Stuck in a bad situation, even when the prison doors are left wide open, we sometimes refuse to attempt escape.

In psychology, learned helplessness is a state of mind that can develop if you try and fail, and then try and fail again. After a few rounds of learning in this way you start to believe that it’s not the situation, or the problem, or some kind of unfair disadvantage, or a bad roll of the dice that caused you to fail – but that it had something to do with you as a person, something that indicates you’d likely continue to fail again and again and again, so why bother? Once that pattern is established, you mistakenly stop trying, and even though success it right there, easy, yours for the taking, you don’t even make the attempt. Your brain has changed, you’ve learned a new routine, you’ve learned to be act as through you are helpless regardless of whether you really are.

Learned helplessness is one of darker aspects of human nature. Among all the ways we delude ourselves, it’s easily one of the most damaging and most invisible. In this episode, we explore this strange mental phenomena by speaking to three experts, each exploring a different way it harms us. You’ll learn how it keeps people in bad jobs, poor health, terrible relationships, and awful circumstances despite how easy it might be to escape any one of those scenarios.

The good news is that learned helplessness can be unlearned, and each expert in the show offers a different tactic for removing it from our lives and the lives of others.

Advertisements

Back in the early 1900s, the German biologist Jakob Johann Baron von Uexküll couldn’t shake the implication that the inner lives of animals like jellyfish and sea urchins must be radically different from those of humans.

Uexküll was fascinated by how meaty, squishy nervous systems gave rise to perception. Noting that the sense organs of sea creatures and arachnids could perceive things that ours could not, he realized that giant portions of reality must therefore be missing from their subjective experiences, which suggested that the same was true of us. In other words, most ticks can’t enjoy an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical because, among other reasons, they don’t have eyes. On the other hand, unlike ticks, most humans can’t smell butyric acid wafting on the breeze, and so no matter where you sit in the audience, smell isn’t an essential (or intended) element of a Broadway performance of Cats.

In this episode of the YANSS Podcast, we sit down with legendary science historian James Burke, who returns to the show to explain his newest project, a Connections app that will allow anyone to search and think “connectively” when exploring Wikipedia.

He launched the Kickstarter for the app this month. This is a link to learn more.

For computer scientist Chenhao Tan and his team, the internet community called Change My View offered something amazing, a ready-made natural experiment that had been running for years.

All they had to do was feed it into the programs they had designed to understand the back-and-forth between human beings and then analyze the patterns the emerged. When they did that, they discovered two things: what kind of arguments are most likely to change people’s minds, and what kinds of minds are most likely to be changed.

In this episode you’ll hear from the co-founder of Reddit, the moderators of Change My View, and the scientists studying how people argue on the internet as we explore what it takes to change people’s perspective and whether the future of our online lives is ever thicker filter bubbles or the increasingly effective process of whittling away our worst ideas.

Julia Shaw’s research demonstrates the fact that there is no reason to believe a memory is more accurate just because it is vivid or detailed. Actually, that’s a potentially dangerous belief.

Shaw used techniques similar to police interrogations, and over the course of three conversations she and her team were able to convince a group of college students that those students had committed a felony crime.

In this episode, you’ll hear her explain how easy it is to implant the kind of false memories that cause people just like you to believe they deserve to go to jail for crimes that never happened and what she suggests police departments should do to avoid such distortions of the truth.