Sunday, August 02, 2009

Learned Helplessness

or, Shockingly Sad Situations

Writing must reflect Real Life. And in Real Life, though we may not always have the relationships we want, we always have the relationships we expect. Characters (and Real People) who accept being victims must fundamentally expect to be told what they can and cannot do -- so they're OK with it when it happens. Otherwise, they would end the relationship.

The "why" that drives otherwise rational people to remain in intolerable situations is something that can give family, friends, and writers fits. But every so often, we discover a piece of the puzzle...

While working on the manuscript for Ryan Gingerich's book, I was introduced to the concept of learned helplessness.

In essence, researchers studying the origins of depression discovered that if a lab animal (the original study was conducted with dogs) was placed in a situation from which it could not escape, and repeatedly subjected to a "negative stimulus" (tech-speak for shocking the poor creature until it yelped), eventually the dog would stop trying to escape and would just cower in his cage and endure the pain.

Most interesting, however, was what happened after the restraints were removed. Even if the animal had previously demonstrated the ability to escape the cage, when the shocks were again administered, it would just lie there and take them.

This condition of enduring a torturous situation rather than taking a pro-active approach to saving oneself is termed learned helplessness.

I find this concept fascinating on several levels -- both as a writer and as someone who is always trying to understand the mysteries of Why People Do What They Do.

From a purely objective point of view, it provides insight into the psychology of victimhood:

* Why does a horse not buck an abusive rider off?
* Why does a dog not bite or run away from a violent owner?
* Why does one person allow another to manipulate and control his or her life?

They have all entered the state of "learned helplessness."

Interestingly, some of the subjects of this and related studies resisted just giving up. They were, essentially, the optimists. When given the opportunity and a little encouragement, they would escape their tormentors. Even more interesting, they showed little inclination toward depression.

Those who evidenced learned helplessness, however, quickly exhibited clinical signs of depression even after the shocks were no longer administered.

When I was growing up, a woman who went to our church was a study in learned helplessness. Her husband literally dictated everything she did. She was in her 50's before he allowed her to get a driver's license. THEN he would monitor how much gas she used in the car to keep tabs on whether or not she had actually gone where she'd said.

We've all seen some form of this movie play out in real life:

He: What's your password?

She: None of your business.

He: What are you hiding?

She: Nothing.

He: So, if you're not hiding anything, why can't I know your password? Don't you trust me?

She: Fine! Fine! You want it, here -- (insert password code here)!


There are a thousand variations of this story, but the common thread is that it ALWAYS escalates. Monitoring correspondence like mail, e-mail, and phone calls may morph into dictating what one can wear. And what music one can listen to. And who one can see.

It's only a short jump then, to keeping tabs on how much gas is used in the car. Or hiring friends, family, or private eyes for surveillance. By that time, however, the culture of victimhood is firmly established. And, like the poor zapped dogs in the study, even when the cage is opened and an escape route is clearly visible, it becomes the road not taken.