(3 minute read)
Have you ever wondered why your child simply won’t try? Or why friends and family seem to be overwhelmed with the idea of doing something that in reality, doesn’t seem that difficult to you? Perhaps even you find yourself unwilling to attempt something new, or give up at the first sign of failure.
When we see these traits in ourselves or other people, we tend to get judgmental. We see these as character flaws: laziness, lack of determination, timidity, inefficiency. If that’s true, then there’s not much to be done. There’s some truth in the Chinese saying that it is easier to move a mountain than it is to change a person’s character. But is it really a character problem?
Most of my clients come in convinced they have some character flaw. But after I get to know them, I realize there’s no flaw. There’s always a reason for their so-called “flawed” behavior, and uncovering the reason, discussing it, and figuring out strategies to change tends to eliminate the behavior.
So if it’s not a character flaw that stops a child from trying, or overwhelms adults with simple tasks, or causes us to refuse to try something new, or give up quickly….then what is it?
One answer is that these people have come to believe that they’re not competent, that they won’t succeed, that they’re not good enough and that they can’t change things. It’s a concept called Learned Helplessness and here’s how it was proved in an experiment in the 1960’s:
Two dogs were put into separate cages. Both cages had a lever that the dogs could press. And both cages had a floor that could be electrified, providing an unpleasant, but not dangerous, shock to the feet of the animals. (Sorry RSPCA.) Here’s the difference: In one cage, pushing down on the lever stopped the shock. In the other cage, the lever didn’t do anything. When the electric shock was applied, both dogs ran around their cages and sooner or later pushed down the lever. Pretty soon, one dog figured out that pushing the lever stopped the shock, and as soon as the electricity started to flow, would jump over to the lever and slam it down. The other dog, as expected, realized there was nothing to be done and just sat down, whimpered and waited for the discomfort to end.
Nothing special so far, right? Here’s where it gets interesting. The researchers then moved the dogs to new cages. These also had electrified floors. However, they had no levers, just a small barrier in the middle that the dogs could easily leap over. And on the other side of that barrier — the floor was free of electricity. What happened when the dogs were shocked in their new cages? Well, the dogs that had learned that they could control the shocks by pressing levers raced around looking for something else that would stop the shock. Eventually, they leaped over the barrier and were no doubt delighted to find that they were safe. After that, the moment they felt a shock, they simply jumped the barrier.
But the dogs that had found the levers ineffective in stopping the shock had learned that there was nothing they could do — that they were helpless. They didn’t jump over the barrier. They simply sat down and waited, whimpering again. They could have escaped from the discomfort, but they didn’t even try.
How does this relate to humans? We’re not that different from dogs. If we learn that there’s nothing we can do to escape pain or punishment, we tend to give up and stop searching for an escape. We feel hopeless and helpless, at the mercy of forces that are beyond our control. We can see this in a child who stops working at a subject they "know" they’re not competent in. We see it in ourselves when we avoid tasks that seem extremely difficult — even if in reality they’re easily accomplished. We also see it in people who are depressed, who feel they have no ability to make themselves feel better.
When someone has “learned” that they are helpless, we need to help them “relearn” the truth — that they do have the capability to change things. For a child, that might involve setting them tasks that are very easy to accomplish, then gradually increasing the difficulty, never giving them something so challenging that they “learn” again that they can’t do it. (That’s the theory behind Kumon math and reading programs.) For someone who is depressed, that might mean helping them to engage in behaviors that brought them happiness in the past, so that they can relearn the fact that they have some level of control over how they feel. And for someone who feels overwhelmed, it could be helping them to take baby steps until they feel they have a degree of mastery.
And perhaps most important of all, it means not blaming each other and ourselves. It may not be a character flaw after all — not laziness, lack of determination, timidity or inefficiency. Rather, it’s just Learned Helplessness.