Jun 15, 2008

Learned Helplessness

What follows here is long question about asking the right question about available answers.

I was thinking about Hope and Change. No, really! And this is not so much a political question as a moral query regarding our responsibility as Social Experimenters.

Briefly, as a sort of background to my thoughts, years ago an experiment was set forth to understand behavioral conditioning. Some dogs were put in a shock-grid kennel with a barrier that they could jump over to escape the pain. All of the dogs figured it out. However, other dogs had been placed in a hammock that they could not escape and were subjected to painful shocks until they learned to put up with it, and suffer quietly. When placed in the shock kennel, they didn't move, just endured and waited for the pain to stop. The above experiment even proved that when placed in a new situation with no danger of pain, the ingrained helplessness of the conditioned dogs kept the poor creatures from even attempting escape.

It breaks my heart to read of poor dogs being shocked, and whimpering and putting up with it. Hopefully, it broke the hearts of the Experimenters, too.

Now, this observation has been used to describe why people put up with abuse in their relationships. I don't want to overstate or extrapolate the results beyond reality, but learned social conditioning to hopelessness is not easily overcome. And it's incredibly painful to watch.

So why are so many politicians eager to be next in line to experiment on a whole new generation of subjects, when we already know the outcome of such speech and conditioning?


Perhaps you've sat through many a pep-talk about hope, as a member of a church or organization. So you'll be familiar with the uncertain "experiment" with drowning rats. If not, it goes something like this: rats were placed in a deep barrel with water that was over their heads. They had no hope of escaping the slick sides of the barrel so they could only tread water. For days, it seemed, because they had a strong will to survive. Just before succumbing to exhaustion, so the story goes, the experimenter pulls the rat to safety. A short while later, the experiment is repeated with the same rat, which now has even more stamina to survive, knowing it will be rescued, thus treading water even longer than the first time.

I don't know if that's true, but it is always used as a metaphor for the incredible transforming power of Hope. Well and good, I suppose. But no one has ever tried my hypothesis on this behavioral conditioning. I posit that, there is another scenario to be explored. Take the same poor rat and rescue him long before he reaches exhaustion and pain. And then do it again. And again. Over and over.

Then, put him in the barrel one day and let "disaster" strike. No rescue arrives! I'd like to see how long the conditioned rat survived compared to a non-conditioned creature. But there is no need to do this particular experiment on rats because it's being done on humans every day.

Is any politician that has set out to be a savior of the Human Condition ever called in to see the suffering they're causing by teaching poor creatures that there is no way out of their condition unless they vote for him? The devilish Hell they create with soft landings and cheap salvation keeps people in that hammock of helplessness and a mindset of misery or false hope.

What sort of perverted satisfaction is gained by pretending that one's political camp, ideals, and personal ambition are the only recourse of Hope and Change for real human beings? Especially when you have no intention of actually helping them toward independent living.

Every day I see people who have learned their helplessness because they only know that if they wait long enough, someone will turn off the shock and remove them from their situation. They are bound by a hammock of relative comfort that doesn't hurt them, and keeps them from hurting themselves, but doesn't allow them escape from their circumstances. Fed and sheltered, yes, but still objects of their Experimenters. Rescued, yes. Only to be put right back into the water.

And then lied to about who put them there.

So they half-live, whimpering and suffering; their only "work" is to get the next hand out. It's really not all that relaxing, either, although those of us who happily live outside the Experimental Labs are tempted to wish for such beautiful "care" where we don't have to work or sweat in a daily grind.

But, to set such experimental subjects free from the lab is to condemn them to further degradation and defeat, as they are unprepared for survival, and can only await rescue, again and again. No, as appealing as it may be to entertain thoughts of abandoning them to their fate, we cannot walk away from what we have created with foolish policy. We must assume the moral responsibility for our own stupid choices for representation in government.

My question is, if I haven't greatly strained the behavioral parallels, is there any hope for real change for a generation of people who have been conditioned to their lot by their social leaders? Especially those leaders that wish to continue the so-called experiment so that they and their friends can have a job?

It goes back to creating clients. You can't keep your job if you don't have clients.

What is our responsibility for having elected such leaders locally, and nationally? We can't just stop the experiment without providing new conditioning.

I see a whole new set of jobs to create, so no one has to worry about job security. However, I'd like to populate the social re-engineering with folks who know how to survive on their own and can teach others to do the same.

I'd have to name Ted Nugent as Secretary of Self-Reliance and Independence. (Shut up! He's no crazier than Sheila Jackson-Lee or Jimmy Carter!) That's a social experiment I could endorse. Temporary pain, but with a full set of skills and guidance that bring true freedom, real self-confidence instead of phony self-esteem, and long-term satisfaction. A true pursuit of happiness.

Maybe the folks in Iowa could oversee such a huge project. Maybe we need The Boy Scouts welcomed back in our communities. Maybe we need to stop experimenting and get busy with what has been proven to work.


Hammer said...

Astute observations. The comfort zone that most people live in has caged them like Lab rats.

I'm not sure if anyone can truely consider themselves free.

LauraB said...

Well put as always...

I could have been one of those poor dogs except that it just seemed...like madness to keep doing what wasn't working.

But I fear it will only get worse. Just look at the schools where you have to bring supplies for everyone each season. It is being ingrained - deeply - in an entire generation. When THAT comes to fruition it shall be...all over.

The End.

So I'm trying to enjoy this last decade, frankly. And sorta hoping the "balloon goes up" so that Darwinian impact can be immediate and irrevocable.

GUYK said...

Used to be a concept called "tough love"..which basically meant that all enabling ceased and the individual concerned had to fend for himself.

Most of my generation..or at least most of my generation that was reared in the same area that I was reared..were reared on tough love. We were taught to be too proud to accept handouts, too afraid of prison to steal, and that our only option was to work if we planned on eating.

A stand up comedian of the early 1960's explained tough love best..Brother Dave Gardner quipped, "When you see a poor man down, KICK HIM! Give him the incentive to get up."

And maybe that is what this country needs to get back to..tough love..no work no eat..

'mouse said...

Ms. Arrgghh, this post reminds me, I've been meaning to ask you to elaborate on your thoughts on Ayn Rand. I'm not being coy. I'm interested where you coincide and where you diverge, if you've considered such things.

Mike Wilson said...

Damn sharp stuff. Want to read something interesting, read Howard Bloom's "The Lucifer Principle."

His understanding of the interactions between what is ostensibly altruism and it's real life effects is quite astounding.

I highly recommend it, so much so that I'd be happy to send you a copy if it'd get you to read it.

Sparrow said...

Great post!