Psychology

Perspectives on Learned Helplessness



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A classic experiment in psychology which illustrates the mechanism and effect of learned helplessness is that of the dog in the cage with an electrified floor. At first there is a safe area of floor which is not electrified, then the safe area is moved, and finally no part of the floor is safe and the dog receives random shocks wherever it goes. From this the dog learns that living means being shocked and it has no power to avoid the shocks. Even when part of the floor is made safe again, the dog makes no attempt to move. It has given up. It has learned to be helpless.

On a personal level learned helplessness is often the consequence of early life experiences, and whether these stem from the kind of violence the dog went through, or from neglect or just plain ignorance, the effect can be significant and lasting. Growing up with violence, with constant criticism, either obvious or subtle, or with no positive encouragement and acceptance of who we are as an individual, is like putting a newly opened rose out in the midday sun and not watering it. For a short time it may blossom, because that's its nature, but with no shelter or nourishment it will soon shrivel. It may even die, just as part of us does.

But in reality that part of us never dies completely. We hide it away deep inside, waiting for the right moment to bring it out into the sunshine again. For a long time our life experience may be that of the dog; in attempting something new we give up too soon and too easily, because our enthusiasm for life and belief in ourselves is simply not there. But as we learn more about who we are, this deep conditioning slowly gives way to positive experiences. And as we find people who recognise the best in us and accept us just the way we are, we also learn to give ourselves the acceptance, respect and support we need, and bit by bit we unlearn our helplessness.

Learned helplessness can happen on many levels, from personal to social. Yes, a whole society can feel helpless, especially if those who are supposed to guide and protect it distort the truth and restrict basic freedoms. Just as more parts of the cage floor become electrified these actions increase the fear and powerlessness of people in society. But the irony of this situation is that those in control are not in control at all. They are ruled by their own fear, and as a result feel they must control everything and everyone around them, and the result of this is that they will eventually be unable to make clear, rational decisions. In other words they themselves will have learned to be helpless.

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More about this author: Andrew Planter

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