Learned Helplessness
April 10, 2009
by William P. Meyers

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I recently read about learned helplessness in Driving Excellence by Michael J. Jones and Steve Sanghi [pages 55-56]. Sadly, this starts as one of those sadistic behavior psychologist, electrocuting rats stories. Bear with me, it is worth thinking about.

The rats are taught, or tortured, by being placed in a cage with two floor plates that can be charged. Initially, they are taught that when they get shocked, then can get relief by jumping to the other plate. In stage two, both plates are charged at once. At first the rats will jump back and forth, but eventually they give up jumping and just stay on one plate and suffer.

Turn off the plate the rat is not on, and it will not know it, because it has learned helplessness.

Of course people can learn helplessness in all sorts of contexts. People are complex, so they can learn helplessness in one context, but be active and helpful in other contexts. Overall pattens of learned helplessness are probably learned in childhood, but some are unlearned during the years of teen rebellion. Even in specific situations an individual human could show shades of gray regarding helplessness.

You could learn helplessness from your family, from parents who are always critical, or inflict punishments, or even just apathetic, no matter what you do. You could learn it in school, or from social interactions with dysfunctional children. You can easily help create it in others.

One place most people have learned this is the American two-party system. Every few years the Democratic plate tortures people, then for a few years they are tortured by the Republican plate. In the large population, the helplessness response is statistical. A percentage of people join the party of their parents and never leave. A percentage flip back and forth from election to election, hoping for relief. Over time, as a generation ages, people just give up and either stay Republicans, stay Democrats, or just stop voting.

Take this excerpt from an Associated Press article from yesterday: "President Barack Obama asked Congress on Thursday for $83.4 billion for U.S. military and diplomatic operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, pressing for special troop funding that he opposed two years ago when he was senator and George W. Bush was president." [Full article: Obama Seeks $83.4 Billion]

Many people voted for Barack Obama, and even contributed money to his campaign, because they hated George W. Bush and his war policies. They may miss this particular news item, or they may conclude that they just hated Bush, and whatever Barack does is okay with them.

This is just one example; add an ongoing stream of political electroshocks over years of life, and the chances of not getting learned political helplessness are quite low.

What about third parties, like the Green Party? The Green Party grew rapidly during the 1990's Clinton Era [See President Bill Clinton]. Then the Democratic Party devoted a great deal of energy to destroying the Green Party after the 2000 election. The pain inflicted on Greens was obvious, and most of them folded themselves into the Democratic Party or dropped out of politics.

To build a third party capable of real hope and real change, there needs to be a culture and structure created that can help people learn to help themselves faster than the two-party government can convince them that bad government is as inevitable as war and taxes.

Learned Helplessness Wikipedia article
Papers on learned helplessness, links to

III Blog list of articles