In the late '60s, Seigelman at University of Pennsylvania developed the concept of learned helplessness as part of his study of the nature of depression. The researchers apparently discovered by accident that if dogs were subjected to punishment with electric shocks and their ability to protect themselves was thwarted would eventually become pessimistic. In the second phase of the testing, believing that there was no hope in avoiding the shocks the dogs would not avoid the punishment – even when the conditions of the study enabled them to avoid punishment by jumping over a small barrier to find relief. They would just passively lay down on the floor through which the shocks were delivered and would whimper instead of protecting themselves. The first part of the study successfully trained the dogs into a state of accepting punishment, even though they could avoid it. The conditioning also produced depression and anxiety in the dogs.
In 1969, Watson and Ramsey set out to do a similar study with human babies, testing whether a baby would attempt to control the movement of a crib mobile. If the babies in the study learned through the study conditions that they had no power or control over the mobile, they would cease making any attempts to affect it. Babies who were not subjected to these limitations did explore their environment and would work to change the movement of the crib mobile. Subsequent studies demonstrated this development of a pessimistic attitude indicating that a significant number of people who encountered a situation wherein their actions had no affect on their environment, they would stop attempts to change their environment.
Teaching Pessimism and Helplessness
What did we learn from these studies? Pessimism can be learned, and in particular, parents can teach a sense of pessimism to their children. The child learns to “live up to” or “down to” the level of expectation that others see in them, and they can be quite easily conditioned into believing that they are quite worthless and powerless, based on how their parents and other role models treat them.
As with the studies in the sixties, both child and adult alike will spend some time trying to avoid distraction and discomfort, but after a period of learning, that person will stop trying. They will even stop avoiding pain and punishment, even though new or alternate conditions may provide for their protection. Depression and a low sense of worth also contribute to the development of learned helplessness, and bad experiences also contribute to depression and a low sense of worth. These perceptions contribute to problems with self-defeating behavior. And as a long-term coping response to this feeling of nihilism and futility, children can grow up into adults who practice self-defeating or even self-destructive behavior.
Hephzibah House Survivors' Failure to Self-Protect: Learned Helplessness as One of Many Factors
At Hephzibah House, the resident girls as well as the staff there learned quickly that they had no ability to protect or provide for themselves. The level of optimism and trust placed in the girls did not exist. They were treated like human garbage and were told directly that they were of limited worth and usefulness in life because of whatever qualified them to be residents there. They could not even decide how much toilet paper to take from the roll, because they had to request it before they entered the bathroom so it could be allotted to them. They could do nothing to escape their conditions or ease their suffering. The beatings would eventually come, regardless of their behavior. Some perceived attitude or illness would eventually interfere with their good standing or status. There was no escape.
Much has been written regarding the role of learned helplessness in child abuse. For the survivors of Hephzibah House or those who wish to understand why the effects of residency there was so life-altering for the girls who survived the experience, learned helplessness most definitely plays a role.
I also addressed this topic somewhat in a Blog Talk Radio episode with Jocelyn Andersen in April 2011, just prior to our interview with Hephzibah House survivor, Susan Grotte. Link here to the webpage or listen to the show on the player embedded here. The first half of the 30 minute show describes the general conditions at Hephzibah House, and the latter half discusses these factors and why the residents there struggle with restricted and collapsed behaviors after leaving the home.
If PTSD creates a sense of pervasive pessimism, add to the effects of the trauma of Hephzibah House the factor of learned helplessness. This only compounds the sense of helplessness and futility that many children learned in their homes growing up as was explored in the blog series concerning the childhood roots of victimization. In upcoming posts, we will also consider the influence of the “freezing” survival response and the compounding compulsion to reenact trauma.
Learn more about the trauma response of "freezing" in an upcoming post.
If you are familiar with the conditions at Hephzibah House, skip to 17 minutes into the program for a bit of a discussion on conditions that fostered the residents' sense of learned helplessness.
- Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control (Bandura)
- Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control (Peterson, Maier, Seligman)
- What You Can Change and What You Cant (Seligman)