Weekly Wednesday Blog – July 20, 2022
In 1967, a psychologist named Seligmen performed a pretty unethical study which essentially involved electrocuting dogs. When the dogs of group A were electrocuted, they learned that when they pushed a lever the pain stopped. When dogs from group B pushed the lever, however, the electricity continued. To the dogs from group B, the experience was inescapable and unpredictable pain. In part 2 of the experiment, the dogs were placed in a box that had 2 compartments – one which could shock them, and one that could not. The 2 compartments were separated by a small barrier that could easily be hopped over. When placed in the box, the dogs from Group A quickly learned how to escape the pain. The dogs from Group B, however, simply lay down and whined, never attempting to hop the barrier to safety.
This was referred to as “learned helplessness”. The dogs from Group B did not try to escape because they had learned from experience that resistance was futile. Dogs from group A, who had experienced a change in circumstances spurred by action, were less tolerant of painful circumstances.
The researchers found that no amount of ordering or bribing could make the helpless dogs jump the barrier. The only thing that worked was to physically move the dog to the other side so they could experience the result (a relief of pain) and the method (jump over the barrier).
Group A people overcome barrier after barrier, each time emboldening them to handle challenges head on. Experience has taught them to do what they can with what they have.
Group B people see their decreasing health as confirmation that improvement is impossible, subsequently giving up. They may have been dealt a really bad hand in life that made them feel victimized (Genetic tendencies, unsupportive family, freak accidents etc). It is understandable how these things manifest as learned helplessness, but the problem is that you still need to discern what you can change, and when you can change it. You can’t just decide that all barriers are insurmountable at all times.
People who are in pain but have never undergone physiotherapy
Insomniacs who are chronically depressed and anxious, but have never talked to their doctor about it
People drowning in debt who wont go see a financial advisor
People with chronic obesity or inflamation who have never seen a dietician
People who burn all their relationships but have never talked to a counselor
People who are unhealthy, weak, overweight, impulsive, brittle, inactive, or injury-prone who have never hired a strength coach.
Group B may describe someone you love, someone who has developed such a wallowing shame complex that you feel guilty every time you encourage them to seek out support. Maybe this person’s learned helplessness directly harms you or other people you love (for example, if there is a massive disparity between your health and your spouse’s, you can anticipate being their caretaker for a long time). Remember that ordering, bribing, and guilting usually won’t help them cross the barrier and make change. Instead, model change for them. Embark on your own challenging and transformative mission and let people in on your struggles, processes, failures and victories. Be a living demonstration that change is possible. If they start trying to create change themselves, give praise and encouragement for every step of the way, especially the baby steps.
If you resonate with Group B, accept that your perspective is filtered by biases and mental health, and that you may not be going through an existential crisis. Sometimes being wrong is empowering, but that is not to diminish your feelings of powerlessness; I am just pointing out that the largest barrier between you and transformation…is you. Here’s how to move forward: Put up the cash. Hire a strength coach (or other professional) for an extended period of time. Like any down payment, it incentivizes commitment to the routine. You may not like it, but this is the metaphorical scientist dragging you (the metaphorical tortured dog) over a relatively small barrier. Surrender your autonomy to them for a short period of time until results appear.
You are not stupid for feeling helplessness, but you are wrong.
– Coach Nathan