Tag Archives: Martin Seligman

An Anti-Prescription to Learned Helplessness

“The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe that bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe that defeat is just a temporary setback or a challenge, that its causes are just confined to this one case.” – Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism, 1991.

So true. But even before one becomes a pessimist, or an optimist for that matter, there is that tiny voice at the back of everyone’s consciousness reminding them of how imperfect they are. The incessant reminder that the laundry list of things to do is so far and wide, and that urgency is of utmost priority or else the consequences will be disastrous. It is the inevitable consistent pundit making Twitter-type remarks even when things are going well….the what-to-do-if-this-happens voice so preoccupied by what hasn’t or may not happen in the first place.

This is the sense of what we will coin here as negative classical conditioning, as part of an already established habit loop of past experiences and trauma that have turned into inadvertent never agains. Some of the conditioning may be so severe that one exposure to the stimuli would be enough for permanent negative response. For example, someone who had experienced drowning in open water one time in their life may prevent them from swimming in any similar context. Or one who has been bitten by a dog unexpectedly may not only choose not to own a dog but also possibly freeze when confronted with one on the street.

The Professionals LH Excuses

And there are those of course who are flooded by certain aspects of negative classical conditioning all day at either at home or at work that what had started as a tiny voice inside the head balloons into a faux déjà vu: a repetition of servitude behavior because the only option available seems to be submission. A horrible boss who reminds you of how slow or inefficient you are to be worth the use of company resources, or a teacher at every meeting being reminded constantly about all the things they do wrong and never acknowledged for the things that have been accomplished correctly.

Let’s just say for argument’s sake that there is an ‘out’ of the negative classical conditioning that is happening, what do you think would happen? If an escape was made possible and created clearly and sincerely so one would not have to ever be subjected to the consequences again, would they take it?

Chances are, probably not. After a multitude of exposures to such conditions, a person’s mindset will end up adapting and not resisting what was unnatural to their make-up or to their consciousness. They would have crossed over to the level of Learned Helplessness.

Learned helplessness occurs when a person is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that he/she cannot escape. Eventually, the person will stop trying to avoid or negotiate the stimulus and behave in a manner that is utterly helpless to change their situation. When people feel that they have no control over their situation, they may also begin to behave in a helpless manner. This inaction can lead people to overlook opportunities for relief or change. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness will prevent any further action or reaction.

Societal Learned Helplessness

The concept of learned helplessness was discovered fortuitously by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier. Initially, they had observed helpless behavior in dogs that were classically conditioned to expect an electrical shock after hearing a tone. Later on in their experiment, the dogs were placed in a shuttlebox that contained two chambers separated by a low barrier. The floor was electrified on one side, and not on the other. The dogs previously subjected to the classical conditioning made no attempts to escape, even though avoiding the shock simply involved jumping over a low barrier.

In order to further investigate this phenomenon, the researchers then did a follow up to the first experiment. They utilized three groups of dogs instead of just one. In group one, the dogs were strapped into harnesses for a period of time and then released. The dogs in the second group were placed in the same harnesses, however were subjected to electrical shocks that could be stopped by pressing a panel with their noses. The third group received the same shocks as those in group two, except that those in this group were not able to control the duration of the shock. It seemed for those dogs in the third group, the shocks were completely random and outside of their control.

Later on, the dogs were then placed in a shuttlebox from the first experiment. Dogs from the first and second group quickly learned that jumping the barrier eliminated the shock. Those from the third group, however, made no attempts to get away from the shocks in spite seeing the low barrier. The researchers concluded from both experiments that due to their previous experience, the dogs from the third group had developed a cognitive expectation that nothing they did would prevent or eliminate the shocks. (Seligman & Maier, 1967).

The Educator-Learner LH Cycle
The Educator-Learner LH Cycle

Thus it would be safe to say in education, this happens on both sides of the fence — on the educator side and on the learner side. The student who has had a negative condition from previous Math testing experiences will think, “No matter how hard I study for this test, I’ll always get a bad grade. Or a teacher who feels that there’s always struggles with the ability to enhance positive behaviors in the class he or she is assigned to be with during a transition would say, “Here it is again, the transition of this class, which I am never able to do right!” For either case, the thoughts are loud and constant that there is no escaping their destructive spiral; into anxiety, panic, cortisol, and the increase in the ACh neurotransmitter firing that ‘active’ thinking is now abandoned to reflexive autopiloting.

It is alarming, this phenomenon. While the educational system continues to evolve in whatever direction the wind blows, there are people who get so overwhelmed by the basic, the core tenets of connecting a teacher and a student via an education that the destination from the first day to the last day of school is daily battleground of repetitive mantra — usually leaning toward what is always being done wrong. Simultaneous to this interaction, there is an attempt at instruction geared at driving the students, no better yet, herding them towards the standards even as they may have needs for scaffolding, modified instruction, and/or a slew of other accommodations that may or may not warrant an Individualized Education Plan.

Is there then a solution?

Many have offered suggestions in the small victories and positive classical conditioning to reinforce the opposite of learned helplessness. This requires however a systemic change in the way of thinking from the internal classroom, to a hallway, to a school campus, to community school campuses, to city-wide school campuses and so on. Like anything else, it starts with ONE. ONE thought, and ONE person to power back up and participate in their own decision making processes again.

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!

William Shakespeare, Hamlet