In 1965, while studying the behavior of dogs that had been trained to associate a bell with the arrival of an inescapable electrical shock, Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier discovered an important psychological principle. When the conditioned dogs were moved to a different crate—one which provided them with an avenue of escape—their behavior was unexpectedly self-defeating. Upon hearing the bell ring, the conditioned dogs lay down and passively awaited their fate, whimpering as the electricity coursed through them. Dogs who had not been conditioned thusly simply jumped over a low partition and took themselves to the shock-free zone.
Seligman called the phenomenon learned helplessness and described it as “the giving up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.”
The phenomenon has since been replicated in many species. For instance, place a trout in the same tank as a school of minnows, but keep the two species apart by means of an invisible barrier. When hunger drives the trout to strike, his efforts will be “rewarded” with a painful experience as he bashes his snout against the partition. Given enough repetition, the trout will eventually sink to the bottom of the tank and starve to death, even when the partition is removed and the minnows brush against him. (Watch a video on The Pike Syndrome here or read about it here.)
Or place gorillas in a room with bananas they can reach by climbing a ladder, then reward them for their efforts with an electric shock. Do this enough times, and they’ll ignore the bananas long after the electrical shocks cease.
When it comes to learned helplessness, human beings are far from being exempt. In fact, a big part of my job in family medicine was to detect and deprogram learned helplessness in situations such as these:
- A smoker won’t cut down or quit smoking despite shredded lungs and an agreement that their illness is caused by their habit.
- A man keeps returning to his abusive wife despite the understanding he is putting himself at great risk.
- A child won’t study for their math test because there is no point; they are “math stupid”.
With that background, one might think I’d be alert to situations of learned helplessness in the writing world, especially in myself.
One would be wrong.
Learned Helplessness in Writing
Last month, in a post which talked about dealing with dark emotions which threaten writing, I made a case for the practice of mindfulness. Lo and behold, in a journaling entry a few weeks later, I discovered a self-defeating and largely unconscious example of learned helplessness in myself. Now alert to the possibility, I notice it everywhere in the writing world.
Perhaps you’ve found yourself thinking or saying something like the following:
- I suppose I could try that Twitter thing, but I’m no good at social media.
- I can write a decent sentence but I don’t have a head for writing-related business.
- There’s no point writing another book in that genre because my first one tanked.
- I could sit down to write, but that will guarantee the phone will ring and it’ll be Dr. X with another family emergency. (This last one is my particular vulnerability. It is responsible for me losing days, if not weeks, of writing time as I exist in an uneasy holding pattern, waiting for the other metaphoric shoe to drop.)
The conditioning can become so effective, you don’t even require the thought to occur before proceeding into the action part of learned helplessness—or inaction, as the case may be.
Hyperactive Learned Helplessness (Flailing)
Whereas all the above examples demonstrate conditioned passivity, human beings are complex creatures. In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown describes another form of learned helplessness.
They become hyperactive. They accept every opportunity presented. They throw themselves into every assignment. They tackle every challenge with gusto. They try to do it all. This behavior does not necessarily look like learned helplessness at first glance. After all, isn’t working hard evidence of one’s belief in one’s importance and value? Yet on closer examination we can see this compulsion to do more is a smokescreen. These people don’t believe they have a choice in what opportunity, assignment, or challenge to take on. They believe they ‘have to do it all’.
Some writing-related examples I’ve seen or done myself:
- Investing time in every type of social media, whether you want to or not.
- Saying yes to every blog invite/interview request/book tour, whether its readership meshes with yours or not.
- Participating in NaNoWriMo when the timing directly conflicts with your stated writing goals.
- Reading innumerable craft books/taking every class, but never actually applying the knowledge.
But There Is Good News
People can learn to push past invisible barriers. Every day on this planet, smokers give up cigarettes, people leave their abusive spouses, and unproductive writers learn how to become more effective. I’m not saying these things are necessarily easy, but they are possible and doable for us all. (I once had a patient in my practice with a 72-pack-year smoking history. That’s 2 packs per day every day for 36 years. He quit without any assistance and when I asked why, he said, “Because you told me to.”)
Seligman himself had to refine his theories about learned helplessness because of another beautiful phenomenon: exceptions in both human and animal studies. Some creatures never gave up. Never.
The secret sauce of human resilience? A specific way of approaching negative events known as their attribution style.
When bad things happen, resilient writers, for instance, show a situational rather than a global attribution style.
(e.g. “I’ve had one failed author-agent relationship but if I set it up right, this new business partnership could be different.”)
Resilient writers ascribe failure to temporary rather than permanent circumstances.
(e.g. “I know that last historical romance failed, but it came out at a time when the market was glutted. This time could be different.”)
Lastly, they avoid self-blame or personalization of the failure. (e.g. Rather than “I don’t have a head for writing-related business”, they think, “I need to find a class and work on my business skills.” You’ll notice this is different than avoiding responsibility. It’s a way of viewing our own deficits as temporary and alterable.)
Application: A Brief Guide to Practical Resiliency
1. We can’t change what we don’t recognize, so we must remove our behaviors from the realm of automaticity. Once again, we must cultivate mindfulness. (See When Dark Emotions Threaten Your Writing for a brief discussion of resources.)
2. Next we begin the work of gentle exploration. Can we avoid our bells and arrange our world so as to rid it of electric shocks? Can we map the confines of our box and test its limits, or better yet, remove them altogether?
3. For an extra boost in #2, become part of a hopeful community and recruit allies for problem-solving. This might include: an accountability partner, a friend we can trust to gently tell us the truth about our self-imposed limits, a Mastermind Group, a critique partner, a writing coach, or a psychologist.
4. Be alert to the phenomenon I’ll call hopelessness contagion.
Remember the gorillas above? There was an additional phase in their experiment. The experimenters replaced one of the five original participants with an experiment-naive gorilla, who naturally began to climb the ladder so as to reach the bananas. Though the electricity had been long gone at this point, the four remaining conditioned gorillas dragged him down. This pattern continued until he too learned to leave the bananas alone.
By repeating this process, it wasn’t long before the entire original group had been replaced. None of the gorillas had direct experience of electrical shock, yet they “protected” individuals from the ladder and never again attempted to reach the bananas themselves.
In other words, helplessness can be taught. Surround yourself with hopeful people.
5. If we have elements of the hyperactive/flailing pattern, we might need to do some preliminary work so as to gain time and energy for active experimentation. Here are some resources which have helped me to gain focus:
- Minimalism When Writing Fiction.
- Make a not-to-do list by following the Warren Buffet method.
- Once you’ve got a list of clear priorities, prune-prune-prune your life to essentials. Practice the art of the assertive no.
As for me, Unboxeders, once I realized I wasn’t writing because I was subconsciously waiting for the phone to ring, I: made arrangements to remove myself from the vicinity of the phone while making sure there was someone who could be responsive to a family emergency; “outed” my tendency to a writing friend; have committed to writing one sentence each day.
I’m not perfect, but I am learning to search for unelectrified ladders and avoid the Trout Syndrome. That is all we can ever do.
Now over to you. Have you overcome an instance of learned helplessness in your writing life? What about in your larger world? Would any of the techniques you used there help with your fiction?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!