Two Things I Didn’t Know About Learned Helplessness
I was reading the Wikipedia entry on Learned Helplessness, as I felt like my depression has its roots in learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness is behavior typical of an organism (human or animal) that has endured repeated painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it was unable to escape or avoid. After such experience, the organism often fails to learn escape or avoidance in new situations where such behavior would be effective. In other words, the organism learned that it is helpless in aversive situations, that it has lost control, and so it gives up trying.
I knew about this phenomenon from my high school psychology class. But regarding the actual experiment conducted by psychologist Martin Seligman, there were two things I didn’t know about.
First, Things I Already Knew About
In Part 1 of this study, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses. Group 1 dogs were simply put in the harnesses for a period of time and later released. Groups 2 and 3 consisted of “yoked pairs.” Dogs in Group 2 were given electric shocks at random times, which the dog could end by pressing a lever. Each dog in Group 3 was paired with a Group 2 dog; whenever a Group 2 dog got a shock, its paired dog in Group 3 got a shock of the same intensity and duration, but its lever did not stop the shock. 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. Thus, for Group 3 dogs, the shock was “inescapable.”
In Part 2 of the experiment the same three groups of dogs were tested in a shuttle-box apparatus. All the dogs could escape shocks on one side of the box by jumping over a low partition to the other side. The dogs in Groups 1 and 2 quickly learned this task and escaped the shock. Most of the Group 3 dogs, which had previously learned that nothing they did had any effect on shocks, simply lay down passively and whined when they were shocked. This is a dramatic example of the retardation of learning that typifies learned helplessness, as defined above.
Now, Two Things I Didn’t Know About (in bold)
In these experiments there seemed to be only one cure for helplessness. By Seligman’s hypothesis, the dogs do not try to escape because they expect that nothing they do will stop the shock. To change this expectation, experimenters physically picked up the dogs and moved their legs, replicating the actions the dogs needed to take to escape from the electrified grid. This had to be done at least 2 times before the dogs would start jumping over the barrier on their own. In contrast, threats, rewards, and observed demonstrations had no effect on the “helpless” Group 3 dogs.
Later experiments have confirmed the depressive effect of lack of control over an aversive stimulus. For example, in one experiment, humans performed mental tasks in the presence of distracting noise. Those who could use a switch to turn off the noise rarely bothered to do so, yet they performed better than those who could not turn off the noise. Simply being aware of this option was enough to substantially counteract the noise effect.
I thought these findings were pretty compelling and aligned with my past experiences.