Monday, April 13, 2009

Learned Helplessness

Back in the 60's, scientists decided to run some experiments by shocking dogs to see different effects on their behavior. Some dogs were put into harnesses from which they could not escape, and every so often they'd get a shock. Of course, all the dogs tried to get away from the shocks and made attempts to get the shocks to stop. It's natural to want to avoid pain or discomfort. But only one set of dogs had a way to escape: if they pressed a lever, it would turn off the shock. The dogs quickly learned to press the level to end their torment. But the other group of dogs... no matter how hard they struggled or what they did, they had no control over the random shocks. They could cry and fight to break free and press levers all they wanted but nothing they did ended the pain.

Next, experimenters took these two groups of dogs and put them in a box with an electrified floor. (Are you mortified yet for the poor dogs?) The box was divided into two sections with a low divider, and when the floor started shocking them, all they had to do was jump over the divider into the other side of the box, where the floor would not shock them. If you put any "unconditioned" dog in a box like that, they basically have a standard reaction. They're standing there, minding their own business and suddenly their paws are getting shocked. They start jumping around trying to get away from it and they almost immediately jump into the other section of the box to escape. But something interesting happened with the dogs who were shocked in harnesses previously. The dogs who had learned to turn off the shock by pressing a lever quickly learned to jump over the barrier to get away from the shock. But the dogs who had no way of turning off the shock in the harness just laid down on the electrified floor, whined, and "took" the shocks. They didn't even try to jump into the other side of the box or get away. Why? Learned helplessness.

Those dogs had tried before and "learned" that they were helpless to escape the pain, and they "believed" that there was nothing they could do to change their circumstances. Similar behavior is seen in humans who are in very unpleasant conditions. Imagine being stuck in poverty in a dead-end job, working long hours, barely making enough to feed your family. In many countries, that's the norm. And maybe sometimes people try to come to the USA or do something else to improve their circumstances but they fail. After several attempts, most people just give up, accept that they can't change their circumstance, and keep working in the sweat shops because they have "no control" over changing anything. Or think of the woman whose husband is beating her, keeping her from going out, forcing her to do things she doesn't want to do. She may try to escape a few times but if that husband catches her and brings her back... perhaps by threatening her children's lives... she often will give up and stay. Even when the husband is gone to work and she has a "chance" to escape, she stays. She has learned she is helpless, and she no longer believes that she can change her own circumstances.

I really believe this is why so many people "can't" lose weight. Think about it. You decide at some point in your life to lose weight. You probably don't have all the tools you need to do it successfully the first time, so maybe you try some fad diet. It doesn't work. You try something else, but that doesn't work either. After several attempts at "pushing the lever," you realize that nothing you are doing is ending the pain, and you start to feel that your weight is completely out of your control. You think:

I can't lose weight.
It's too hard.
I must have something wrong with me.
I try to diet but I always fail.
I have tried over and over and over but I just stay fat.
I always regain any weight I lose.
This is impossible.

And then you lie down on the electrified floor and take your shocks, without even realizing that there is another side to your box... and if you'd just jump over, you'd be able to escape.

Learned helplessness.

But why, then, do *some* people keep trying until they lose weight? Why do some people break out of abusive, controlling relationships or escape from poverty, while others stop trying? Scientists say it's all in the attitude. If you blame your conditions on some external factor, you'll stop trying to change it. If you BELIEVE that things are out of your control, then of course you stop trying. But the optimistic person... the person who thinks logically about the circumstance... is more likely to break free.

I didn't get away from my abusive husband this time because I didn't save up enough money first. I will do that next time.
I didn't get away because I didn't have a plan. Next time, I will talk to some family or friends and have some help escaping the abuse.
It is not my fault he hits me.
I didn't get that new job this time, but I am sure there is a better job out there for me.
I am intelligent, and I deserve better than this.
I didn't lose weight this time because I kept sugary snacks in the house. I'll get rid of them and try again.
I regained the weight because I didn't exercise. I will build an exercise routine so I can increase my odds of success.
I can lose this weight. It is in my power.

Studies have shown that about 2/3 of people with "learned helplessness" stay that way, while about 1/3 actually learn how to get out of that mindset. So yes, even if you tried and tried and tried to lose weight, and now you feel helpless and believe it is impossible, you can change YOUR OWN mindset by changing your thoughts.

Stop blaming your genes. Stop making excuses. Don't say "I tried so many times and failed." Fall down 50 times, get up 51. Believe in yourself.

I'm not helpless anymore. I know there's a way out. If I could show you how to jump the barrier into the other side of the box, I would! Maybe that's what I am trying to do with this blog: not just escape, but help others realize that THEY can escape, too. You don't have to just lay there and get shocked. We're not helpless! Believe.

35 comments:

Kelly said...

Beautiful post. But yeah, poor dogs!
I've jumped to the other side. :)

Tony said...

Awesome post! I think a lot of us get into the mindset of just accepting our circumstances, which is why it is so hard for us to lose weight. We definitely have the ability to change, but it has to begin with a different outlook on life.

Mike579 said...

That was an incredibly useful post for me. What wonderful insight! I see this in myself and in others. "All or nothing" attitudes are dangerous indeed! Thank you for this.

The Hopkins said...

Fabulous post! I just found you linked from another site. I'd like to link your site to my healthy life video blog. I think it's polite to ask permission... In case you want to check out the site here's the address: http://hopkinz.com/lanette/

Drina said...

I just wanted to jump in and say that this research is often mischaracterized (especially by animal rights groups) to make it appear as though animals are being tortured. Please be careful of the sources you use in your background research... scientists today who are working on problems like learned helplessness are often threatened and even harmed because of the way their work is falsely portrayed.

Drina said...

I also have to say, though, that I otherwise loved your post!

bbubblyb said...

Great Post Lyn!!!

NewMe said...

Simply put: thank you.

Anonymous said...

Very inspiring post. I am trying to jump that berrier. And you are right, I make excuses because I have failed in the past. Time to make a change and break through. I just found your blog and I must say it is wonderful. And congratulations on your success and may you have continued success.

Jen, a priorfatgirl said...

WHOA WHOA WHOA Your post's are so reflective and always leave me speechless!

again today, I don't even know what to say. It was like a slap in the face...that I needed, not in a bad way.

Lyn said...

Drina~

Absolutely! Let me emphasize that the studies do say the shocks were "harmless" and caused no physical damage to the dogs. It was just enough to make them want to get away. (I do feel sorry for the dogs because obviously they were afraid and startled by the onset of an unpleasant stimulus... however, I completely disagree with threatening or harming the scientists for their work. Sometimes, there are unpleasant studies done for the benefit of the greater good).

Gigi said...

So true. If you can think it, you can do it.

Foodie McBody said...

This is a frickin-frackin' AWESOME POST and I am going to link to it right now!!!!!!!

Fat[free]Me said...

Oh, wow, what a great post (poor dogs though), I have been that harnessed dog in many situations, jumped over one barrier, am now attempting to jump over the next one (I would be able to jump much better if I wasn't so darn fat,lol).

Another Wendy said...

Wow. I always enjoy your posts, you are a brilliant writer, but this one made me delurk - you should be earning big bucks from your talent!

NAMASTESEEKER said...

As usual...thanks. It pretty much sums up how I've come to this place...again. But, also how I've finally decided to break free of this thought process. Blogging has been EXTREMELY helpful. Reading the posts of others and sharing my thoughts has given me a lot of stick-to-it-tiveness. I think it is also important to point out that some people might need some additional support when they make this decision. Though we cannot continue to blame our weight on our past; oftentimes, there are mindsets keeping us from forging on. This time around I actually started a Bible study by Beth Moore called "Breaking Free" at the same time I began to work on the weight. I have seen countless titles on other blogs that have helped people see that it is not just about deciding to do it for some. Some may even see fit to seek therapy or see a nutritionist as part of the plan of discovering what makes them tick. Getting educated about why you have consistently failed goes right along with having a plan just as you've mentioned. I am blessed by your blog.
Tanya
http://hmrdietgirl.blogspot.com/

Jen said...

What an insightful post. (Although I'm feeling pretty bad for those poor dogs.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting and motivating--thanks!!

Karen in Tennessee said...

Very meaningful and insightful as usual! I am jumping to the other side too!!! Thanks for once again inspiring me, Lyn...although I am pretty horrified about those dogs!!!!

Anonymous said...

This is a powerful message!
Thanks again!
Not only have you jumped out of the box, you're teaching others the way!

Marie

Ang said...

thank you for the post..helped reaffirm some things in my head

Ginger and Brent said...

Very insightful post. A lot to think about here. I choose to no longer be a "victim" to the fat in my life. I choose to be proactive - I am not helpless, I am strong.

ani pesto said...

great post - thank you, it's given me a lot to think about

Rhonda said...

Hi, What a thought provoking, wonderful post. I have been a all or nothing kind of girl. If I do the things I always have done....I'll always get what I always got!

I saw may pessimistic attitude in your post! I have the power to overcome! Thank you, thank you!

Deb said...

Great post...but I hated hearing about that experiment. I could never be a scientist.

Ness said...

What a fantastic post! And congratulations on staying with your journey so far. I've read a few posts on your blog and I look forward to learning more.

chubrubb said...

That is very interesting... Good food for thought!

Crabby McSlacker said...

Learned helplessness is such a powerful concept--awesome post!

The great thing is that we can unlearn that helplessness again--though sadly, so many people never realize they have the power to do that. That's why your inspirational example can help so many folks realize that they are not helpless after all!

Lady Downsize! said...

Lyn, this post is like a can opener to me, and I feel resistance within. There was no way I could post my comments here, because the spill out of words was emmense. In fact, my thoughts sparked from this post have actually become my own blog post today. I fear I may be one who's settling. At least that's the current battle for me.

beerab said...

Thanks for the post- just what I needed today! Very inspirational- though I feel bad for the poor dogs :(

Ceres said...

That's another one of your great posts. The realization that we are really the ones in control of what goes in through our mouth and how much we exercise daily can be scary and intimidating, but it is extremely liberating as well. Even if we fail, there's always lessons to be learned, and over time we will conquer our goals.

Claire said...

That's what changed for me. I realised that I have power - I CAN change my life. I am not a victim of circumstances.

So far I've lost 100 pounds with, as I have just discovered, an untreated thyroid problem. Yes it has been a struggle but it took that mindset to make it happen. It is truly the key to this whole thing.

Lauren said...

Hi, Lyn. I've been reading for awhile but I had to delurk for this post.

I was a psych double major in college, and I'm very familiar with Learned Helplessness. I've thought about it terms of mental illness, but it never occurred to me how applicable it truly is to weight loss.

It all just amounts to excuses. I can lose this extra 40 pounds! I CAN lose weight and I will as long as I don't constantly use my circumstances to feel helpless.

You're a great writer. Thanks for your posts and inspiration!

Karyn said...

Powerful post, Lyn!

Emily said...

Hi Lyn, your post was really interesting to me and got me thinking. I wrote up my own post about how this concept applies to cultures as well as weight loss. I'm originally from the US and now living in Chile and often hear Chileans say "oh no, that's just how it is" in the face of a tough situation, whereas I, based on experiences I've had in the US, can see a possible solution. If you're interested, it's at http://emilyinchile.blogspot.com/2009/04/learned-helplessness-or-value-of-expats.html - even if you don't have a second to read it, I wanted to let you know that you'd inspired me and say thanks :)