On learned helplessness and the feeling of agency

by Social Resistance

Bram Langmans argues that the main driving forces behind any successful act of social resistance is the feeling of agency which means being in control of your own destiny and being able to produce some desired effect or outcome by undertaking particular individual action(s).

There exists a widely shared misconception which states that, if you are in a really bad situation, you will do whatever you can to escape it. In truth however, it has been shown that, if you feel like you aren’t in control of your destiny, you will be more inclined to just give up and accept whatever situation you are in.

In this column I will argue that one of the main driving forces behind any successful act of social resistance is precisely this feeling of agency, of being in control of your own destiny and being able to produce some desired effect or outcome by undertaking particular individual action(s).

From 1967 onwards, Martin Seligman and Steve Maier started administering electric shocks to dogs. They did this to expand on Pavlov’s famous experiment in which he made dogs salivate at the sound of a bell. The idea at the time was that animals – and thus humans – could be conditioned to exhibit specific physiological and emotional reactions upon the use of specific external stimuli once a sufficiently firm mental association between a given stimulus and a certain reaction had been established within a subject. The results of Seligman and Maier’s experiment contradicted the predictions made by these behaviourist scientists though, and most of the psychological community was puzzled with amazement.

In Part 1 of Seligman and Maier’s experiment, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses. Group 1 dogs were simply put in the harnesses for a period of time and later released. Groups 2 and 3 consisted of ‘yoked pairs’. A dog in Group 2 would be intentionally subjected to pain by being given electric shocks, which the dog could end by pressing a lever. A Group 3 dog was wired in parallel with a Group 2 dog, receiving shocks of identical intensity and duration, but his lever didn’t stop the electric shocks. To a dog in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was his paired dog in Group 2 that was causing it to stop. For Group 3 dogs, the shock was apparently ‘inescapable’. Group 1 and Group 2 dogs quickly recovered from the experience, but Group 3 dogs learned to be helpless, and exhibited symptoms similar to chronic clinical depression.

In Part 2 of the Seligman and Maier experiment, they put these three groups of dogs in a big box with a little fence dividing it into two halves. They figured if they administered an electric shock, the dog would hop over the fence to escape. And indeed: when they put a Group 1 or 2 dog in the box and tried to zap it, it immediately jumped the fence. The Group 3 dogs however – who had previously learned that nothing they did had any effect on the shocks – for the most part simply lay down passively and whined. Even though they could have easily escaped the shocks, the dogs didn’t even try – they just sat there and took it.

Most of us are actually just like these Group 3 dogs: we’ve learned to be helpless and just accept whatever situation it may be we find ourselves in, rather than taking control of our own destiny and changing that situation for the better. The sheer scale of multinational corporations and ‘the globalized economy’, the extent to which political decision-making takes place in supranational organisations with often little or no democratic accountability, the inescapable routine of work-eat-sleep just to keep up with ever-increasing financial demands, the pervasiveness and single-mindedness of most of the media- and entertainment industries on this planet; it all too often makes us feel so small and insignificant in comparison to those who we perceive to hold ‘real power’ over the fate of humankind – so that most of us are just inclined to ‘sit there and take it’.

Luckily enough however, there is a brighter side to Seligman’s experiments: of the roughly 150 dogs that partook in his experiments during the latter half of the 1960’s, about one-third did NOT become helpless. Instead, they managed to find a way out of the unpleasant situation, despite their past experience of helplessness. To explain this peculiarity, an appeal was made on Bernard Weiner’s attribution theory, which concerns itself with the way subjects attribute a cause or explanation to an unpleasant event.

The theory includes the dimensions of globality/specificity, stability/instability, and internality/externality: A global attribution occurs when a subject believes that the cause of negative events is consistent across different contexts, a specific attribution occurs when the subject believes that the cause is unique to a particular situation. A stable attribution occurs when a subject believes the cause to be consistent across time, unstable attribution occurs when the individual thinks that the cause is specific to one point in time. An external attribution assigns causality to situational or external factors, while an internal attribution assigns causality to factors within the person.

With the use of these dimensions, a subject’s attributional or explanatory style can be formulated, which proofs to be the key to understanding why subjects respond differently to adverse events and why learned helplessness sometimes remains specific to one situation, but at other times generalizes across situations: Although a group of subjects may experience the same or similar negative events, how each subject privately interprets or explains the event will affect the likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness and subsequent depression.

On one end of the scale, there is a pessimistic explanantory style, which sees negative events as permanent (“it will never change”), personal (“it’s my fault”), and pervasive (“I fail on pretty much any level, all of the time”); on the other end we find an optimistic explanatory style, which views the situation as other than personal, pervasive, or permanent. Obviously subjects with a pessimistic explanatory style are most likely to suffer from learned helplessness and clinical depression. Moreover, these subjects also experience more problems with their health and well-being, are more likely to produce tumors, and so on, than their optimistic counterparts.

Now what does this story tell us? When confronted with the many injustices and tragedies of this world, we all too easily give in to apathy and nihilism. By doing this, we are choosing futility over optimism – we are giving in to learned helplessness. The reason we are doing this, however, is just a matter of perspective: it is our view of the situation which makes us feel small and helpless, rather than the situation itself.

In reality, everything which gets accomplished in this world, is accomplished by groups of individuals who are passionate about changing a given actuality into in new and more desirable situation. That means each and any one of us has the power and potential to produce some desired effect or outcome by undertaking particular individual action(s). And it is exactly this realization of one’s own power of agency that lies at the very heart of any form of social resistance. Without it, we just give in to learned helplessness – we ‘sit there and take it’.

In order to stimulate social resistance, it is thus of the utmost importance to propagate a feeling of agency and an optimistic attitude. It is only under these circumstances that initiative, innovation and creativity can freely flourish and alternatives can thrive. And it’s all basically just a state of mind.

So go out there, and smile – and show the world what it’s capable of!

Bram Langmans is columnist at Social Resistance, chief editor at www.maripoza.info and founding member of www.angeldusted.net