Learned Helplessness
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Learned Helplessness

Can we learn helplessness?

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Learned Helplessness

In my business class, my professor constantly reminds us to take control of our own actions and to be responsible for what we do. But what if someone was not taught to do this? Today, I will embark upon a thought experiment.

The first example of learned helplessness was studied by Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania in 1967. In this experiment, for the first part, he divided up dogs into three groups. One group was a control. The other two were yoked together. Of the dogs in the second and third groups, only the second group was under the impression that its shock was not random. They had a lever to press that could end the shock, and so were able to deduce that this was the case. The third group of dogs meanwhile, thought that the shock was a completely random act, because when they pressed their lever, nothing would happen. Their lever was actually was controlled by the actions of the second group of dogs. However, because the third group of dogs thought the shocks were administered at random, the shock was inescapable.

In the next part of this experiment, the same group of dogs were tested in a shuttle-box apparatus (see picture above). The dogs would be able to escape shocks administered on one side of the box if they jumped over a barrier placed in the middle. The dogs in the first two groups were quickly able to figure this out and escaped the shocks. However, the dogs in the third group, who had learned from the previous experiment that nothing they did would have an effect on the shocks, simply lay down when they were shocked.

This experiment is extremely revealing, and the effects it can have on us humans cannot be understated. What would the effect on a human be, if they were simply taught that their circumstances were brought about as a result of luck, and nothing more? Based on the results of Seligman's study, I think it would be fair to assume that they would have a similar reaction to the dogs. Obviously, it isn't fair to extrapolate results from dogs to humans, but the experiment is revealing, nonetheless. Could it be the case that individuals who are taught their circumstances are a result of luck or arbitrary happenstance might have a similar reaction to the dogs in Seligman's third group?

Fortunately, there was a cure that Seligman and his other experimenters devised to help the dogs in the third group. They had to help the dogs jump over the gate themselves. They had to pick up these dogs who were lying helplessly on the ground and move their legs for them. On one hand, it is unfortunate these dogs were in this position, but on the other hand, it is good to hear they could overcome the obstacles placed in their way. After learning more about Seligman and his studies, I am hopeful that we can move forward with them as a guide. One of the best ways to do so, is Christianity. God is the perfect pick-me up, and something that more people should be exposed to. God calls us to take ownership of our actions, and also assures us that He will always be there to pick us up if we fail.

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