Sunday, July 8, 2007

Learned helplessness and political apathy.

Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon most often used to describe our best animal models of depression. It's difficult to tell if a rat is depressed - they are not given to crying fits and writing angsty poetry. What scientists will do, then, is put a healthy rat in an uncontrollable situation - in a cylinder of water with nothing to stand on, on a metal floor that gives unpredictable shocks - and the rat will panic and swim and fight and fight and then, finally, when none of that works, it gives up.

The rat has now learned helplessness, and can be considered "depressed". If you put the rat back in the water, but give it a hidden ledge to stand on, the rat won't search for it or even try to swim, it'll just give up and drown. If you give the rat the ability to stop the shocks, it won't utilize it - it'll just stand there. Scientists test anti-depressants by feeding them to the rats and seeing whether it takes the rats longer to learn helplessness.

This is obviously not a perfect model of depression. In fact, it is most frequently used in humans to describe not to describe the common experience of depression which most people suffer through but depression caused by prisons, concentration camps, periods of war or famine (although this wikipedia article mentions school, which I find pretty gratifying). While these situations are certainly ones of extreme helplessness, they do not represent the majority of cases.

And yet maybe it's a better model than people think. I wonder if you took a survey of people who've been depressed and asked them about when they started to become depressed, whether people would say there was a negative influence in their life they could not control? I know this is absolutely true for me. Being forced to go to school every day during middle school and high school was absolutely what triggered my depression and I remain depressed even after I came to college, until I learned to take control of my surroundings.

However, my question is not whether learned helplessness is the best model for depression. My question is whether learned helplessness can have a more pervasive influence in everyday life, preventing us from helping others, participating politically, etc. Is apathy another word for learned helplessness? Have we simply been conditioned from past failures to believe that we can't do anything to address injustice?

One key difference between people who are depressed and those who are merely apathetic is attribution. Depressed people tend to make certain attributions as to the causes of their situation. They blame themselves (internal attribution), assume life is like this everywhere (global attribution) and see the situation as unchangeable (stable attribution). People who are apathetic, politically and otherwise, seem to view problems as global and unchangeable, but make an external attribution - that is, they believe the blame for the problem lies elsewhere, outside of themselves.

This is all wildly theoretical, but it leads to practical questions. Do children who grow up in environments where they have little control tend to end up depressed? Politically apathetic? Can people be de-conditioned? Does volunteering on a local level and seeing change enacted change feelings of helplessness? And what exactly is going on, on a neurochemical level?


Elaine Vigneault said...

Good questions. While I dislike the discussion about the rat experiments (because I think animals should not be tortured) I think your thoughts on the issue are good thoughts. You're on to something here.

I read your comment at Feministe and I completely agree that depressing news without calls to action and ways we can help can create a community feeling of helplessness and depression. That's why I especially like the blogs posts that include calls to action and the good news stories. And it's why I won't often write about known issues in my blog unless there is an activism component.

Knowledge is power, but incomplete knowledge or knowledge without possible action can make people feel powerless.

Shauna said...

Elaine - I'm not a fan of animal experimentation either, but I think talking about the results a) gives it some value and b) gives non-scientists a more explicit understanding about what exactly goes on, so they can make their own judgments. I suppose I could have included a side note about not supporting the research as well.

I'm really interested in looking at how learned helplessness influences helping behavior/political activism. There's a social psych term "locus of control" which indicates whether a person believes that good or bad things happen *to* them or happen *because* of them. Both helping behavior and a lack of clinical depression are correlated with a locus of control inside the self, and the reverse for a locus of control outside the self.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if animals be they rat, dog or human can "learn empowerment" (for lack of a better word). The word "helplessness" is an interesting choice.. Was it Seligman that chose to use this word to describe the phenomenon?
We really need to go go read the papers he co-authored where they stumbled upon this, workking with dogs.
Perhaps conditioning is conditioning; and it is only our subjectivity that places conditioning in a category: helpful, helpless, etc.
Perhaps the neural networks that form as a result of conditioning (repeated stimuli) are beyond subjectivity. And hence they become elusive to understand, as we filter everything through consciously conceived concepts of evolution, morlality, etc.

Flirt said...


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