Monday, December 21, 2009

Learned helplessness or learned optimism? You decide.

A reader emailed me today to ask if the American people were experiencing a kind of learned helplessness in response to our current government, much like the dogs in psychologist Martin Seligman's studies. For those of you unfamiliar with learned helplessness--it is a technical term that "means a condition of a human being or an animal in which it has learned to behave helplessly, even when the opportunity is restored for it to help itself by avoiding an unpleasant or harmful circumstance to which it has been subjected."

Are people fed up and ready to give up in the face of overwhelming obstacles such as the health care bill debacle? Perhaps some, but I pointed out to this reader that one third of the dogs in the learned helplessness studies never gave up or became helpless:

However, not all of the dogs in Seligman's experiments became helpless. Of the roughly 150 dogs in experiments in the latter half of the 1960s, about one-third did not become helpless, but instead managed to find a way out of the unpleasant situation despite their past experience with it. The corresponding characteristic in humans has been found to correlate highly with optimism; however, not a naïve Polyannaish optimism, but an explanatory style that views the situation as other than personal, pervasive, or permanent. This distinction between people who adapt and those who break down under long-term psychological pressure was also studied in the 1950s in the context of brainwashing.

Like the more resilient dogs, those of us who love freedom, believe in making our own health care choices and know to our very core that the government does not own us must never become helpless but must continue to find ways out of an unpleasant situation, and look forward with optimism, knowing that no condition is permanent.

Update: Stuart Schneiderman has some additional thoughts.

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Blogger Derve Swanson said...

Farnham's Freehold is the best Heinlein book I've read, and very on point with this post.

9:14 PM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger Sam Basso said...

I really appreciated this post. I get this thing about learned helplessness tossed at me by behaviorists all the time regarding animal training. I should have read the study about this phenomenon, when I saw that my own experiences differed from what I saw with a number of animals. Anything other than "all positive" is deemed as being abusive.

9:15 PM, December 21, 2009  
Blogger CCW said...

Food for thought. I gave up on the whole electoral process some time ago (but I continue to look for other ways to make a difference in my own community). I wonder if it's a symptom of learned helplessness that I don't think I'll ever vote again. Or maybe it's depressive realism.

3:05 AM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger Jeff Y said...

What Mary said...

4:19 AM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger BobH said...

Interesting...! We covered learned helplessness in a course on motivation, but that little tidbit about some of the dogs overcoming it was never mentioned.

8:12 AM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger Trust said...

People who think they are helpless vote in droves for the democratic party.

8:42 AM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger DADvocate said...

To paraphrase Jeff Y., what Trust said...

I was a psycho major and don't remember reading about these experimnents. But, some were after I graduated.

Often I've been described as stubborn, bullheaded, and relentless. Those traits probably help me overcome learned helplessness. When I was going through my divorce, I was fighting for joint custody of my kids. A psychiatrist I saw a few times recommended I focus on my career, providing an example of career success for my kids, and let my ex have custody. Believing I could do both, I rejected his advice and did both. According to a lawyer friend of mine, we set the record for the longest custody fight in the county, but I won even though she had more money.

10:10 AM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger Bill said...

I think it was Ulysses S. Grant who confounded many a Southern commander by refusing to quit the battlefield when he was beaten. If I recall correctly, many a battle was "won" by remaining on the field when the South withdrew in frustration.

I, myself, have won more than one conflict in my life by just refusing to go away, and continuing to press for my way.


10:18 AM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger Ern said...

The folks at the tea party demonstrations correspond, I think, to the dogs who didn't become passive. Lest there be any mistake, I mean that as high praise.

10:51 AM, December 22, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I might move a bit away from discussing humans as dogs, under the proposed health care measures now being considered, there is NO need for one to give up the current plan one has. Instead, a choice will be offered.

Ask therefore those on Medicare if they prefer to give that up and buy private insurance...You will come to see that such programs is what those that have them choose not to give up.

We are to have CHOICE not what the health insurance industry tells us we must take, or not be allowed to have.

CHOICE is what democracy is all about.

11:04 AM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger DADvocate said...

fred - you're a hopeless tool. This bill will lower choices, hinder medical innovation, increase the cost of health care, lay a huge burden on our offspring and cut funds for Medicare.

Of course, none of this matters to you because you are a hopeless tool. Original thought and insight is foreign to your brain. In the future, rather than bothering to comment, you could simply past a link to the national Democratic Party website.

11:32 AM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger TMink said...

"CHOICE is what democracy is all about."

I agree fred. But I am confused that the Democratic party has resisted school choice and interstate insurance choice. How come they are against choice there?

Trey - who has hopes for fred overcoming his current statues as a tool

11:53 AM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger TMink said...

status, not statues!

What a freudian typo!


11:54 AM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger Max said...

Dead on! I count myself as one of the 'resilient dogs' of the junkyard variety!

12:09 PM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger Max said...

One more comment ... from Pravda, April 2009, ... warning that the end of American Capitalism was very near: quote
The final collapse has come with the election of Barack Obama. His speed in the past three months has been truly impressive. His spending and money printing has been a record setting, not just in America's short history but in the world. If this keeps up for more then another year, and there is no sign that it will not, America at best will resemble the Wiemar Republic and at worst Zimbabwe.... Again, the American public has taken this with barely a whimper but a "freeman" whimper.

So, should it be any surprise to discover that the Democratically controlled Congress of America is working on passing a new regulation that would give the American Treasury department the power to set "fair" maximum salaries, evaluate performance and control how private companies give out pay raises and bonuses? ...The Russian owners of American companies and industries should look thoughtfully at this and the option of closing their facilities down and fleeing the land of the Red as fast as possible. In other words, divest while there is still value left.

The proud American will go down into his slavery with out a fight, beating his chest and proclaiming to the world, how free he really is. The world will only snicker.

Talk about learned helplessness!

12:23 PM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger Eric said...

I think Grant got it right by refusing to quit the battlefield even when he was "beaten." Just because you're beaten does not mean you are broken. (Something Grant knew all too well from repeated failures in his personal life.)

If something was worth fighting for, then it's worth fighting to get it back even after it is lost.

1:08 PM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger Topher said...

I have a less philosophical and more practical interpretation of Grant's strategy (if what we are discussing is factually correct).

It was to the advantage of the North, with more men and resources, to fight a battle as long as possible to inflict maximal damage on the Southern war machine. It would always be to the advantage of the South to "stick and move,' withdrawing as soon as the result was inevitable and living to fight another day.

In his time, Grant was a national hero as the only man to beat Robert E Lee. In the post-WWI era, when the war of attrition strategy was rightly exposed as a subhuman massacre in the face of industrial technology (which didn't exist during the civil war), Grant received a reputation from historians as a butcher, and was also tagged with scandals that he had little to do with, including the Credit Mobilier scandal that didn't even occur during his presidency.

1:20 PM, December 22, 2009  
Blogger Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Dr. Helen, et al.
RE: It's Called....

....'Fighting Spirit'. And you'll find it most often in the people who make up the combat arms branches of the US ARMED FORCES.


[God is alive....and Airborne-Ranger qualified.]

9:42 AM, December 23, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dogs randomly shocked by brutal scientists exhibit "learned helplessness" only because they can't pick up a gun and march on Washington and throw off that government which, is, by design, oppressing them.

Humans can do that.

All experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

I imagine dogs meekly accept helplessness because they don't know how to operate a pump action shotgun and can't use Google to find the home addresses of their Senators and Congressmen.

10:04 AM, December 23, 2009  
Blogger Thucydides said...

The current Administration is trying to present a closed set of options, "settled science" etc. to the voting public, but more and more Americans are not buying this.

WRT the healthcare fiasco, just imagine if the 2 million T.E.A. partiers were to give a resounding "no" to buying mandated insurance or paying the fine. That many people would probably overwhelm the system and there are not enough ACORN or SEIU brownshirts out there to enforce compliance.

Not enough? How many people watch Glen Beck? Listen to Rush Limbaugh?
Follow governor Palin's blog? Even accounting for overlap, we are now at about 20 million Americans, enough people who can overturn the attempt to grab control by active resistance (openly saying "no"), political and legal action.

So there is no reason to feel helpless, and indeed, that 20 million Americans can probably move faster, strike harder and go in more unexpected directions than the Democrat "collective", which like it's Soviet model is brittle and unresponsive.

Freedom is a self help project!

10:04 AM, December 23, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A major problem is that some, even in congress, who are so loud about the need to get govt off our backs, the need to be free and independent and on our own, in fact are friggin hypocrites, as here. They tell us what is good for us and then...

10:25 AM, December 23, 2009  
Blogger Leslie said...

I have a copy of Seligman's book, "Learned Optimism" right here beside me on the bookcase (alongside "What you can change...and what you can't").

I remember learning in college about the poor dogs in the study he designed to demonstrate to the skeptics that learned helplessness was a real condition, and the "Learned Optimism" book made me cry to read that, after the experiment, he taught the dogs to overcome their helplessness by more or less physically dragging them over the obstacles.

The moral of the story is, once an animal -- or person -- has learned, deep down, that they are *not* helpless, that inoculates them from falling victim to the condition ever after (if I recall correctly).

10:49 AM, December 23, 2009  
Blogger Hodge said...

Re the original thread, one of Seligman's key points is that just as people can learn to be helpless, they can also learn to be more optimistic and hence more able to fight back. As noted, about a third of the people have a natural ability to bounce back and keep plugging in the face of adversity. But the others can learn to get better at it. Seligman calls it changing your "explanatory style". Much of his work is the basis for the relatively new "positive psychology" movement that focuses more on what makes humans achieve at their best. (Before this, most shrink research and practice was more concerned with diagnosing and treating problems than with strengths and virtues.) Changing the explanatory style basically means changing the way one sees the world. If you change the way you think about something, that changes the way you feel about it, which in turn can change the way you act towards it. Not to be a shill for Seligman (actually, I've heard he's not a particularly pleasant guy), but his book, Learned Optimism, offers a good deal of insight into this terrain and some ideas about how to change towards the positive. One way to stay more positive and to change the way you look at seemingly negative forces is to keep reading blogs and other writings by people who keep a consistently realistic but optimistic and positive/upbeat viewpoint while maintaining a healthy fighting spirit (e.g. our current hostess and her hubby at over at Instapundit). Change doesn't always come quickly, but it DOES come. Small steps first...

12:01 PM, December 23, 2009  
Blogger Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Hodge, et al.
RE: Heh

...maintaining a healthy fighting spirit (e.g. our current hostess and her hubby at over at Instapundit) -- Hodge

Don't get me 'started'.


[The Truth will way or another.....]

12:27 PM, December 23, 2009  
Blogger David Vandagriff said...

I think learned anger is what an increasing number of otherwise mellow Americans are feeling right now.

1:37 PM, December 23, 2009  
Blogger DADvocate said...

Reading the link to Wikipedia, you can see that humans have an "advantage" on dogs in that they can learn helplessness vicariously. One of the most intriguing aspects is "vicarious learning (or modelling)": that people can learn to be helpless through observing another person encountering uncontrollable events (Bandura, 1986).

Liberals have been teaching learned helplessness for decades. They're consistent message to minorities, women, the poor, etc is that you can't do it without us. You're helpless without us.

You're right, fred, hypocrites everywhere. Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Ben Nelson, Al Gore, and many others with "(D)" behind their names.

3:00 PM, December 23, 2009  
Blogger Rockport Conservative said...

I suppose I should have asked Dr. Helen the question I posed in my blog,
when I asked if America has become a Cargo Cult nation, and if so, when did it happen. I just asked the question, I have no answers. Maybe Dr. Helen can answer it for me.

3:39 PM, December 23, 2009  
Blogger Greg Marquez said...

I'm not familiar with Seligman's studies but this quote: "The corresponding characteristic in humans has been found to correlate highly with optimism; however, not a naïve Polyannaish optimism, but an explanatory style that views the situation as other than personal, pervasive, or permanent." reminded me of three things.

- Professors Dweck's book MindSet, The New Science of Success. She argues that there are two basic mindset's growth and fixed. She studies I.Q. and academic achievement and what her experiments seem to demonstrate is that people who believe their talents are fixed, i.e. the situation is personal and permanent in Seligman's language, are less successful than those who view their talents as growable.

- The Stockdale paradox mentioned in Jim Collins Good to Great.

- A quote from the book Whatttaya Mean I Can't Kill 'Em which is the story of Navy SEAL Rad Miller. Miller relates a story told to him at SERE school (It was called something different at that time.) where they were taught to Survive Evade Resist and Escape from enemy capture. The students were "captured" and interned at an "enemy" prisoner of war camp. "…he tells me very few men will escape or even try. That really surprises me. "It's human nature," he says. "Most men are born followers or have been trained to be, and it's only the real individualist who will make the attempt. You wait and see almost all of them will lay back and avoid trouble. If we didn't have a few spec forces men in the classes we'd rarely see an escape attempt."

The great mass of humanity never has risen up and never will. They might get on the band wagon once they're certain of the outcome but beyond that I wouldn't hope.

Greg Marquez

4:31 PM, December 23, 2009  
Blogger Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Greg Marquez, et al.
RE: Funny That....

You wait and see almost all of them will lay back and avoid trouble. -- Greg Marquez should mention that.

I had a similar experience just down the 'hall' from here. Something to do with a different topic, but it proved my particular point on the subject.....

....people just 'go with the flow'. That is UNTIL they realize that there is a personal price to pay for it.

And, for having the temerity of pointing that out, e.g., breaking out of the mind-set 'prison camp' and smacking some people up side the head, I got 'killed', e.g., I couldn't post for a while.

But all of that aside.....

....your point is well taken. And, in the face of what we are seeing develop right now, something of an advantage in dealing with our 'friends'. Most of whom are pre-disposed to 'roll over' and play dead until they can make out who is going to win the coming fight.

Indeed. Whereas MOST of US will not start the fight. The majority of thems that are ready to fight are on the 'conservative' side. Why? Because we are (1) trained to fight and (2) we can recognize the problem as being more than some form of political 'bun fight'.

But when the fight is started, we'll not be so faint hearted as to stand on the sidelines. Something, I suspect, to do with that oath we took so many years ago.

....uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States against ALL enemies: foreign AND domestic. -- [Note: Emphasis added.....]


[I will not go down easy. And I will not go down alone. -- Captain Sheridan]

6:32 PM, December 23, 2009  
Blogger Chuck Pelto said...

P.S. Liked the SEAL comment....

Whatttaya Mean I Can't Kill 'Em

Typical. Typical. But you don't HAVE to 'kill em' in order to win.

6:36 PM, December 23, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Killer post. Killer comments.

Except for fred, as usual.

5:55 AM, December 24, 2009  
Blogger Joan of Argghh! said...

I think this explains the growing interest in a third party, too. The dauntless dogs are tired of dragging the helpless pack in their own traces.

9:38 AM, December 24, 2009  
Blogger Fen said...

Well, it is a bit aggravating to budget so your mortgage payment is on time... to a bank that got taxpayer bailouts.

I thinking that, if given the choice between open rebellion and submission, most Americans will choose the latter.

12:11 PM, December 24, 2009  
Blogger Fen said...

fred: "there is NO need for one to give up the current plan one has"

Oh just fuck you and your bullshit propaganda. You will be forced to give up yout plan when its out of business.

Dan Rather is looking for an assistant to finally prove the memo is accurate. Or maybe you can hire on as a CRU PR guy...

12:15 PM, December 24, 2009  
Blogger Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Fen, et al.
RE: Actually....

....if given the choice between open rebellion and submission, most Americans will choose the latter. -- Fen

....that is historically correct. AND, I'm kind of counting on that....should it come to such. And that is what Dr. Helen's article is all about. Neh?

If it DOES come to that....

.....I suspect it will happen rather soon. As the 2010 election will certain throw the Democrats OUT of power in Congress....barring blatant election fraud. And then again, such would bring about open rebellion. And let US hope that the sheeple will stand on the side-lines while the rest of US 'sort this mess out'.


[A little rebellion now and then is a good thing. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. -- Thomas Jefferson]

1:01 PM, December 24, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What exactly is meant by school choice? We have parochial schools. We have home schooling. We have charter schools. And we have public school: choose.

The democrats (party, voters) do not oppose interstate choice. In fact they have been trying to change this. But the GOP will not support it.

Just who am I a tool of? I assume a tool is one who does not agree with what YOU believe, support, and that makes you tool-less?
If I am a tool, then we are all tools. But tools for different hardware organizations.

4:22 PM, December 24, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The absolutes are still foggy, but I am reminded of Ruby Ridge, Chuck.

I read the wikipedia article on it, which is the most comprehensive set of info bytes I have found. With wikipedia though, I have my doubts as to the validity of what I read.

Weaver's neighbor started it all off, it seems, with lies generated because he lost a bit of a property dispute. I have not read where he has ever been held accountable for any wrong doing.

While I do not expect our military to follow suite should these types of things escalate in our future as a nation, there are plenty of federal agancies more than willing to repeat what happened. Including shooting 14 year old kids in the back. And we have all had our fair share of neighbors like Weaver had.

6:01 AM, December 25, 2009  
Blogger Cham said...

As someone who has never enjoyed being a member of the pack, let me assure you, most Americans enjoy being members of a pack. Most people don't like being singled out and tormented. No matter how ridiculous the pack mentality gets, people will follow it enthusiastically.

8:22 AM, December 25, 2009  
Blogger Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Cham, et al.
RE: Heh

Most people don't like being singled out and tormented. No matter how ridiculous the pack mentality gets, people will follow it enthusiastically. -- Cham

I was unpopular from the day I was born.

I was 'smart' in high school when it was uncool to be such.

I joined the Army in 1970 when it was uncool to do such.

I became a REAL christian in 1990 when it was uncool to believe such.

From YOUR comment, I am the penultimate 'non-conformist'. Me and my fellow comrades-in-arms/Christ.

Go fig....


[The road less traveled and of that....]

P.S. Merry Christmas....

1:55 PM, December 25, 2009  
Blogger Chuck Pelto said...

TO: All
RE: Helplessness or Optimism....


I'm reminded of that guy on that plane the other day. The one who jumped over four other passengers to grapple with the wouldbe mass-murderer.

It's interesting to think how the people he had to leap over to get to the attacker were 'helpless' whereas he was 'optimistic' about the whole business. The Dutch 'director' reminds me of a comrade-in-arms.


[The best way to survive a 'near ambush' is immediate, violent action against the attacking force. -- Axioms for Survival on the Modern Battlefield]

P.S. Funny....isn't it.... the battlefield can be found just about ANYWHERE these days.....

10:04 AM, December 27, 2009  
Blogger Rockport Conservative said...

The Dutchman does give us hope that we as a nation can actually "leap" to our own defense.

11:07 AM, December 27, 2009  

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