Is Helplessness an Answer or a Choice

Martin was doing experiments with dogs to study that how do we learn. To do that he divided his experiment into two parts. In the first part, he rang a bell, and along with that, he gave a light electric shock to the dog. After many trials the dog learned that the shock and the sound of the bell is coming together so later when Martin rang the bell only, without giving the shock, then also the dog shook as if it felt the electric shock. In the second part of the experiment, Martin prepared a cage which was divided into two sections by a very lower fence which the dog could see and cross if jumps. One part of the cage was electrified, and the other wasn’t. Martin kept the dog on the light electric shock’s side and expected that the dog would try to jump to go on the other side. To his surprise, the dog kept sitting on the same side and was bearing the shock without making any effort to save itself. He named this phenomenon “learned helplessness”. He was Martin E.P. Seligman, a renowned behavioural psychologist, father of Positive Psychology.

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Sometimes I feel that we too live like that dog, because of our poor experiences of the past we lose the hope that something good can happen and we also go in the state of learned helplessness”.

We keep on living in a toxic relationship because we normalise the toxicity, we believe that it is the only way how a relationship works and therefore we put on with everything which goes. We let the other person dominate us, hurt us, disrespect us, and put us down. We give that authority to someone else to decide for ourselves. Gradually we become so much accustomed that it becomes the norm and we don’t put minimum effort to change it. If somehow we are out of a bad relationship then we are scared of getting into the new one because we believe that things won’t be different here too, so we don’t try to put any effort.

We keep on doing the same job we hate, and we are habituated with it that it becomes a part of life. We run like a hamster on the wheel for the same job from morning till evening, a job which takes the lion’s share of our day, and gradually of our life. We procrastinate as much as we can. We crave for a single holiday to get rid of that job, and the only life we really live is of those few days when we are away from our office desk. We don’t have the audacity to leave and do what we would love to do because of many factors like the money, the critical one, fear of getting failed, fear of “log kya kahenge” (“what will others say”), fear of keeping everything at stake and walk on a dark and unknown path.

We keep on studying the subjects we don’t like just because being in that particular course will get us reputed job and handsome money. We are scared to do what we want to do. We are hesitant to become what we could have become.

After reading the experiment, I thought if learning helplessness is not right then what’s the point of learning at all. I mean, that’s how we learn, by trial and error, and if everytime we get the same results, then we assume that to be true and unchangeable. What was the dog’s fault when it learned to be helpless? It was learning after all.

Then I thought it might be true for a dog but how sensible would it be if I apply the same logic to a human being, the one who evolved to prove that it is the fittest, the one gifted with the finest of the brains, the one having ability to think and analyse, the one who can create empires, the one who can reach till the moon and beyond?

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No, it’s not a good idea. Though I too love dogs, just like you do, and with due respect to dogs let me clarify that we aren’t dogs and therefore we don’t need to be governed by the same principles as they do. We should understand that the helplessness is a learned behaviour, and hence we can change it with new exposure, new experiences, and the courage to change it. We don’t have to live by the same learning throughout our lives, we can think, and therefore we can improve.

We don’t have to be helpless just because we learned it previously!

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About the author

Vidushi Jaya had her tertiary education in psychology majors from Banaras Hindu University, and is currently working as a junior research fellow in BITS, Pilani (Rajasthan). Inclined towards both research and writing, she tries to find a sweet spot between the two, and convey her learning and opinions by correlating them with the things we go through daily in our lives. Her blogs can be found at https://sometries.wordpress.com/