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?
Sunday, July 8, 2007