Wrong again, learned helplessness is not learned
I like knowing things.
Part of the process of knowing is discovering when something that knew is wrong. Oddly, I like it when I find that I’ve been wrong.
Learned helplessness is wrong
I’ve explained ‘learned helplessness” to a lot of people. If I’ve told you about it, and you believed it was correct, sorry.
Bobbi and I used this theory to raise our kids. The good news: even though we had the wrong theory, our practice was consistent with the correct theory. Yay.
Helplessness is not learned. It’s innate
The correct theory: helplessness is not learned. It is innate. We are helpless by default.
The opposites—initiative, empowerment, and causality—are what has to be learned.
Fortunately, to keep them from learning helplessness, we taught them resourcefulness. And boy, are they resourceful.
Martin Seligman and learned helplessness
I learned about learned helplessness from a book, oddly titled “Learned helplessness,” by Martin Seligman around the time that Dana was a year or two old.
Learned helplessness is the idea that creatures—including kids—can be taught to respond passively to unpleasant situations.
I’ve since read several other books by Seligman including “Learned Optimism,” “Authentic Happiness.” and “What you can change and what you can’t.“ All recommended.
Learned helplessness made a difference in the way we raised Dana and her sisters.
Here’s how one of Seligman’s experiments demonstrated learned helplessness:
A shuttle box is a piece of apparatus used in animal learning experiments. It is divided into two halves. In Seligman’s experiments, a dog is put in a shuttle box and given a shock. A normal, untrained dog, when given a shock, jumps to the other side.
Seligman showed that dogs could be conditioned so that they don’t do that. Dogs that get shocks and have a way to stop the shocks jump in the shuttle box like normal dogs. But dogs that have no way to control the shocks behave differently. When they are later placed in a shuttle box and shocked, they lie down and take it. In Seligman’s formulation, the dogs had learned they are helpless.
Seligman and others have shown that rats and humans can be conditioned similarly. Humans are not put in shuttle boxes, but they can be conditioned toward passivity. Humans who have learned that they are not in control in experimental situations behave in ways consistent with the helpless-seeming behavior of dogs and rats.
Learned helplessness and kids
Seligman argued that kids raised with too strictly enforced rules or without rules could end up behaving as though they are helpless.
The kids raised with too consistently enforced rules learn that challenging rules is hopeless and learn to stop trying.
Kids raised with no rules never have an opportunity to learn to challenge the environment. So they end up helpless.
Raising our kids, we usually enforced the rules that we set, but we also let them disagree with us and argue with us. We never punished them for challenging us. We might still enforce the rules we had set, but sometimes we gave ground and negotiated a different rule. And sometimes we let them have their way.
We wanted them to learn that they could challenge any situation and were never helpless.
The correct theory?
Seligmans’ new paper is impressive.
It’s impressive that he went back and falsified the theory that initially brought him fame. And the techniques he and his coauthor used to support the new theory are also impressive.
His original collaborator, Steven Maier, switched fields and retrained as a neuroscientist. The paper traces the brain regions that are activated or inhibited during the conditioning and identifies the neural pathways built in the process. They provide a bottom-up explanation of dog, rat, and human behavior.
The bottom line:
The mechanism of learned helplessness is now very well-charted biologically and the original theory got it backwards. Passivity in response to shock is not learned. It is the default, unlearned response to prolonged aversive events and it is mediated by the serotonergic activity of the dorsal raphe nucleus, which in turn inhibits escape.
Right. I had always suspected that the dorsal raphe nucleus was involved.
This passivity can be overcome by learning control, with the activity of the medial prefrontal cortex, which subserves the detection of control leading to the automatic inhibition of the dorsal raphe nucleus. So animals learn that they can control aversive events, but the passive failure to learn to escape is an unlearned reaction to prolonged aversive stimulation. In addition, alterations of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex-dorsal raphe pathway can come to subserve the expectation of control.
Right! The good old mPFC inhibits the DRN. And the vmPFC gets in there as well.
H/T to Mark Manson
I found about this in Mark Manson’s weekly newsletter, MINDF*CK MONDAYS, to which I subscribe, and which I recommend along with most of what Mark writes.
I think that Mark is one of the better philosophers philosophizing these days. Many people would argue that Mark shouldn’t be called a philosopher because real philosophers don’t say fuck as often as he does.
I judge someone a philosopher (or not) based on the quality of their thinking and their love of wisdom.
So anyone who doesn’t think he’s a philosopher should go fuck themselves.
Click here to subscribe to 70 Years Old. WTF! by Email