IN 1965, a scientist started shocking dogs. In the name of psychological research, the scientist would ring a bell and then instead of providing food, he zapped the dogs with electricity. To keep the dogs still, he restrained them forcibly in unbreakable straps.
After the dogs were subjected to numerous trials of painful shock therapy associated with a ringing bell and an inescapable condition, the scientist put these dogs in a big box with a little fence dividing it into two halves. He figured that when the bell was rung, the dogs would take the cue to hop over the fence to escape the painful shock. Instead, the previously conditioned dogs just sat there and braced themselves for the pain.
Unbelievably, the dogs just sat there and took it. Then, when an unconditioned dog which had never been previously shocked was placed in the test box, it quickly associated the bell ringing with impending painful shock and it jumped the fence.
Learned helplessness, as a technical term in animal learning and human psychology, refers to the phenomenon of animals and humans learning to behave helplessly, even when the opportunity is restored for it to help itself by avoiding an unpleasant or harmful circumstance to which it has been subjected. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.
If, over the course of your life, you have experienced crushing defeat or pummeling abuse or loss of control, you learn over time that there is no escape, and if escape is offered, you will not act. The truth is that if you feel like you aren’t in control of your destiny, you are likely to give up and accept whatever situation you are in. Bullies, totalitarian dictators, and some local island politicians rely on creating helplessness amongst their victims or constituents in order to enforce their will and ensure personal gain.
Last week, the televised image of a feces-filled toilet soaked in putrid urine and human excrement found its way onto the high-definition computer monitors down at the Guam Legislature. While well-coifed senators and GDOE officials choked on their $5 lattes, the students at Untalan Middle School were forced to leave their broken toilets and begin their exodus to Tiyan. Like helpless Pavlovian subjects, the adults in Guam’s educational system were found to be shockingly willing to accept filthy, unsafe school conditions for Guam’s children.
Whenever island people want to feel better about not living in a big city, they tell stories about old ladies being mugged on crowded urban streets and none of their neighbors taking time to save the poor women from harm. Then they talk about urban kids being threatened or hurt by street gang violence and none of the city adults seemingly able to do anything about it.
Most island people want to believe that if you are in a bad situation, you will be competent and courageous enough to do whatever you can to escape harm. At the very least, many people would like to believe that they would protect defenseless old ladies or little kids from harm.
Do you vote? If not, is it because you think it doesn’t matter because things never change, or politicians are evil on both sides, or one vote in several thousand doesn’t count? That, my friends, is learned helplessness.