Overcoming Learned Helplessness

In 1972, a fascinating scientific study published and changed a small part of the world. While its methods were brutal, its results keep me awake more than the thoughts of what happened to its poor subjects.
Martin Seligman and his team began by placing pairs of dogs in cages and subjecting them to electric shocks. Of the pair, one (group A) had a lever in their cage; by pressing the lever down, they could end the torture. The other member of the pair (group B) had a lever as well, but pressing on it did nothing; the shocks only ended if the A member pressed their lever. In short, the second group were subjected to shocks that were “Inescapable”.
While it is on the surface an awful experiment, science has certainly done worse over the years. Besides, the second part is the more disconcerting: after several rounds of this trial, the dogs were then placed in a new environment. This one had no way to stop the shocks. Instead, there was a barrier that the dog could jump over to escape the cage and the pain entirely.
The dogs of group A quickly figured this out, and were able to escape the shock.
Most of the dogs of group B—those who had no control over the first test—simply lay down in their cages and whimpered, even though they too could escape by jumping the barrier.
Here’s a link to the study paper if you are curious.
What the group B dogs were demonstrating in their pitiful reactions is Learned Helplessness. To quote Encyclopaedia Britannica, Learned Helplessness is:
…a mental state in which an organism forced to bear aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are “escapable,” presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation.

One definition of insanity is “repeatedly doing the same thing, expecting the outcome to change.” If we accept this to be an accurate definition, then Learned Helplessness is the outcome of putting a sane being in a situation where nothing changes the outcome. After enough tries, the animal, human, what-have-you, arrives at the conclusion that trying anything else would be, well, the definition of insanity.
Today, all around, I see learned helplessness clawing at us all. In the United States, the endless battle between government factions wears down the voters, and our election turnouts suffer. After all, why bother trying? Environmental efforts seem to barely put a dent in the increasingly alarming predictions of the scientific community, so what’s the difference if I don’t reduce, reuse, recycle? The endless treadmill of life has no pause button.
The way out is not a simple four-step process, or a mantra, or an exercise routine, or even a medication; though all of these may help on a case-by-case basis. The enemy of learned helplessness is education. If the dogs trained to remain in the cage had been inquisitive enough or had the capacity to understand the way out, maybe the learned helplessness would not hold.
The earlier experiment had a happy note to the grim findings. If the Group B dogs were physically put through the escape motions, or if they observed other dogs escaping, they would escape on their own once again. We can observe, and we have people in our schools, libraries, and universities willing to help give anyone who seeks escape a push. Go forth and be helpless no more.

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