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Article Highlight: Robben Island and PsyCap


Posted 07 August 2015
Blog by Issa Coultas


Working at Mind Garden, I read many articles about psychology – specifically positive psychology. I recently came across an article co-written by Fred Luthans - co-author of the Psychological Capital Questionnaire (PCQ). I am familiar with Luthan’s work (the PCQ is one of my favorite Mind Garden instruments) and I was excited to read the new article.

In their article titled “Reflections on the Metamorphosis at Robben Island: The Role of Institutional Work and Positive Psychological Capital,” Luthans and Wayne F. Cascio argue that psychological capital (PsyCap) was the key to enabling Nelson Mandela and the other anti-apartheid political prisoners on Robben Island to make remarkable transformations to their guards and to prison life.1 To fully appreciate the implication of that argument, you need to know a bit about PsyCap and how cruelty and compassion met in that prison on Robben Island.

Read the entire article here.

What is PsyCap?

First, some information on the psychological construct Luthans and Cascio are crediting with making a difference on Robben Island: PsyCap. PsyCap is a core psychological construct developed within the field of positive organizational behavior (POB) and it has become increasingly popular among researchers and developers over the last several years. In organizational studies, “capital” is wealth in the form of assets possessed by a person or organization (e.g., financial capital or “what you have,” human capital or “what you know,” and social capital or “who you know”). PsyCap represents “who you are” and includes four constructs: hope, efficacy, resilience, and optimism. On its own, each construct is correlated to increased desired-behaviors (e.g., job satisfaction) and decreased undesired-behaviors (e.g., intentions to quit) in the workplace. However, when all four are combined as PsyCap, these relationships become significantly stronger than with each lone construct or with partial combinations of the four.2

PsyCap Defined – from Psychological Capital by Fred Luthans, Carolyn M. Youssef, and Bruce J. Avolio (Oxford University Press, 2007)3

"an individual’s positive psychological state of development and is characterized by:
(a) having confidence (self-efficacy) to take on and put in the necessary effort to succeed at challenging tasks;
(b) making a positive attribution (optimism) about succeeding now and in the future;
(c) persevering toward goals and, when necessary, redirecting paths to goals (hope) in order to succeed; and
(d) when beset by problems and adversity, sustaining and bouncing back and even beyond (resilience) to attain success."

The best part is your PsyCap is not a trait! You can develop PsyCap by improving your hope, efficacy, resilience and optimism. A PsyCap Intervention (PCI) training model was created and researched showing that PsyCap development can be quick, relatively inexpensive, and cause significant changes in individuals’ PsyCap.4

As PsyCap gained renown in POB, researchers and authors Luthans, Bruce J. Avolio, and James B. Avey developed the Psychological Capital Questionnaire (PCQ) in order to assess an individual’s current levels of hope, efficacy, resilience, optimism, and overall PsyCap. Mind Garden proudly joined the ever-growing world of PsyCap as publisher of the PCQ.

Because PsyCap’s origin is in POB, research has focused on how PsyCap impacts the workplace. However, when I think of the terms hope, efficacy, resilience, and optimism, the workplace setting isn’t what immediately come to mind. It seems to me, that PsyCap would have an effect on other parts of our lives. So does it?

The answer is YES, and in no trivial way. As authors Luthans and Cascio describe in their article about the remarkable and miraculous behavior of anti-apartheid prisoners on Robben Island, PsyCap is a potent human asset that can transcend even the most horrible experiences.

Robben Island

Before reading this article, all I knew about Robben Island was that Nelson Mandela (South Africa’s first black president) was imprisoned there for 18 years. I was unaware of the degree of brutality prisoners endured or the significance that this particular prison had in the anti-apartheid movement. What these political activists did while imprisoned here is a truly inspirational and awe-inspiring story.

Robben Island was a South African prison notoriously known for holding anti-apartheid political prisoners from the early 1960s – 1991. Former prisoners, such as Indres Naidoo and Moses Dlamini, have written about being tortured and chained and experiencing extreme humiliation and attempts at demoralization while imprisoned.5,6 Cascio and Luthans identify the actions of the prison guards as the definition of evil, defined by Philip Zimbardo as “intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others – or using one’s authority and systematic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf” (pg. 5).7

Despite the horrible treatment and conditions, the prisoners at Robben Island did not break morale or give up their political ideals. Instead, the prisoners were able to maintain a positive mind-set, create a community, and continue enabling social change within the walls of their prison. One example of this social change that really impressed me was the prisoners’ efforts in education. Prisoners with education taught classes to others inside the prison – including the guards! A former jailer, Aubrey du Toit, credits prisoner and African National Congress (ANC) activist, James April, for teaching him Shakespeare.8 I think it is incredible that these prisoners made an effort to improve the lives of the same people who were torturing and humiliating them. I can’t imagine having the ability to behave as they did. And this effort for education is just one of many examples of the inexhaustible positivity and determination these individuals had while imprisoned. A miraculous feat, it seems, considering the evil they faced every day!

Robben Island and PsyCap

In an effort to analyze and explain the psychology behind the prisoners’ behavior on Robben Island, Cascio and Luthans argue that PsyCap was the key to how these extraordinary transformations took place. Using interviews, court documents, and other reports, Cascio and Luthans identified features of hope, efficacy, resilience, and optimism in the reported behaviors of the anti-apartheid political prisoners.9 Throughout the article, the authors point to several examples from the prisoners’ time at Robben Island which connect to the importance of the PsyCap constructs.

Nelson Mandela (imprisoned 1964-1982) wrote and spoke often about the role of hope in his life and its importance in achieving his goals.10 Efficacy was identified though the prisoners’ continued confidence to disrupt the imprisonment institution by gathering and offering education to prisoners and guards.11 The prisoners’ ability to continue to believe in change and view their imprisonment as a temporary setback was identified as a feature of optimism.12 Finally, the authors argue that resilience was the most significant PsyCap component for the political prisoners: they somehow found the inner strength to push past the pain of torture and humiliation and continue fighting for a democratic and equal society.13

The prisoners on Robben Island were clearly extraordinary individuals. Their story is inspirational but I still cannot imagine behaving as they did in that environment. Cascio and Luthans, however, argue that the attributes of these prisoners are not rare human features.14 They claim that every person has the capacity to utilize their PsyCap as the Robben Island prisoners did.15 The individuals with these behaviors were regular people put in an environment where hope, efficacy, optimism, and – most of all – resilience, made a great difference. The fact that these individuals possessed high levels of PsyCap was all that differentiated them psychologically from the general population. Theoretically, any person can use their PsyCap to overcome obstacles, stay confident and true to their goals.

My Experience with PsyCap

This article showed me how important and useful PsyCap can be. I can get through my most difficult experiences by using hope, efficacy, resilience, and optimism. It has also inspired me to develop my own PsyCap. I took the PCQ in 2013 when we first released it at Mind Garden but I didn’t really think about my scores. After reading this article, I revisited my report.

On the PCQ, PsyCap and its four components are scored on a scale of 1-6 (6 is highest PsyCap). My overall PsyCap was 4.1, which was about what I expected – I think I am a fairly resilient person, I am confident, I make an effort to think optimistically, and I try to be hopeful. I assumed all my PsyCap component scores would be in the 4-5 range. But I was surprised with a 2.5 score on Efficacy! According to the PCQ, I had a lower level of confidence in myself. My hope and optimism were right where I anticipated (4.4 and 4.2, respectively) and my resilience led the way with a score of 5.3.

I started thinking about my Efficacy score – why was it so much lower than my other PsyCap components? I turned to the explanations and development information from the PCQ Personal Report. First, I had to acknowledge that the PCQ focuses on work-related behavior (remember, PsyCap is a POB or “positive organizational behavior” construct). This helped me understand my scores a little better. Because I had only been with Mind Garden for a year or so and because my responsibilities are constantly evolving, I hadn’t had the chance to build confidence in my ability to complete my tasks. The strategies and exercises in my report have helped me develop my efficacy even while my job responsibilities continue to change. Using the report, I can build confidence in my current role and in knowing I am able to handle new responsibilities when they are presented.

I look forward to retaking the PCQ to see how my efficacy and overall PsyCap improved. I am also considering taking the multi-rater PCQ and compare my self-perceptions with how my coworkers perceive my PsyCap.

Psychological Capital Questionnaire

The Psychological Capital Questionnaire (PCQ) is published by Mind Garden, Inc. This instrument is a measure of PsyCap and has undergone extensive research. The PCQ is supported by samples representing service, manufacturing, education, high-tech, military, and cross cultural sectors. Each of the four components in PsyCap are measured by six items. The resulting score represents an individual’s level of positive PsyCap. The PCQ is available as a multi-rater assessment as well as a self-only (self-perception) assessment. Reports and Group Reports are available for both versions of the PCQ.

Mind Garden offers an additional resource to aid in developing PsyCap – The Psychological Capital (PsyCap) Trainer’s Guide. This tool is designed to aid trainers in developing a workshop for teaching about PsyCap and for using the PCQ to create positive behavioral change.


8Buntman, F. L. (2003). Robben Island and prisoner resistance to apartheid. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

1, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 Cascio, W. F., & Luthans, F. (2014). Reflections on the metamorphosis at Robben Island: The role of institutional work and positive psychological capital. Journal of Management Inquiry, 23(1), 51-67.

6Dlamini, M. (1984). Hell-hole, Robben Island, Prisoner No. 872/63: Remembrances of a political prisoner. Nottingham, UK: Spokesman.

4Luthans, F., Avey, J. B., Avolio, B. J., Norman, S., & Combs, G. (2006). Psychological capital development: Toward a micro-intervention. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 27, 387-393.

2Luthans, F., Avolio, B. J., Avey, J. B., & Norman, S. M. (2007). Psychological capital: Measurement and relationship with performance and job satisfaction. Personnel Psychology, 60, 541-572.

3Luthans, F., Youssef, C. M., & Avolio, B. J. (2007). Psychological capital. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

5Naidoo, I., & Sachs, A. (1982). Island in chains: Ten years on Robben Island by Prisoner 885/63. Middlesex, UK: Penguin.

7Zimbardo, P. G. (2008). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York, NY: Random House.