacity to make appropriate responses to changed or changing
situations; the ability to modify or adjust one’s behavior in meeting different circumstances or
different people” (VandenBos, 2015, p. 18). In related vein, we have defined adaptability as
cognitive, behavioral, and emotional regulation that assists individuals in effectively responding to
change, variability, novelty, uncertainty, and transition (e.g., Martin, Nejad, Colmar, & Liem, 2012,
2013). Thus, definitions of adaptability center on terms that clearly refer to change, adjustment, and
modification. Definitional clarity with regards to adaptability is very important because it is a
means of demarcating adaptability from cognate constructs (e.g., resilience) that are distinct in ways
that have implications for theory, research, and practice. Chandra and Leong’s (2016) framing of
adaptability lacks this clarity and specificity. In fact, it appears that adaptability is not really defined
in their discussion. Given adaptability research is in its foundational stages and given there are
cognate constructs that have the potential to complicate the empirical terrain, clear definitional
parameters are essential for adaptability research going forward.
Adaptability: Comment on Chandra and Leong (2016) 4
Our own research into adaptability emanated from concerns that researchers were too
frequently confusing (a) change, variability, novelty, uncertainty, and transition with (b) adversity,
risk, challenge, setback, difficulty, and threat (Martin et al., 2013). We have made the point that not
all change is adverse; not all novelty is a threat; and not all uncertainty is a challenge. In fact, it is
often the case that change, variability, novelty, uncertainty, and transition are positive things and
opportunities for growth and new beginnings. Given this, we emphasized the importance of being
very clear about the likely attribute required to most successfully respond to change, variability,
novelty, uncertainty, and transition: adaptability (not resilience). Indeed, our research has shown
that adaptability and resilience (operationalized by way of “buoyancy”) are correlated, but clearly
distinct in that the bulk of variance is unshared and the fact they predict a variety of outcomes in
different ways (Martin et al., 2013). Indeed, resilience is defined in terms of “difficult or
challenging life experiences” (VandenBos, 2015, p. 910). Nowhere in this APA definition of
resilience is there reference to situations or circumstances relevant to change, variability, novelty,
uncertainty, and transition. These phenomena are more relevant to adaptability than resilience. It is
therefore a concern that Chandra and Leong (2016) frequently fuse adaptability with risk- and
resilience-type notions without explicit regard for their notable nuances.
Of course, change, variability, novelty, uncertainty, and transition are not always positive and
not always obvious growth opportunities. They can also be difficult, threatening, challenging, and
adverse. This is why disentangling adaptability from resilience is especially important. Doing so
helps us know when change is also adversity (thus, bringing into empirical and practical
consideration both adaptability and resilience) and when it is not (thus, bringing into empirical and
practical consideration adaptability only). A lack of definitional clarity here will impede
appropriately targeted and nuanced intervention.
It is also relevant to note that there is a growing line of contemporary adaptability research
that was not cited in Chandra and Leong (2016). In fact, many of the authors’ arguments are
elucidated by examples that are grounded in the education domain - and yet it is this very domain in
Adaptability: Comment on Chandra and Leong (2016) 5
which most of the uncited adaptability research has been conducted. This line of uncited research
has developed and validated the Adaptability Scale (Martin et al, 2012, 2013), extended the
Adaptability Scale to a domain-specific form that can be administered in diverse situations and
contexts (Collie & Martin, 2016), identified antecedents and consequences of adaptability in
longitudinal research (Martin et al., 2013), and investigated adaptability among at-risk student
populations (Burns & Martin, 2014). Adaptability research has also explored the link between
adaptability, engagement, and achievement among students (Collie, Holliman, & Martin, 2016),
modeled the role of adaptability in young people’s responses to climate change (Liem & Martin,
2015), and identified the role of adaptability in reducing students’ failure dynamics (Martin, Nejad,
Colmar, Liem, & Collie, 2015). Even large-scale cross-national research has now been conducted,
investigating adaptability across the United States, the United Kingdom, and China (Martin, Yu,
Ginns, & Papworth, 2016). Now, we are in the process of neuroscientific research to identify
potential neural networks and mechanisms that may be implicated in adaptability. We are also
currently investigating the role of autonomy supportive workplace leadership in supporting
employees’ adaptability and the role of teachers’ adaptability in impacting their students’ academic
outcomes. Of course Chandra and Leong (2016) did not have access to some of this contemporary
research at the time of writing, but our aforementioned published adaptability research (including
published review chapters, not reported here) was not cited.
It is also worth noting that many outcomes reported in the article are not obviously or directly
tied to situations, circumstances, or phenomena that would connote adaptability - especially as per
APA’s definition and that of the body of contemporary work described above. Much of the
narrative is about positive or functional outcomes - and usually in response to risk and adversity
(which is more appropriate to resilience, as discussed above). In similar vein, the article closes with
four formal propositions about the DPM of adaptability. None of the four core propositions connote
adaptability as per what would be expected under the APA or recently published definitions of
adaptability. None of them speak clearly or concretely to change, variability, novelty, uncertainty,
Adaptability: Comment on Chandra and Leong (2016) 6
and transition; nor do they make any explicit reference to personal adjustments or modifications that
might be required in response to such change and the like. In fact, these propositions are so general
that they could apply to almost any psychological process or phenomena. They are not particular to
adaptability.
In conclusion, when considering the Chandra and Leong (2016) contribution, it is important
to interpret their adaptability model and component constructs in the context of other contemporary
research in this area. Taking both their model and this contemporary work into account, it is
recommended that future research into adaptability clearly defines the construct with due
recognition of established (e.g., APA) definitions, explicitly demarcates adaptability from cognate
constructs, articulates factors and processes that are sufficiently specific to obviously apply to
adaptability (and not general human functioning), operationalizes adaptability in ways that permit
face valid assessment, and takes into account lines of adaptability research that already exist.
Adaptability: Comment on Chandra and Leong (2016) 7
References
Burns, E.C., & Martin, A.J., (2014). ADHD and adaptability: The roles of cognitive, behavioral,
and emotional regulation. Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 24, 227-242.
https://doi.org/10.1017/jgc.2014.17
Chandra, S., & Leong, F. T. (2016). A diversified portfolio model of adaptability. American
Psychologist, 71, 847-862. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0040367
Collie, R.J., Holliman, A.J., & Martin, A.J. (2016). Adaptability, engagement, and academic
achievement at university. Educational Psychology.
https://doi.org/10.1080/01443410.2016.1231296
Collie, R.J., & Martin, A.J. (2016). Adaptability: An important capacity for effective teachers.
Educational Practice and Theory, 38, 27-39. https://doi.org/10.7459/ept/38.1.03
Liem, G.A.D., & Martin, A.J. (2015). Young people's responses to environmental issues:
Exploring the role of adaptability and personality. Personality and Individual Differences,
79, 91-97. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2015.02.003
Martin, A.J., Nejad, H.G, Colmar, S., & Liem, G.A.D. (2012). Adaptability: Conceptual and
empirical perspectives on responses to change, novelty and uncertainty. Australian Journal
of Guidance and Counselling, 22, 58-81. https://doi.org/10.1017/jgc.2012.8
Martin, A.J., Nejad, H.G., Colmar, S., & Liem, G.A.D. (2013). Adaptability: How students'
responses to uncertainty and novelty predict their academic and non-academic outcomes.
Journal of Educational Psychology, 105, 728-746. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0032794
Martin, A.J., Nejad, H.G., Colmar, S., Liem, G.A.D., & Collie, R. (2015). The role of adaptability
in promoting control and reducing failure dynamics: A mediation model. Learning and
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Individual Differences, 38, 36-43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lindif.2015.02.004
Martin, A.J., Yu, K., Ginns, P., & Papworth, B. (2016). Young people's academic buoyancy and
adaptability: A cross-cultural comparison of China with North America and the United
Kingdom. Educational Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1080/01443410.2016.1202904
VandenBos, G.R. (2015)(Ed). American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of
Psychology (2nd ed.). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
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American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology
  • G R Vandenbos
VandenBos, G.R. (2015)(Ed). American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology (2nd ed.). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.