Is It Really Impossible… Or Is It Learned Helplessness?

a depressed looking rhino behind cage bars
Image by Rob Oo / CC BY

These days, Martin Seligman is doing pretty uplifting work. A past president of the American Psychological Association, Seligman is often known as the father of positive psychology, a newer subspecialty that focuses on the positive aspects of human behavior: Striving, thriving, flourishing.

But his big break into psychological research wasn’t so rosy.

In his earliest days as a researcher, Seligman and his colleague Steven Maier were administering electric shocks to dogs to test some finer points of classical conditioning. The box the dogs were in had two chambers in it which were separated by a barrier that was easily jumped over. When a shock was administered to the chamber where the dog was sitting, it was an easy matter for them to escape over to the opposite chamber.

But the experimenters noticed something funny: Certain dogs wouldn’t try to escape when they electrified the floor. They instead just gave up and endured their fate.

When Seligman and his colleague looked into the matter further, they realized that the dogs in question had been ones who were involved in an earlier experiment in which they didn’t have a way to escape shocks and simply had to endure them.

In effect, the dogs had learned helplessness.

Seligman went on to replicate these conditions with rats, first subjecting them to inescapable shocks and then doing an experiment where they could easily escape the shocks.

The findings were similar: Rats who had previously experienced suffering from which they couldn’t escape, wouldn’t try to escape suffering when they later could.

Seligman and others would go on to develop a robust body of work that discovered similar patterns in human behavior and establish that we, too, are prone to developing learned helplessness.

I’ve Learned to Ask Myself, “Is It Really Impossible… Or Is It Learned Helplessness?”

As a person with a traumatic history, I know all too well how incredibly easy it can be to catastrophize. To take past negative experiences and project them onto every possible future scenario.

I know it’s easy to confuse situations where I was trapped and couldn’t escape my circumstances (e.g., childhood abuse) with situations where I certainly do have options (e.g., a psychologically damaging adult friendship) and forget that I can easily jump the fence. To fail to realize I’m not trapped anymore.

So I’ve learned to take a second when I feel that way and ask myself, “Is it really impossible… or is it learned helplessness?”

Because a lot of times, the situation isn’t nearly as hopeless I think it is. Because depression and anxiety can be rather convincing liars.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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