You may not be able to immediately tell, but this brand new card comes from dogs.
Pretty much everyone has heard of Pavlov. And his dogs. But there’s another important psychologist who had dogs too. And he didn’t treat them all that well.
In 1965 Martin Seligman began electrically shocking dogs in an attempt to expand on the research of Pavlov - the genius who could make dogs salivate when they heard a bell ring. For nerds, he was the brains behind ‘classical conditioning’.
Seligman’s study involved fear and learning. To condition the dogs when Seligman rang his bell, instead of providing the animals with food, he zapped them with electricity. And to keep them still, he restrained them in a harness. It was predicted that the dog would learn to associate the bell with the shock and then in the future (when released from the harness) the dog would feel fear when it heard the bell. And that fear would cause the dog to run away or show some other signs of mild panic when the bell toned.
Following the conditioning/bell-electric-zapping-time, the dogs were put back into a box with a small fence dividing it into two halves. It was expected that when the bell rang, the dog would jump over the fence to escape it. It didn’t. The dog just sat there and copped it. When they shocked the conditioned dog without the bell, nothing happened. Again, the dog simply lay down and took it. Interestingly, when the researchers put a normal dog into the same box contraption, when zapped it immediately jumped over the fence to the other side to escape it.
Unfortunately for some people who experience depression they are just like Seligman’s dogs. I know I was.
Like the conditioned dogs, who had learned more than the connection between the bell and the shock, some people with depression may believe that escape from possible shocks is futile. In other words they have somehow learned to be helpless. According to Seligman, people experiencing depression may feel that whatever they do will be futile and that they have no control over their environments. This is called ‘learned helplessness’.
Seligman proposed that individuals who - over the course of their lives - had experienced defeat or abuse or loss of control, learned over time that there was no escape. To the point that if an escape was offered, it wouldn’t be acted upon. Initially this theory didn’t really explain how people who hadn’t experienced negative life events ended up going on to experience depression, so Seligman added in some important cognitive or thinking style components.
Studies of people with depression reveal that when these people fail they often will give up and stop trying. Whilst most people will look for external reasons and factors to explain failures, people experiencing depression will hold much stronger views – “It’s my fault”.” I’m stupid.”
Imagine having to carry these thoughts around with you – constantly - whilst feeling – constantly - shit and sad. It’s not then hard to imagine that an extended period of these feelings and thoughts could lead you to giving in to despair and accepting this as reality. Learned helplessness is very closely linked to a loss of feeling in control.
In 1976 Langer and Rodin found that in nursing homes where conformity and passivity is encouraged and where every patients need is attended too, the health and wellbeing of patients’ declines rapidly. In contrast, the patients in nursing homes who were given choices and responsibilities remained healthy and active. This research was repeated in prisons, finding that if inmates were able to move furniture around and control the television this kept them from developing health problems.
When someone is experiencing depression, there’s a strong possibility that feelings of helplessness might begin to occur and may become totally overwhelming. Making small choices and achieving daily tasks, like getting dressed or having a shower, are the things that can hold someone back from the crushingness of learned helplessness. And for someone with depression these tasks are not just tasks, they are massive fucking achievements. When you can succeed at something small, harder tasks might feel more possible. But if you don’t notice what you’re achieving, everything will seem too bloody difficult and useless.
Remind your loved one that you can unlearn learned helplessness. Don’t let them give in to it yet. Celebrate ALL the achievements.
You can find the card here.