Problem perception before (green) and after (red) people are conditioned to learned helplessness.
One of my most popular articles was a review of Malcolm Gladwell’s article on SUVs, which concluded that we are afraid of, and worried by, the wrong things, that, for example, we are needlessly fearful of terrorist attacks and not nearly fearful enough about drunk driving. The consequence of this is dysfunctional behaviour: For example, we buy SUVs, rely on their illusory invulnerability and drive them overconfidently to the point that we actually run a greater risk of death or serious injury in an SUV than we would in a convertible. Yet “the risks posed to life and limb by forces outside our control are dwarfed by the factors we can control”, Gladwell concludes. “Our fixation with helplessness distorts our perceptions of risk.”
In that article, I pushed Gladwell’s argument further, and said:
This delusion of danger, and the illusion that something can or has to be done, that someone — British cows, Canadian farmers, Firestone, Saddam Hussein — must be brought to account in order to give us back control, is literally making us all crazy. It causes us to believe we cannot let children out of our sight even for a moment. It causes us to wildly change our diets, to avoid visiting whole countries, to fingerprint whole nations of visitors, to suspend civil liberties, to put barbed wire around our communities, to drink only bottled water, to introduce five levels of increasingly hysterical ‘threat’ to everyone’s safety.
It is irrational, neurotic, panic-stricken behaviour, a wild over-reaction to a tiny uncontrollable risk while we recklessly disregard risks we could control and which kill and destroy lives in large numbers everyday — air and water pollution, tainted food from corrupt and underregulated meat packers, drugs in sport and airplane cockpits, drunk drivers, kids with guns, unsupervised swimming pools, corporate frauds, a prison system that incarcerates the mentally ill and encourages criminal recidivism — and on and on and on.
Unfortunately, it is also in the best interest of the media and governments to focus on the uncontrollable risks, and to pander to public fear and fascination with them. They’re more sensational, more visceral. And since there’s really nothing that can be done about them, you can do anything, or nothing, in response to them, and not be held accountable, or responsible. The risks we could control, on the other hand, are mundane, day-to-day, hard and expensive but not impossible to remedy; they would if remedied save thousands of lives, and are the responsibility of all of us. Viewers, voters, and consumers don’t like to think about such things. Messy. Complicated. Nagging. Costly. And the media, and politicians, are glad to oblige us.
The concept of learned helplessness originated with Martin Seligman, whose research forty years ago (involving the psychological torture of dogs) revealed that we can be conditioned to fear things and to believe we are helpless to deal with them. What he called the “three Ps”, illustrated in the diagram above, determine the extent of this resultant psychosis — we can be conditioned to blame ourselves instead of others for a problem, to see a transient threat as a permanent one, and to see a local, isolated threat as a pervasive one.
In fabricating an excuse to strip Americans of their civil liberties, for example, Bush, with media compliance, inflated the threat of terrorist attacks in the minds of Americans from a symbolic attack on two American monuments to a ubiquitous, permanent and pervasive threat to every American by a massive, globally coordinated and maniacal army supported by conveniently-selected Arab states. And by telling us to ‘be extremely vigilant’, to treat those who opposed his draconian measures as traitors, to be suspicious of any activity by those with swarthy complexions, and to equip ourselves with duct tape, Bush implied that if we were the next victims of this hyperinflated enemy, it would be to some extent our own fault. Thus, a transient, isolated publicity stunt by a small group of rich psychopaths, caused principally by a clash of cultural ideals and bolstered by regional poverty and suffering, was turned for cynical political reasons into a permanent, pervasive war that (“if you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists”) we would be largely to blame for if we didn’t blindly support our government.
Once inculcated with learned helplessness, its effects on a person can be quite perverse. When something bad happens (e.g. he/she loses his/her job to offshoring) that person will tend to blame him/herself, to be overwhelmed by the seeming hopelessness of resolving the problem (“there are no other jobs”) and to see its effect as permanent (“now I’ll be unemployed for life”). Paradoxically, when something good happens (e.g. they get a promotion), this same person will not tend to credit him/herself (“I was just lucky”), and will see its effects as isolated and temporary (“I’ll never get another promotion, and I’ll probably screw this one up and get fired”). To psychologists, these are irrational symptoms of a pessimistic, depression-prone personality. Those vulnerable to learned helplessness conditioning are also, they would seem to be saying, vulnerable to depression.
Depression is one of five bad news coping mechanisms I referred to in a previous article. The other four are denial (“I can’t believe I lost my job, there must be some mistake”), anger/selfishness (“I got shafted, the boss is an idiot”), bargaining/pragmatism (“maybe I can get it back”) and resignation/acceptance (“oh, well, time to try something else”). Those who write about these coping mechanisms tend to view the fifth as being the ‘mature’ mechanism, but that’s subjective — maybe the boss is an idiot, or maybe you can get the job back.
Once you’ve reacted to a situation, the mechanism you use for resolving the situation tends to reflect the same mentality (afflicted with learned helplessness, or not) that manifested itself in the reaction, as the figure below illustrates. Those suffering from learned helplessness tend to believe there is nothing much they can do, that the problem is insoluble or intractable, and that it’s too late to act.
Seligman has now moved on from unpleasant experiments on dogs to a self-help movement called Authentic Happiness, which is based on his concept of learned optimism, the flip-side of learned helplessness. I don’t think much of it, but then I’m not taken with any self-help or psychological ‘solutions’. I believe things happen the way they do for a reason, and rather than trying to ‘cure’ depression maybe we need to understand why it is so endemic to our modern world. Is depression like the ‘shutting down’ coping reaction of animals cornered by predators? And is the power elite actually cynically encouraging this sense of ‘learned helplessness’ because it lowers opposition to the status quo, and stifles dissent, even though this elite actually has a lot less power than any of us believe?
It is quite conceivable to me that most people (who are not blog readers, or readers of much of anything of quality) reasonably believe nothing they do makes much real difference, and hence they would not find any news they read actionable anyway. They live day to day, moment to moment, and their decisions are mundane (McDonalds or Burger King). I think they are relatively immune to media spin, but very vulnerable to influence from their immediate communities — neighbours, family members, co-workers, churchmembers etc. They move in crowds, physically, emotionally, intellectually. Belatedly, they were the mass that finally ended the Vietnam War and brought down Nixon, and they are the mass that re-elected both Clinton and Bush because change frightens them more than the status quo.
But is their sense of impotence and their passivity in the face of all the challenges facing the world today:
Let’s take a look at the environmental movement, for example. I have described what I call ‘light green’ environmentalists, who are optimistic that technology and social awareness will let us resolve the current environmental crises, and ‘dark green’ environmentalists, who are pessimistic sometimes to the point they actually look forward to the end of civilization. The former see the latter as depressed or angry, while the latter see the former as bargaining or in denial. Like liberals and conservatives, they see the same dilemma through irreconcilably different frames, but their core values are the same: They realize, instinctively, emotionally and intellectually, that the only way for the human species to go on is as an integral part of all life on Earth, connected, in balance, living sustainably. They just have different visions of how to get there, and a different sense, not of how much we can do, but of what we should do.
Lots of theories here. What do I believe? Well, I keep thinking about Einstein’s remark, shortly before he died, that it was his experience that the more people knew, the more pessimistic they became. And since I believe most people, for a variety of reasons, know very little about the state of the world and what can be done about it, I’m inclined to believe that many people are pessimistic, not due to learned helplessness, but because they ‘know’ instinctively that the world is facing some massive challenges, that short of a revolution (which few are prepared to precipitate, at least not yet) there is genuinely little they can do to help address these challenges. I think the influence of media ‘spin’ on this perception is minor.
And I believe that many people are instinctively coming to realize that no one, no elite, is in control of this world (if any ever was), and that therefore even a revolution would be futile (as indeed most political revolutions in history have been).
I think we have a lot to learn about minor things (like the foolishness of feeling safe in an SUV, and the foolishness of feeling insecure about our child’s safety unless we know exactly where they are every instant), and in these things we are prone to misjudgements both of learned helplessness and of learned (over)optimism. But when it comes to the bigger issues affecting the future of our world, I believe our instincts are pretty good. Perhaps the sense that it’s too late to solve these larger issues, that they are perhaps insoluble, and that there’s nothing we can do individually or through some kind of fantasy ‘collective intelligence’ to save civilization, is not learned helplessness, but rather powerful intuition and collective wisdom. And perhaps those of us with the best instincts (mostly, in my experience, women, poets, scientists and artists) have also realized that this resignation does not need to depress us, or debilitate us. On the contrary, it liberates us from the responsibility to ‘save the world’ and refocuses us, our sense of purpose, on making the world better here, now, for those we live with and love, in the communities that define us. Those enlightened people — the women, poets, scientists and artists — have always been focused on opening possibilities here and now, in the moment, in the communities of which they have always known they are a part.
They — and not the self-help gurus and others who would ‘cure’ us of our sense of helplessness and depression, not the politicians and revolutionaries and religious and political and technological salvationists and ‘leaders’, not the media analysts and apologists — are our true models, the ones who quietly, always, have been showing us the way.