Learned Helplessness

The Misconception: If you are in a bad situation, you will do whatever you can do to escape it.

The Truth: If you feel like you aren’t in control of your destiny, you will give up and accept whatever situation you are in.

In 1965, a scientist named Martin Seligman started shocking dogs.

He was trying to expand on the research of Pavlov – the guy who could make dogs salivate when they heard a bell ring. Seligman wanted to head in the other direction, and when he rang his bell instead of providing food he zapped them with electricity. To keep them still, he restrained them in a harness during the experiment.

After they were conditioned, he put these dogs in a big box with a little fence dividing it into two halves. They figured if they rang the bell, the dog would hop over the fence to escape, but it didn’t. It just sat there and braced itself. They decided to try shocking them after the bell. The dog still just sat there and took it. When they put a dog in the box which had never been shocked before and tried to zap it – it jumped the fence.

You are just like these dogs.

If, over the course of your life, you have experienced crushing defeat or pummeling abuse or loss of control, you learn over time there is no escape, and if escape is offered, you will not act – you become a nihilist who trusts futility above optimism.

Studies of the clinically depressed show that when they fail they often just give in to defeat and stop trying. The average person will look for external forces to blame when they fail the mid-term. They will say the professor is an asshole, or they didn’t get enough sleep. Depressed people will blame themselves and assume they are stupid.

Do you vote? If not, is it because you think it doesn’t matter because things never change, or politicians are evil on both sides, or one vote in several million doesn’t count? Yeah, that’s learned helplessness.

When battered women, or hostages, or abused children, or long-time prisoners refuse to escape, they do so because they have accepted the futility of the attempt. What does it matter? If those people do get out of their situation, they often have a hard time committing to anything which may lead to failure.

Any extended period of negative emotions can lead to you giving in to despair and accepting your fate. If you remain alone for a long time, you will decide loneliness is a fact of life and pass up opportunities to hang out with people. The loss of control in any situation will lead to this state. A study in 1976 by Langer and Rodin showed in nursing homes where conformity and passivity is encouraged and every whim is attended to, the health and well-being of the patients declines rapidly. If, instead, the people in these homes are given responsibilities and choices, they remain healthy and active. This research was repeated in prisons. Sure enough, just letting prisoners move furniture and control the television kept them from developing health problems and staging revolts. In homeless shelters where people can’t pick out their own beds or choose what to eat, the residents are less likely to try and get a job or find an apartment.

When you are able to succeed at easy tasks, hard tasks feel possible to accomplish. When you are unable to succeed at small tasks, everything seems harder.

Rats given the opportunity to escape electric shocks are half as likely to develop tumors than those who are forced to bear them. Rats already suffering from cancer will die faster if placed into the inescapable shock experiment.

Every day – your job, the government, your addiction, your depression, your money – you feel like you can’t control the forces affecting your fate. So, you stage microrevolts. You customize your ringtone, you paint your room, you collect stamps. You choose.

Choices, even small ones, can hold back the crushing weight of helplessness, but you can’t stop there. You must fight back your behavior and learn to fail with pride. Failing often is the only way to ever get the things you want out of life. Besides death, your destiny is not inescapable.

You are not so smart, but you are smarter than dogs and rats. Don’t give in yet.


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Links:

A zillion scientific articles on the phenomenon

Video of a learned helplessness activity in a psychology class

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