I may have said this before but I’ve decided I never want to come back as a lab rat.
Anyway, let me tell you about some ratty research and a concept called ‘Learned Helplessness’.
Martin Seligman coined the term ‘Learned Helplessness’ a long time ago. He, however, was talking about people and not rattys. Scientists, however, will jump at every opportunity to torture small, white, furry creatures and decided to test the conditions that lead to ‘Learned Helplessness’.
So….. picture this: 3 cages side by side.
Cage 2 has not so lucky ratty. #2 Rat gets mild electric shocks through the floor of the cage. Not enough to be completely painful – more pesky and annoying – quite stress inducing. The benefits of being #2 Rat are that it can press levers and push buttons and make the shocks stop. #2 Rat feels a sense of control over the environment.
Cage 3 has rather unfortunate ratty. #3 Rat gets electric shocks but no matter how many buttons it pushes or how many levers it presses the shocks don’t stop. No control.
So what happens?
#1 Rat – alls good in the world.
#2 Rat – a little miffed but generally ok.
#3 Rat – rocking in the corner with thumb in mouth. Ok – not quite. Rats don’t suck thumbs. But #3 Rat is definitely NOT HAPPY. In fact #3 Rat is quite miserable. It stops pressing levers or pushing buttons – not just in this cage but in all cages and all situations forever more. Even when pushing buttons and pressing levers makes good stuff happen.
This, my friend, is called ‘Learned Helplessness’. I’ve learned that I’m helpless to do anything to stop bad stuff happening.
We know how rattys get it. So how do we get it as humans?
There could be lots of ways. We might have a parent that is so hard to please that we feel we can’t do anything right. We might have a work situation where whatever we do seems to makes no difference. We may have been abused when we were younger (which takes away all sense of control). There really is an endless list of how it could have started.
The dangers of giving into ‘Learned Helplessness’ are that we give up too soon or we don’t even bother trying in the first place (cos what’s the point?) and that we wind up depressed.
So….. my advice…. If you’re feeling the pull towards ‘Learned Helplessness’, don’t give up. Keep pushing buttons and pressing levers. You never know – you could be in a different cage.