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Learned Helplessness

BLOG - Grandmaster Gedo Chang


Dr. Martin Seligman Psychology professor in Pennsylvania University experimented on helplessness using dogs. He put a dog in a small box which the dog could not move around freely and he gave electric shock to the dog. Of course the dog at 1st tried to avoid the electric shock. But a few times later the dog stood still accepting the pain of the electric shock. So the dog became helpless. Dr. Seligman then removed the dog to a bigger box, where the dog could move freely and again he gave the dog electric shock. The dog did not show any will to escape from the shock, just trembled. This is called learned helplessness. Later Dr. Seligman tried to help the helpless dog to escape from the shock by putting a collar and leash on him. He forcibly pulled the leash while the electric shock was administered to help the dog escape from the box. On average about 70 times later the dog reluctantly moved out of the box. Some dogs moved after 250 pulls on the leash. After the dogs escaped from the electric shock , when they were put back into the box they voluntarily escaped at the very 1st attempt. We can easily understand that learned helplessness is not because of a situation but a negative interpretation of the situation.

A very similar experiment was done by Dr. Paul Richter at John Hopkins University in the 1950s. He was physiological psychologist. He also experimented why helplessness happens and how to cure it. Dr. Richter took rats from the same litter and divided into two groups. Group A (The squeezed rats). Another words the rats in group A were put in the experimenters hand and whenever the rat struggled to get away the experimenter would squeeze stronger and stronger. Later the rat became helpless.

And even when the experimenter opened his hand the rat would not escape, trembling. Then he put these helpless rats into a water tank and observed how long they would swim. 30 minutes on average they could swim before they drowned.

On the contrary the rats in Group ‘B’ were never squeezed, they also were put into the same water tank and they on average swam 64 hours and longer! Which is almost 3 days. However when the Group A (Squeezed rats) were about to drown after only 25 minutes, Dr. Richter picked them up from the water tank and placed them in his hand again and he tried to help them struggle to escape! By pushing them with his finger. Later the rats could not endure the experimenter’s physical harassment so they reluctantly escaped. Those same rats that escaped the 1st time, immediately and voluntarily escaped each time after.

Then Dr. Richter put the escaped rats back into the water tank and observed how how long they would swim.

Surprisingly just like Group B the controlled rats they also swam on average 64 hours. So to speak the squeezed rats recovered their own capability.

Dr. Seligman called this phenomenon “Behavior Immunization”. From these experiments we can learn several things.
1. When you do something regardless of your failure of 2 or 3 times, don’t Despair, keep on trying over and over until you succeed. Thomas Edison who invented the light bulb, he experimented 2000 times! And he succeeded on 2001 times. He said: I practiced 2000 times and I succeeded at once! He also said : “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up.” The most certain way to succeed is always to try one more time!
2. We must understand we have never been educated by the perfect parents, teachers, neighbors or other leaders. So do not complain and blame others and or situations. And so we ourselves must try to change ourselves.
3. We should know our destiny is not determined by the situation, rather by the way we interpret the situation.
4. Let’s be more positive. Particularly we should change our language. Keeping in mind to use more positive words! In the 19th century William Ellery Channing a Pastor in Boston said: Our biggest tragedy in humanity is not any catastrophe but wasting our great inner potential!

Thank you,
Grand Master Gedo Chang


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