I happened to visit Chitwan National Park formerly known as Royal Chitwan National Park in my childhood. The experience of elephant ride and the safari was amazing. While visiting the Elephant House, I was very much puzzled to see such scenario that huge elephants were bounded by small tiny chains. I couldn’t understand why this most majestic creature didn’t just break the chain and run away. There was nothing stopping it besides a single piece of metal chain which it could easily yank from the ground with a small twist of its leg. My psyche was trying to find the answers of such phenomena. I was about 8 years then. I questioned the guides and people from there about my curiosity. As far as I recall, their reply was it is because of habit. They used to train the elephants since they are babies. I was very much satisfied about their answers at that time.
After reading few psychology books, attending some trainings and doing a Master Training in Counseling Psychology, I happened to read Martin Seligman’s theory.
In 1965, Martin Seligman and his colleagues were doing research on classical conditioning, or the process by which an animal or human associates one thing with another. In the case of Seligman’s experiment, he would ring a bell and then give a light shock to a dog. After a number of times, the dog reacted to the shock even before it happened: as soon as the dog heard the bell, he reacted as though he’d already been shocked.
But, then something unexpected happened. Seligman put each dog into a large crate that was divided down the middle with a low fence. The dog could see and jump over the fence if necessary. The floor on one side of the fence was electrified, but not on the other side of the fence. Seligman put the dog on the electrified side and administered a light shock. He expected the dog to jump to the non-shocking side of the fence.
Instead, the dogs lay down. It was as though they’d learned from the first part of the experiment that there was nothing they could do to avoid the shocks, so they gave up in the second part of the experiment.
Seligman described their condition as learned helplessness, or not trying to get out of a negative situation because the past has taught us that we are helpless.
My analogy of Learned Helplessness directly went towards my childhood observations of the chained elephants. Perhaps, the only thing that made the elephant enchained is because of the beliefs and feelings that it has run out of choices–even if it has not. The elephant did not try to get out of the situation because the past had taught it that it was helpless. According to Seligman’s perspective, such helplessness attributes are considered as Learned Helplessness.
In most of the cases, we are the product of what we learn in the course of time. Behaviors can be learned and unlearned. Let’s internalize our behaviors and try to identify whether they are in the category of Learned Helplessness or Not.