Recently I was reflecting on a study I read about years ago regarding a phenomenon known as “learned helplessness.” A quick trip to Wikipedia helped refresh my memory regarding this theory. In 1967, an American psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania was interested in researching depression. The psychologist, Martin Seligman, came up with an ingenious (if somewhat barbaric) experiment in an effort to find out how depression affects living organisms. The experiment he performed would likely face ethical challenges today, but here is what he did in his two-part experiment:
Part 1: He created three groups of dogs and placed them in harnesses. The dogs in Group 1 were kept in the harnesses for a certain period of time and then released. The dogs in Groups 2 and 3 were paired with a yoke that linked them so that when Group 2 dogs were given electric shocks at random times, Group 3 dogs would also receive a shock. Group 2 dogs had the ability to end the shock by pressing a lever; the shock would then end for both dogs. Since Group 3 dogs could not see what caused the shock to end, they perceived their shocks as unavoidable and inescapable.
Part 2: The three groups of dogs were put in boxes that had low walls that could easily be jumped over, thus removing themselves from any shocks that might be administered. When the researchers administered shocks, the dogs in Groups 1 and 2 quickly learned they could escape the shock by simply jumping the wall. The majority of the Group 3 dogs (those who had previously learned that nothing they did would have any effect on the shocks) just lay down and whined, rather than jump the wall to avoid the shocks. This behavior was termed “learned helplessness.”
Seligman concluded that Group 3 dogs did not attempt to escape because they have learned that nothing they do will affect the shock. The researchers also found that if they picked the Group 3 dogs up and physically moved the dogs’ legs to teach them how to escape the electrified box, the dogs would eventually learn they could jump over the barrier and escape the pain. Interestingly, other methods of intervention (threats, rewards or simply showing the dogs how to escape) had no effect on these dogs.
The applications of this study in both families and schools is obvious. As parents, we must ensure that our children understand cause and effect relationships.
- When we teach proper principles and our kids violate those principles, there must be consistent, logical and insofar as possible, natural consequences.
- If we fail to teach a principle, kids will make bad choices.
- If we teach the principle, but enforce it sporadically or incompletely, our children will be confused.
- If we don’t teach a necessary principle, but then punish the child for breaking some nebulous rule, we teach learned helplessness.
Schools have the same responsibility. We must ensure that our young charges understand they have the power to control their lives. Yes, bad things happen and sometimes the bad things that happen truly are beyond our control. However, if we have done the proper preparation, our children and students will understand that the vast majority of conditions in our lives are decided by the actions we take. “Learned helplessness” is not pre-ordained and it need not be permanent. As the researchers in the 1967 study found, the dogs who had learned to be helpless were capable of being re-trained if someone took the time and made the effort to assist them in their journey. Anyone who works with kids, whether parents or teachers, knows that such assistance is worth it.