Michael Bader: Learned helplessness — recipe for depression, cynicism
May 10, 2016
In 1967, psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier conducted a famous experiment.
They divided dogs into two groups. Dogs in Group 1 were given mild electric shocks (yes, psychology researchers did terrible things to innocent animals in the name of "science") at random times, but which the dog could end by pressing a lever.
Each dog in Group 2 was paired with a Group 1 dog. Whenever a Group 1 dog got a shock, its paired dog in Group 2 got a shock of the same intensity and duration. However, the lever for the Group 2 dogs did not stop the shock.
Dogs in Group 1, in other words, had the power to escape an unpleasant situation by learning that they could press a lever and stop it. They had some control. For dogs in Group 2, however, their shocks began and ended at random because the cessation of the shock was dependent entirely on the actions of the dogs to which they were paired in Group 1. Thus, for Group 2 dogs, the shock was "inescapable."
Not yet done with torturing animals, Seligman and Maier then put each dog in what they called a "shuttlebox" with two compartments separated by a very low wall. The floor of the compartment into which a dog was first placed was then electrified, sending mild but unpleasant shocks to the dog. The dog could easily end its suffering by stepping over the wall into the second compartment which was shock-free. They found that those original dogs from Group 1, the ones who had learned that they could exercise some control over being shocked by pressing a lever, also quickly and easily learned to jump over the shuttlebox wall to avoid the aversive shocks in the first compartment.
However (and this is what constituted Seligman's great "discovery") the dogs from Group 2 who had "learned" that there was nothing they could do to end their suffering didn't try to jump over the shuttlebox wall. Instead, they simply laid down in the electrified chamber and made no attempt to escape. Seligman hypothesized they had developed a cognitive expectation that nothing they did would prevent or eliminate the shocks. They had learned to be helpless and their helplessness generalized to include complying and surrendering to other aversive situations.
Learned Helplessness might, therefore, be seen as lying at the heart of depression. Depressed people believe that nothing they can do will help them feel better. Their grim expectations of the future, combined with a demeaning belief in their own lack of efficacy contribute to the symptoms of clinical depression.
We can see the workings of learned helplessness in people in many different situations. Some children who are not helped to learn math, for example, come to believe that nothing they can do will help them acquire this ability and may live their entire lives convinced that there is something intrinsically wrong with them. A man who is shy in social situations may, without help, come to believe that his shyness is an intrinsic character defect that can never be overcome and, thus, he avoids social situations, which only worsens the problem.
Experts in child development argue that it's vital for parents to help their children feel that their efforts and actions are important, that the children can learn, and, further, to actively help them to create repeated experiences of success. These dynamics can certainly be undermined by parents who can't tolerate seeing their children struggle and fail at all. However, the big takeaway is that success breeds a feeling of efficacy which breeds further success.
So much of our social life seems outside our control that I might argue learned helplessness is increasingly the norm in our society. Examples include low voter turnouts and the fact that few of us really control the conditions of our work.
When Seligman noticed some people seemed more resistant than others to learned helplessness, he wondered why. He found that such people were more optimistic and he set about to try to teach optimism to people. He helped them think about their successes and failures in a different way, e.g. that "bad" things were the exception and not the rule, that remaining confident in the face of adversity had many advantages, and that this mode of thinking could be actively practiced. Seligman claimed great success for this "treatment," although his results have been disputed.
Whether logic and rational optimism is the cure or not, the malignant effects of learned helplessness are obvious. Believing we are powerless, when there are actually opportunities for control, undermines confidence and encourages despair.
People need to have experiences in which their intentions and efforts to improve their lives are successful. Psychotherapy, at its best, tries to help people do just that.
It helps people understand the origins and irrational logic of their depressive beliefs and encourages them to behave in ways that defy their pessimistic expectations and allow for experiences of success. Success, then, begins to breed transformation.
Michael Bader, DMH, is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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