I saw the term “learned helplessness” last night when I was ready my feeds from my friends’ blogs. However, it was only later this afternoon that I asked myself if I had posted about it in this blog before. I mean, it’s such a simple (yet important concept) that I thought that I already posted it here.

Turns out it was not the case (I posted it in an intranet wiki in my old company) so here I am posting about it.

Apathy is a common trait found in most of the communities I’ve been with in the past decade. Whether it’s high school students, college students, organization members, or company employees, I’ve always been surrounded by people indifferent about their current state and refuse to do anything about it.

I found one of the main reasons for this indifference in a late night Wikipedia surfing session: Learned Helplessness.

The American psychologist Martin Seligman’s foundational experiments and theory of learned helplessness began at University of Pennsylvania in 1967, as an extension of his interest in depression. Quite by accident, Seligman and colleagues discovered that the conditioning of dogs led to outcomes that opposed the predictions of B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism, then a leading psychological theory (Seligman & Maier, 1967; Overmier & Seligman, 1967).

In part one of Seligman and Steve Maier’s experiment, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses. Group One dogs were simply put in the harnesses for a period of time and later released. Groups Two and Three consisted of “yoked pairs.” A dog in Group 2 would be intentionally subjected to pain by being given electric shocks, which the dog could end by pressing a lever. A Group 3 dog was wired in parallel with a Group 2 dog, receiving shocks of identical intensity and duration, but his lever didn’t stop the electric shocks. To a dog in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was his paired dog in Group 2 that was causing it to stop. For Group 3 dogs, the shock was apparently “inescapable.” Group 1 and Group 2 dogs quickly recovered from the experience, but Group 3 dogs learned to be helpless, and exhibited symptoms similar to chronic clinical depression.

In part two of the Seligman and Maier experiment, these three groups of dogs were tested in a shuttle-box apparatus, in which the dogs could escape electric shocks by jumping over a low partition. For the most part, the Group 3 dogs, who had previously “learned” that nothing they did had any effect on the shocks, simply lay down passively and whined. Even though they could have easily escaped the shocks, the dogs didn’t try.

Long story short, continuously putting people in situations wherein they cannot change the outcome makes them learn to stop trying even though they’re already in a situation where they can do something.

In other words, most of the apathetic people I know aren’t just apathetic; they were brainwashed to be apathetic.

The Wikipedia article does provide a glimmer of hope, though:

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.

Very interesting insights… not bad for a “questionable” Wikipedia article.

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