Issues

Learned Helplessness

Oppressive regimes thrive on helplessness. A population reduced to helplessness is docile and passive. It is inactive and more likely to come up with justifications for the system and their own place in it, better than any ideology could. They will also discourage dissent among their own lot, to defend this world view

The sense of one’s own competence can be eroded by learned helplessness, a mentality often induced by oppressive regimes. Low confidence in one’s own (political) influence is also correlated with low trust level in society. (I am helpless to change things and so is everyone else – I therefore shouldn’t trust them, or their competence.) It is therefore crucial to understand how authoritarian regimes pursue and their people internalise helplessness and how this sentiment is conveyed by peers and society by projection and reflexivity.

It is wrong to attribute the development of terror-bonding only to the presence of fear. It is the combination of fear and extreme dependence.They can be real or perceived. They may even come from the same source. The hostage situation is special in the sense that the source of fear (the aggressor) is also the source of dependence (can kill the hostage). This is why we are surprised. But when we depend from something (government) and dread another (outside threat), we tend not to see the syndrome unfold.

From this viewpoint it doesn’t matter whether helplessness has been imposed upon the victim by force from above, or creeped up on him in the shape of an all-encompassing welfare regime. Whether his helplessness was caused by one big shock, or the gradual erosion of his sense of agency. It is also irrelevant whether the dependence is straightforward (government keeps me safe) or reversed (government can choose to kill me).

Any combination of the above can result in the erosion of one’s sense of agency, or learned helplessness.

As a consequence of helplessness, survival mentality overtakes aspirations and undercuts innovation and prosperity in a society. (See World Value Survey) Prolonged rationalisation of inaction prepares the ground for complicity, a form of Stockholm syndrome with the system and makes it less likely to reverse the process. The latter is better understood if we take a look at the arguments people use to rationalise their own inaction.

The theory of learned helplessness

The original learned helplessness theory comes from an experiment by Richard L. Solomon, who had trained dogs to induce the sense of helplessness and the resulting inaction.

In his experiment, dogs were placed in a box divided by half by a chest-high barrier. An electric shock would come on and the dog would learn that jumping over the barrier makes the shock go away. After repeated shocks, the dogs have learned without difficulty that jumping over the barrier relieves them from unpleasant shocks.

Except for dogs that have first been exposed to another experiment, in which there was nothing they could do to alleviate the shocks. The dogs that have been exposed to the first experiment acted helplessly in the second one as well and didn’t learn to jump to safety, or just very slowly. They stayed put and didn’t even try.

Solomon learned helplessness

In Solomon’s experiment, dogs were placed in a box divided by half by a chest-high barrier. An electric shock would come on and the dog would learn that jumping over the barrier makes the shock go away. After repeated shocks, the dogs have learned without difficulty that jumping over the barrier relieves them from unpleasant shocks. Except for dogs that have first been exposed to another experiment, in which there was nothing they could do to alleviate the shocks. The dogs that have been exposed to the first experiment acted helplessly in the second one as well and didn’t learn to jump to safety, or just very slowly. They stayed put and didn’t even try.

It was the uncontrollable nature of their environment that debilitated the dogs, not the discomfort of the shocks. The sooner in their development the experiment came, the less likely they became to eventually unlearn the sense of helplessness and discover that jumping over the barrier alleviates the discomfort. It affected not just their ability to discover and learn (cognitive deficit), it caused motivational deficit as well – which largely translates into depression.

Let us consider the human implications.

The political implications

Oppressive regimes thrive on this phenomenon. A population reduced to helplessness is more likely to come up with justification of the system and their own place in it, better than any ideology could. They will also discourage dissent among their own lot, to defend this world view.

“According to the original learned helplessness theory, experience with uncontrollable events can lead to the expectation that no responses in one’s own repertoire will control future outcomes. This expectation of no control leads to motivational deficits (lower response initiation and lower persistence), cognitive deficits (inability to perceive existing opportunities to control outcomes), and, in humans, emotional deficits (sadness and lowered self-esteem).” (Hoeksema – Girgus – Seligman 1986:435)

This also happens to be the definition of human depression, as Martin Seligman pointed out. Victims of depression attribute their misfortunes to their own inadequacy, and their positive experiences (if any) to external factors (depressive explanatory style). To explain away the prolonged sense of injustice, they arrive at the conclusion that the world is still fair (see just world hypothesis), and they are at fault.

The victim of such conditioning learns to expect the so called response-outcome independence, the feeling that nothing in their power can change the situation. The resulting motivational, cognitive and emotional impairment is widely researched, partly because it is a symptom of depression. (Maier-Seligman 1976) The inability to control one’s environment has repeatedly been shown to create not only anger and frustration but, eventually, deep and often insurmountable depression. In a sense, inducing learned helplessness makes a person give up. But the effect runs even deeper: many of the animals used in the studies died or became severely ill shortly thereafter.

Inducing helplessness during torture

The manuals of torture are elaborate on the subject of induced helplessness. As the recent findings of the U.S. Senate Committee on Intelligence have revealed, the military has long used the method by reverse engineering the findings of the psychology of learned helplessness.

Seligman’s work turned out to have inspired many, including the intelligence establishment. He has even given at least one lecture on learned helplessness to the U.S. Navy in 2002, although with the intention to protect soldiers from the state during torture. It turns out that his techniques, designed to ameliorate the effects of torture, were reverse engineered and transformed from ensuring the resistance of American soldiers to orchestrating the torture of detainees in Guantánamo, Afghanistan and Iraq.[1]

This, however, is no recent development. The C.I.A.’s “Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual” has described various non-violent means to induce psychological regression as early as 1983.

“The purpose of all coercive techniques is to induce psychological regression in the subject by bringing a superior outside force to bear on his will to resist. Regression is basically a loss of autonomy, a reversion to an earlier behavior level. As the subject regresses, his learned personality traits fall away in reverse chronological order. He begins to lose the capacity to carry out the highest creative activities, to deal with complex situations, to copy with stressful interpersonal relationships, or to cope with repeated frustrations.” (C.I.A. Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual – 1983)

The report set forth the so-called D.D.D method of interrogation, for Debility, Dependency and Dread. By debility they mean physical weakness (“Many psychologists consider the threat of inducing debility to be more effective than debility itself”), and they also mean to ensure the sense of dependency, where the prisoner “is helplessly dependent upon the “questioner” for the satisfaction of all basic needs”, and also dread. Dread means intense fear and anxiety.

Sustained long enough, a strong fear of anything vague or unknown induces regression. On the other hand, materialization of the fear is likely to come as a relief. The subject finds that he can hold out and his resistance is strengthened.”

To find out exactly what kind of harassment works best to induce the state of inactivity, we should take a look at more recent experiments.

Intermittent (conditional) abuse works best to induce motivational deficit and helplessness

Researchers at Waseda University, Tokyo have created a method to induce depression in rats – in order to test antidepressants on them. They used a robotic rat terrorise the rats into depression. The robotic rat harasses the rats until they exhibit signs of depression, signalled by a lack of activity. But the exact method of harassment makes a difference.

The robotic rats were programmed with three different behaviours: “chasing,” “continuous attack” and “interactive attack.” Each one was designed to induce a different level of stress in rats. Chasing stresses the rats out, while the attacks create an environment of pain and fear.

Image: Inducing Depression in Rats

To find out exactly what kind of harassment works best to induce the state of inactivity, researchers at Waseda University, Tokyo used a robotic rat terrorise the rats into depression. The robotic rat harasses the rats until they exhibit signs of depression, signalled by a lack of activity. But the exact method of harassment makes a difference. The robotic rats were programmed with three different behaviours: “chasing,” “continuous attack” and “interactive attack.” The latter has achieved the greatest degree of inactivity (or depression) in rats. Image: Takanishi Lab/Waseda University

In the interactive attack, the rat is only attacked if it moves, while the continuous attack means it’s constantly under fire.[2]

The intermittent, interactive form of attack proved to be the most stressful. It was most effective in creating a deep depression (signalled by inaction) in a mature rat that had been harassed during development.

In other words, after an initial training of response-outcome independence, a system designed to suppress action and resistance should only punish action when the victims try and should spare the rod when the subjects are silent and comply.

This way, it can achieve deeper helplessness and compliance than by continuous terror. It also teaches the subjects to hold back each other from trying.

The lesson we may take home, however, is the opposite. That prolonged, unprovoked harassment is prone to trigger a fighting spirit and the sense that there is nothing to lose.

Justification for inaction

Weakness, dependency and fear happen to be in the toolkit of not just the C.I.A. but any self-respecting authoritarian leader, and to a lesser degree of any leader who wishes to secure re-election and a docile electorate.

Citizens perhaps have more options to act than prisoners do. But it is hard to know what exactly it is they could do, especially in the absence of social capital. Having an intention to protest is meaningless if they cannot hope that others would stand with them. But the option to do nothing is always present.

This is when the justification for one’s own inaction is needed. Allow me to quote the torture guide again:

“As soon as possible, the “questioner” should provide the subject with the rationalization that he needs for giving in and cooperating. This rationalization is likely to be elementary, an adult version of a childhood excuse such as:

“They made you do it.”

“All the other boys are doing it.”

“You’re really a good boy at heart.”

Again, what this means for political oppression

In other words, the political system must provide some excuse for compliance and dropping moral considerations. Erode the trust is other people (social capital), allow the subject to blame it on the system, while help maintain his illusion of integrity by dissociating his actions from his moral standing or by inducing moral relativism and cynicism.

Hints of depression such as the belief that bad things happen because of one’s own inadequacy are not necessarily limited to self-explanations. One can (and does) project them onto society, while outwardly insisting that he himself is OK. Statements like “people are hopeless” or “they get the government they deserve” are points in case – and are discussed under the chapter about victim blaming.

There is a fallacy that people should rise against their governments first, before deserving outside help. It is naturally desirable that they want freedom first and it doesn’t just fall in their hands, but it is equivalent to telling depressed people to just cheer up. Start acting positively, and their lives will be better and less to be mopey for.

But when someone has internalised the self-explanatory style of helplessness, they don’t need constant aggression to be kept in check. The regime can count on the dysfunctional beliefs of its citizens (resistance is futile and counterproductive) as well as their well-developed excuses (as to why they like the system and how it is inevitable anyway).

Helplessness is a mental habit. And it should be made apparent and dislodged accordingly.

Unlearning helplessness

Gradual steps are necessary to unlearn the sense of helplessness and the resulting habits and justifications.

It can come in the shape of instances when people feel empowered, when they try, and don’t fail. It becomes increasingly hard to imagine empowerment, when one has no experience of it. And even when he does, it doesn’t take long to relapse into old reflexes.

Cognitive behavioural therapy is a treatment of depression. To break up the habits of thoughts in one’s own helplessness and worthlessness that so easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Seligman asked the question whether there is such a thing as learned optimism – if learned helplessness exists. (Seligman 1990)

Seligman’s choice of experiment was kindergarten children with symptoms of depression. (Children, who had tested at high risk for developing depression.) They met for regular cognitive therapy sessions for three months. At each meeting, a psychology graduate student took them through the steps of a therapy to fix explanatory style aimed at cognition – i.e. how they thought about things. The typical directions of these dysfunctional thoughts are 1) that positive things happen regardless of one’s efforts, while 2) negative things are one’s own fault.

The foundation of cognitive theory of depression according to the founder of cognitive behavioural therapy, Aaron Beck, is that a person may be prone to depression because they have dysfunctional beliefs. (Beck 1995) These beliefs may be latent for years, but environmental factors like stress can trigger a depressive episode. Dysfunctional beliefs are usually those about being helpless or unlovable, and are incorporated in mental models that are used to interpret experiences. In order to alleviate depression, the dysfunctional beliefs have to be challenged, dismissed, and replaced by more constructive interpretations of experiences.

The cognitive program taught the children to identify when they were having negative thoughts, to evaluate those thoughts objectively, and then to come up with alternatives. It also had them reframe any pessimistic explanations that they found themselves giving (my mom is sad, because I did something wrong) for more optimistic and realistic ones (my mom is sad, because she had a long day at work). The positive results of therapy allowed for a degree of unlearning the damaging thought patterns of helplessness associated with depression. (Hoeksema – Girgus – Seligman 1986:441)

Seligman considers himself to be not the expert of learned helplessness but the positive psychology he developed based on his findings. The study of not learned helplessness but that of empowerment and control.

How can one perform therapy on such a diverse group of people?

There is an evident need to change the underlying explanatory style if we are to fix helplessness on a societal level. Empowerment depends on it.

One interesting experiment into internet-based cognitive behaviour therapy to treat low levels of depression in adults (Spek 2007) conducted meta-analysis if therapeutic use of the internet and it provides insights into the possibility of broad intervention techniques.

It is furthermore important to note that similarly to distrust (in competence or morals) it is impossible to tell whether a behaviour is a result of apathy or lack of motivation. Inaction may come from the inability to fix a problem, or the sense of helplessness (from resignation, apathy, or distrust). The consequences (and the rationalisations) are identical.

The question remains whether it is moral to influence explanatory style. Isn’t such mild depression merely a cultural trait produced by history?

Is it even the moral thing to do, or should victims figure this out for themselves?

This is where the nudge theory comes in. Like it or not, the design of our political systems is already nudging us into a certain behaviour. Mostly towards the gravity of unfreedom. The implicit assumptions and underlying narrative of democracies do carry a message – only this message goes unchecked.

It may be immoral to nudge a society to become free. But nudging them involuntarily into unfreedom is no less wrong. And that has been done throughout history.

(This chapter is a work in progress.)

Read more about the role of helplessness during the development of Stockholm Syndrome…

References 

[1] Form the findings of the report: Senate Select Committee on Intelligence – Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program

[2][2] Researchers set the robots loose on two groups of 12 young rats once a day for five days in continuous attack mode. A few weeks later when the rats had matured, their movements were studied in an open field and while the robot chased it. Then, rats in group A were re-exposed to continuous attacks, while group B was exposed to the interactive attack.

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