I stumbled upon the concept of “Learned Helplessness” almost accidentally and I promise that it has something to do with dogs, electrical shocks, poverty and human beings.
But first, the theory
We owe this concept to two North American psychologists: Martin Seligman and Steven Maier. They did some experiments (here animal lovers might get very angry, but please continue reading as you might be happier at the end of the text….). The two men and their team conditioned dogs (that’s a change from the ‘rat experience’) to expect an electrical shock after hearing a tone. (I agree this is not very nice, here is the phone number of a group called “Animal World” dedicated to the welfare of animals: 901-791-2455.)
After the dogs were well conditioned, they were moved to a box (hopefully a big enough one), separated in the middle by a low barrier. The dogs were on the right side. On the left side, there was no electricity, no electric shocks.
Did the conditioned dogs jump over the barrier? No, they did not. They did not even try. They did not even try when other companions of the same breed (who had never received shocks or only sometimes received shocks, lucky and half lucky them) were placed in the same box, and found out the trick by jumping over the barrier to safety.
So what is the link with poverty here?
Am I trying to say that poor people are like dogs? Well, obviously they are not. And if they were, we would all be like dogs as well. I would choose to be Labrador, black preferably, because they are my favorite.
No, what I am trying to say, and actually it is not me saying it, but researchers and scientists, is that when people live in long-lasting and extreme poverty, it is highly probable that, having received so many electric shocks throughout their lives, they might come to a point in which they are convinced and expect that nothing they do will change anything in their situation.
So you have understood that I am not comparing dogs with the poor, but electrical shocks with extreme poverty. Let’s go back to the dogs.
The first time Isaac (that’s the name of the dog, who, by the way, was a great-great-great-…..grand-father of Jesus, two respectable men) received the shock, what did he do? I bet you some 10-billion Filipino Pesos, that he jumped, shouted and howled (he’s a dog), and tried to escape in order to put an end to this highly unpleasant experience. The shock stopped, but without him, out of breath, being in the position to understand how it started and how it stopped.
We have to say here that Isaac is from all angles a standard dog. He is not cleverer or more stupid than the average. In short he is like you and me (well, of course, if we were dogs).
Isaac experienced some moments of respite, but again, out of the blue, the shock started again. He jumped and howled even louder than the first time, but nothing happened. Moreover the shock stopped when he was not trying anymore to avoid it.
Etc,etc, etc, for many sessions, until Isaac, passing from the rank of Jesus’ ancestor, turned into a passive self, not even trying to make one single movement to stop the shocks: he knows they will occur again, he has learned he cannot do anything about it.
Let’s go back to the humans.
The first time Rebekah (dear wife of Isaac in the Bible, not in this story, obviously) remembers having experienced frustration, it was when she wanted to eat ‘hotsilog’, which is composed of fried rice, egg and hot dog (one of my favourites by the way, even though I prefer tosilog). But her parents told her there was only rice with half an egg each.
They gave her P10 for her baon for school. She thought to ask her friend to share the cost so that each would eat half of the hotdog. Rebekah so much wanted to know the taste of it. But her friend had no money on that day and nobody else agreed to share with her: “we don’t share with squatters, you are all thieves”, was what some said.
We have to say here that Rebekah is from all angles a standard girl of 12 years old. She is not cleverer or more stupid than average. In short she is like you and me (and whether you are a woman or a man, doesn’t make much of a difference).
Frustration was more often present at school. Despite all her efforts, she was failing in too many subjects. It was already the second time she was in grade 4 and again, she would not pass. She started to be teased by classmates and even the teacher for her older age. Having to study using candle-light, with the heat, moisture and mosquitoes never ending their bites, was not helping. Her parents were trying to help sometimes but they could not do so much.
Her frustration over the following months grew bigger and little by little she put fewer efforts in studying, until she dropped out. She looked around her, at her parents and neighbours: Everyday they were waking up early, doing odd jobs until night fall, but they still didn’t have enough to feed their children. The only time she ever ate hotdog was a few years ago when a charity group had their Christmas outreach and treated them to fast food. The cheapest meal there was hotsilog.
She also looked at the other youth and adults around, who from morning to evening were not doing much, looking gloomily around.
Rebekah started to be convinced that no matter what she does, her situation will not change; she is internalizing that she cannot do anything about it.
Let’s go back to….life.
Can someone explain why it is easier for me to make jokes about a dog receiving electrical shocks during an experiment (again, my apologies to the animal lovers) than about a girl who already looks helplessly towards her future?
So what is the solution?
To stop the helplessness felt by Isaac, the scientists simply have to stop pressing the button. Thank you to everyone who called the phone number mentioned above!
And what can be done to stop the helplessness of Rebekah? xxxx simply have to xxxx (hummm, I need your help here: “who” has to stop or start doing “what”? What is the phone number?)
This website (a very nice one by the way) gives part of the solution: “Animal World is a non-profit organization dedicated to the welfare of animals and is working with organizations, decision makers and the public-at-large to bring about awareness as to the plight of the animals of our world. Our mission is to create a better understanding and underscore respect for all the planet’s precious creatures through a strengthening of communities. Mobilizing citizens, working with schools, youth groups, and governors in each state, Animal World is creating a new direction to advance the greater good through exciting progressive strategies that are creating a movement.”
Now, let’s change the name “Animal World” into “A World without Poverty” and the word “animals” into “humans” and we may get some draft of answers as to the ‘who’ and ‘what’. Just the phone number is still missing, but you can try to dial (0063) 2 563.93.12
For an ending
I need to clarify that in my life I have had 4 cats, 2 dogs and 1 piggybank (…ah no! it was a guinea pig) and when each of them died (of natural causes), I cried, and I buried them with a little ceremony and flowers.