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: