Jerry Mazza – “America’s ‘learned helplessness’”

America’s ‘learned helplessness’

Jerry Mazza | August 1, 2008

Wikipedia describes ‘learned helplessness’ as “a psychological condition in which a human being or an animal has learned to act or behave helpless in a particular situation, even when it has the power to change its unpleasant or even harmful circumstance.” Sound familiar?

“Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illness result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation (Seligman, 1975).” Does any of that remind you of living in America for the last eight years through various rigged elections, 9/11, the War on Terror, water-boarding, Abu Ghraib, financial philandering, etc.? Raise your hands.

Ah, I see a sea of hands, some my readers, some friends, some relatives, some enemies, some politicians, teachers, students, young or old or middle-aged people, some me sometimes. Maybe that’s why Psychologist Martin Seligman back in 1975 explored ‘learned helplessness’ in a series of experiments that included the conditioning of three groups of dogs.

Group 1 was simply harnessed for some time and then released. No problem. Yet one dog in Group 2 would be given electric shocks, which it could stop by pressing a lever. Ah, but a Group 3 dog was wired parallel to a Group 2 dog, receiving shocks just as long and as intense as the Group 2 dog. But his pain would not stop by pressing a lever. Are you still with me? Good . . .

To a Group 3 dog, the shock seemed to end randomly. This was due to his paired dog in Group 2 that caused the shock to stop or not. For Group 3 bow-wows, the shock seemed “inescapable.” Group 1 and Group 2 dogs got over the experience quickly. But Group 3 dogs “learned to be helpless,” and showed symptoms similar to chronic clinical depression. These last poor doggies felt there was no way out. So they gave up, lay down passively and whined. Had they decided there was a way out, a way to “fight back,” they would have recovered.

You can read the full experiment for yourself, but herein lays the rub. Learned helplessness and the sense of futility that comes with it has to do with your thinking that the painful negative experiences that have occurred to you are there for good.

Yet, actually one third of the Group 3 dogs did somehow find a way to not associate their pain with being forever and did find a way out. The bow-wows experience correlates with a kind of human optimism about experience, not the cheerleader brand, but simply keeping on until one frees him/herself from seemingly random, endless pain.

In fact, in an experiment done with people doing mental tasks and faced with distracting noise . . . if the person had a switch to turn off the noise, performance got better, even though the person hardly ever cared to turn off the noise. Just being aware of the option to tune out the noise effectively counteracted the distraction. Just think what you could do if you got up and shut off your TVs, though you do have the power to hit mute buttons like crazy, which should empower you, and reduce the distraction potential from waking up. But more than that . . .

Learned helplessness and well-being

Somehow later experiments showed the first learned helplessness theory did not account for how people react differently to conditions that can cause learned helplessness. People somehow don’t all respond one way to negative situations. The pessimistic type sees negative events as never changing. Or some take it personally, as it somehow was their fault. Or more pervasively some say, I just can’t get anything right. Some therapy might help them all turn around, that is, get them to lift themselves out of the rut.

Unfortunately, given differences between humans and animals, some people can actually learn helplessness by observing other people dealing with uncontrollable events. Think of what it would have been like to live through Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the Tsunami, working at Ground Zero, Iraq, losing a loved one in any of these events. It could have been totally devastating, even driven survivors to become seriously ill. If one became deeply pessimistic (no way out of the shock), one could end up with a weakened immune system, major illnesses, and have a worse recovery from health issues.

Learned helplessness can hurt students in school. The sense that you’ve failed once can become a self-fulfilling prophecy for future failure. Somewhere along the way, the paradigm needs to be changed. Both for youngsters, the middle-aged, and with the elderly, when they reach a point of feeling they have no control over losing jobs, pensions, health benefits, loved ones, their freedom and their power. What then?

Think of the one-third that made it

Yes, think of the one-third of the dogs that made it past the shocks, which translates to people being able to “immunize” themselves from uncontrollable pain, simply by increasing their awareness of former positive experiences. One way to express this is through social action, through fighting your way through the standard fare of faux elections, false flag attacks, the unending flow of terror alerts, and raising your consciousness to the possibility of change, change you can make for yourself, for society, for your loved ones, change in the moment, like now.

You may be smirking at this and saying yeah, we went from the philanderer Clinton to the misanthropic idiot Bush to who? Yeah, but look back in history and find FDR (with that perennial smile on his face fighting WW II). And find JFK (hopeful to the last second), find Lincoln (whose legacy exceeded his sudden end), find Jefferson, Washington, Rousseau, Edmund Burke, and all those great spirits that lifted humanity out of the sump.

In your personal life, find out what’s bugging you, and find a way to “get over it,” through it, around it, and watch the depression, the sense of helplessness fade away. Why is this important? It releases great amounts of positive human energy to wipe away the negative elements and those who would like you to sit in that sump while they continue to loot the treasury of your life.

If helplessness can be learned, so can activism, personal, social, globally . . . that, too, can be learned. And we can, as the Beatles sang, “Come together.” Thing of that lovely liberation of saying, “Yes, we can.” Sorry Obama, I’m copping your copy. But even the search for political truth, as any other kind of truth, takes an ongoing optimism to dig into the crap and get to the bottom of it. And so, beware of the symptoms of “learned helplessness” in yourself and others. Don’t catch it. Hang in, folks. Don’t succumb to what the “network newsies” tell you. Make your own news; find the truth.

Take charge, realize your power to respond to challenge, and don’t give up. You will be rewarded with an incalculable pleasure for every obstacle, for every political lie, social miasma, you cut through. You will be your own person, not their couch potato. You will realize what power you have. If I’m sounding too much like Dr. Deepak Chopra, slap me. But do unlearn the helplessness produced from the last eight years or more, or even your entire life, and learn the activist path, the “I can do” path to problem solving: financial, environmental, political, personal, parental, economic, on and on . . .

Just think of Dennis Kucinich. He is the toughest, truest, gutsiest politician in America. He bucked the Iraq war. He’s brought articles of impeachment against Bush and Cheney. He is surviving an attempt to unseat him from his Ohio seat in Congress. His beloved younger brother died suddenly in the middle of all this. He is short and somewhat homely looking, though he has an incredibly beautiful, younger wife.

And what does the guy do? Succumb to the pain? No, he bounces back. Says screw it, Impeachment is not off the table. He reads his 35 articles of impeachment to Congress. Congress tries to ignore him until they can’t. Until even that turncoat Nancy Pelosi says okay, let him read his new article of impeachment. It’s not off the table. And he’s still out there, talking, fighting, trying to remove the criminals from the White House.

This is your garden, baby. Don’t let anybody put you in a box or a cage and figure you’re not going to leap back out. It’s amazing what you learn, for instance, when you help your son prepare for his college psych 101 exam. Like finding out about “learned helplessness” and getting over it. Let’s climb out of the Yellow Submarine once and for all. Let’s do it. Just do it. It feels good. James Brown, where are you?


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