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The collapse of critical thinking

Richard Somerville ( “3 Surveys and 3 Reasons to Worry,” July 17) is right to be concerned about the meaning of recent surveys that show Americans to be reading less, gravitating more to biased news coverage, and increasingly intolerant of those expressions of free speech that offend their personal sensibilities. Obviously, however, these are symptoms of a broader cultural illness, one that should ultimately be our primary concern.

We can learn a lot about the collapse of critical thinking, active learning, and tolerance in our society by using the concept of learned helplessness, an idea developed in the late 1960s by the psychologist Martin Seligman. Seligman proved that when people are put in a noxious situation but denied the opportunity to relieve it, they not only become depressed and passive, but generalize this sense of helplessness to other learning tasks. They “give up,” become increasingly incompetent, and eventually blame themselves.

Such a person is an ideal consumer, passively “taking in” culture and politics as if they, too, were commodities. Reading is active and acquisitive, while television is receptive and often lazy. Reading requires sustained concentration, while television and the Internet can be “surfed” in pursuit of continual stimulation. While some of my depressed patients retreat to their books, most retreat to their televisions and computer monitors.



Similarly, listening only to news that confirms your biases both reflects and promotes a similar intellectual stagnation. When a conservative can only tolerate tuning in to a Limbaugh rant or an O’Reilly tirade and a liberal to NPR’s “Morning Edition,” we know that we’re living in a time in which tolerating difference and diversity is increasingly impossible. And when we cannot appreciate the ways that people are different without feeling threatened, our support for First Amendment freedoms may begin to weaken.

If learned helplessness lies at the root of our current malaise, where does it come from? I would argue that it flows directly from the way that everyday life in our culture is organized. Most of us don’t feel that we have much control over our working conditions or our political institutions. When our jobs can be “downsized” or “offshored” at a moment’s notice, when companies can cut our health benefits at the same time that they reward their CEOs, or when we’re treated as a means to an end by employers who have to privilege their bottom line in order to themselves survive, we are basically like one of Seligman’s laboratory subjects who becomes passive in environments that are impervious to their control or influence.




And when our political system often seems wired to either deprive us of meaningful choices or be dominated by those with money, and the media increasingly fail to challenge this system, then our learned helplessness is worsened and half of us do not even bother to exercise our political franchise. Denied the ability to be active producers of our own economic and political life, the best we can do is become ardent but passive consumers of it.

The solution to this is to empower people, to fundamentally change the way that work is organized in our society such that employees have more control and to restructure our political system such that the influence of money and privilege is drastically reduced.

Ultimately we have to create a movement that rekindles a sense that what we do at work and in public life matters, that our thoughts and feelings are important, and that we again can have a say over the important decisions that affect our lives.

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Michael Bader is a psychologist who currently resides in Grass Valley and San Francisco.


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