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Learned Helplessness

“What can you do?”  Often said under a deep sigh, it’s something I’ve heard even more often than “What happened?” recently.  People venting their anger have become a staple on the evening nooze, but resigned apathy remains a much more common emotion in response to the Depression.  It’s the economic Depression made into a personal depression, matching the lack of income with a sense of helplessness.  It’s understandable, yes, but countering it is the most important task we have ahead of us.

“Learned Helplessness” is a condition named by Martin Seligman in the 1970s.  He had done some research with dogs to find out how they respond to an impossible situation. The short version is that dogs were hooked up to a device that periodically gave them an electric shock, but a pedal allowed the dogs to make it stop.  The dogs quickly learned to hit the pedal (and, if they are like my dog, plot revenge for later).  Another set of dogs was given a shock that came and went more randomly without their ability to control it.   When they were moved to a situation where they could easily put a stop to the shocks, most of them simply lay down and whimpered.

The dogs subjected to this exhibited all the usual signs of depression once they gave in, including a lack of motivation to do anything.  Some of the dogs were strong enough to resist “Learned Helplessness”, however, and eventually were able to become normal through “Learned Optimism”.  That’s where it gets interesting.

Imagine, for a moment, that you and your family have spent your entire life under a terrible dictator like Saddam Hussein.  Everything you might do to get ahead only makes you stand out, so you’ve learned to be careful.  You don’t speak your mind because you can name many people who paid dearly for these acts.  Society itself becomes sick, collectively depressed and apathetic.  Learned Helplessness settles in until something happens to change things.

Often, that change happens on a generational basis.  People who haven’t been around long enough to be beaten down for decades start to demand something better, as they are now in Iran.  While some people can overcome Learned Helplessness, the situation is more likely to change when people come along who haven’t really learned to be helpless.

In our nation, things aren’t quite as bad as in other places.  But after generations of consumer culture, where people’s main connection to their world is through what they buy, has left many people feeling rather helpless beyond the comfort of consumerism.  When you are used to simply buying whatever product you see on teevee, whether it’s Pepsi or Republicans, Cheetos or Democrats, there isn’t anything obvious that you can do to change the situation.  You just have to wait for a product you really do like to come along.

As is typical in these situations, it was primarily a new generation gleefully chanting, “Yes, we can!” that propelled Obama into the White House.   Now that the new administration has settled in, protesters that aren’t usually very young have vented their anger in streets and town halls to take up the opposite side.  It may not look like a good way to run a nation, but it certainly beats apathy.  It often takes a strong emotional reaction to break through the Learned Helplessness, but it does happen.  It could even be the start of something useful, if channeled properly.  As Paul Wellstone said, “Sometimes you have to start a fight to win one.”

What counts is that people need to believe that there is something that they can do to make a difference – not just in their own life, but in the world around them.  That’s far more rare than it looks on the nooze at night.  A free people do more than to choose among the things that are offered them – they organize, fight, and hopefully learn how to see a win in a compromise at the end.  First, however, we have to get past the Learned Helplessness that is nowhere near sexy enough to appear on the nooze.  It’s still the most common reaction that I run into as we all work to get by and get through.

16 thoughts on “Learned Helplessness

  1. Yep, a lot of people have given up looking for work. Higher education seems completely out of reach for many. It’s not the country it used to be where people could work hard and achieve the American dream.

  2. So many people really are helpless. It’s sad. You just don’t know where to start after a while. You said before that our idea of individualism will have to change – is this what you meant?

  3. Yes, Jan, I’m exploring what I was talking about earlier. It’s a continuation of the themes I was exploring in “Systemic Connections”:


    The way out, of course, it to either modify either our reliance on specialization or our concept of individualism. That is why I think the critical political debate of tomorrow will be different than today. In a sense, it’s the debate of 200 years ago.

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  5. I haven’t read about the learned helplessness study since Psych 201, and that was about two decades ago.

    Like many, I live inside of my own tiny bubble, and I haven’t seen much of the internalized depression in my admittedly small social circle. (I only moved here to MetroWest Boston less than two years ago and haven’t built up a big base of “friends”, yet.)

    I’m curious. Have you witnessed “it”, first-hand, in friends, co-workers, family, etc?

    The “nooze” (I love your spelling of that!) keeps touting that the recession is on the upswing, but I know that the unemployment numbers hide an even larger number out of unemployed who’ve fallen off of the rolls and workers who are now “underemployed”. There’s talk of a “jobless” recovery. What the hell is that, anyway??

    I believe what you’re saying. I just haven’t witnessed it, myself


  6. Nice contrast with people who have really been beaten down, but are learning to get up off their knees. It’s really true that Americans have been lazy for a long time, but I’ll have to think about that being something deeper. We sure do fear organizing for political change & leave it up to professionals way too much.

  7. Eric, I read this last night and let it sit. Now read the comments. One of my favorite books of the last decades was Surplus Powerlessness by Michael Lerner of Tikkunn. One of my favorite California writers also dislikes Lerner (that’s another story).
    Anyways I am only gonna give you a B on this. Don’t get mad at me. I think a great multi topic for you to write about would be Booker T. Washington (including some of the controversy) allusions to Reconstruction may serve an interesting lesson. As always keep writing and working and gosh darn it people like you.
    On a somewhat related matter I volunteered to help with tutoring at the local grade school now that my daughter is in Jr. high. They haven’t gotten back to me I suppose I should recontact them. But I don’t want to be pushy.
    Shy (somewhat) people need the courage to get things done. When I didn’t get the volunteer music position at church I was contacted which also requires tact (people skills). I gotta fight my mild internet/Minnpost addiction, am reading my son’s AP history book. Go get em Tiger!

  8. John: the reason I went into generational distinctions is that I see this as a strong function of age. I’m 43, and people older than me are pretty much Boomers. I know a lot of people who watched their 401k go from “Retire Early” to “Die at Work”. That doesn’t even count the despair of those with a family to care for who have to learn a new career at 50 or more.

    Does this describe everyone? Oh, no, not close. But I see a lot of Learned Hopelessness out there, and it bothers me a lot more than activism (going on what Jim said).

    Dan, I appreciate a “B” once in a while to keep me honest. 🙂

  9. Saw on Twitter Thanks re: 62cv09-1163 (John Vandenorth) Taxes based on Theft,Trespass,Treason Stealing Car to deny Grocery Shopping, Doctor etc. 4 Educ. review the POW not Prisioner of War aka Power of Attorney online

  10. I like how this started, but quickly disconnected with examples which seem far removed from my personal experience.

    Hard as I try, I can’t seem to keep my comments short today, so I’ll just say I’d like to see this theory expounded on with a more local focus.

  11. I was gonna respond to this, but I was feeling kinda down and …

    On a more serious note, your point about consumer culture is well taken. A partial solution to less wealth is to become more crafty. I’m baking Challah today (despite no Jewish heritage). It doesn’t save much, but it’s a treat and I taught myself how to bake.

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