Home______Learned Helplessness

In Learned Optimism, cognitive psychologist Martin Seligman recounts an experience he had as a graduate student at University of Pennsylvania. When he first entered the lab of Richard Solomon, he met a fellow graduate student who explained that a behavioral study was in trouble.

"It's the dogs," Seligman was told. "The dogs won't do anything. Something's wrong with them. So nobody can do experiments."

Over the past several weeks the dogs had been subjected to Pavlovian conditioning, daily exposed to two kinds of stimulus, high-pitched tones and brief shocks, which "weren't too painful . . . [like] a minor jolt . . . on a dry winter day." The experimenters wanted the dogs to associate the neutral tone and the shock, so that when the animals later heard the tone, they would react as if shocked instead--they would register fear and avoidance.

That part of the experiment concluded, the dogs were taken to a "two-compartment shuttlebox," each compartment separated by a low wall, which the dogs could jump over. The intent was to see if the dogs would react to the tone by leaping the wall to get away from it. If they did, they would provide evidence that emotional learning transferred to different situations. The dogs needed only to jump the low barrier, easy for them to do.

The fellow graduate student told Seligman that they did not. Instead, they lay on the box floor, whimpering. They had given up. They had learned helplessness.

In the first stage of the experiment, they found they could do nothing to escape the shock, so that in the second stage, the box, they did nothing.

Later, in his own experiments with canines, Seligman let some dogs escape the shocks. Not surprisingly, when these animals were individually subjected to stage two, they leaped over the wall to avoid the jolt. They had learned control of their environment, unlike the other group of dogs, which, predictably, lay on the floor and whimpered.

Yes, the experiment was cruel, even with a slight shock akin to static electricity upon touching a door handle, but the findings also have far-reaching implications for individuals, society groups, and entire nations.

I refer to explanatory methods, the ways in which people interpret what has happened to them. Take, as an example, the classic distinctions between pessimist and optimist. If anything bad happens, the pessimist thinks it will last long. He accepts that the event extends into the nooks and crannies of his life to undermine everything. He thinks that somehow he is at fault. On the other hand, the optimist regards it as temporary setback or defeat. She regards it as having only local application, not universal. She may accept some of the blame, if that be the case, but also realizes that there is plenty of blame to go around.

These explanatory styles determine life courses--success, failure, happiness, misery--and one can see them in population segments.* For example, a segment may have been victimized and exploited and, just like the dog, they have learned helplessness, inability to rise above circumstances. One could extend this perspective to cultures with fatalism as a deep heritage-belief or with endemic poverty as a cause of fatalism. He then could note differences between them and societies with more emphasis on personal responsibility and choice. As a concept, learned helplessness would help yield greater understanding of such peoples. *(In contradistinction to the individual pessimist blaming himself, an accounting must be made for victim mentality in groups of people--the tendency to totally blame other groups, not one's own.)

The findings have been developed in terms of applications for individuals and as for extension to cultures and nations, to my knowledge that remains to be done, although existing evidence points the way.


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