Monday, April 14, 2008

Americans and Learned Helplessness

Sad Dog - Learned Helplessness

Beginning in 1967, Martin Seligman began a series of studies that helped buck some of the generalized ideas of B.F. Skinner's behaviorism and gave rise to the phrase "learned helplessness." I'm not going to go into the details of the study; you can read it here.

Here's the basis of the experiment:
  1. A dog given a periodic electrical shock and a lever to stop it can learn to use the lever and deal with it.
  2. A dog given a periodic electrical shock and a lever that does nothing can learn to deal with it.
  3. A dog given a random shock and no means to control that shock will fall into stressful depression which, for dogs, consists of curling up in the corner of the sometimes-electrified cage, shivering with stress, and wincing at the occasional shock. This "giving up" and "dealing with it miserably" is what is called Learned Helplessness
This I heard about back in my early college days, but not until I saw the gas prices do their magical dance over the past couple years did I bring it into relevancy.

We are the third dog. Americans. World citizens. Anyone who is not directly in power. Many of us have curled up in the corner of the cage, driving through our daily grind, making sure we have a job, not rocking the boat, just trying to stressfully survive and always, always, awaiting the next shock.

As I mentioned, this thought came to being because when I began driving, you could still find gas for under a buck a gallon. Typing it, it sounds like a fairy tale, sounds like I'm 100 years old, but it was in 1993. Fifteen years later, we're looking at gas quadrupling in price. But steady we could understand.

The gas does a dance, a random dance for those of us very normal Americans who do not have the mental window into futures trading. As it was rising, we'd see a peak of thirty cents in a week. All over the news. Then it would drop fifteen, maybe twenty. All over the news again. But the up and down introduces complacency: "Well, it's a little higher now, but at least it's not as high as it was." And we keep saying that and we keep saying that and it goes up 4 steps and down 2 and up an down. And before you know it, I'm driving to Cleveland two weeks ago and internally audibly said to myself "Wow, $3.19 isn't so bad." But six months ago people were talking gas boycott at $3.00.


This happens in government as well: slowly and slowly our civil liberties are evacuated and someone puts the breaks on the electrical current for a couple minutes and our tail's all wagging. Bush denies that global warming is real and suddenly says he's going to support legislation to aid global warming (details to come, of course). Our taxes go up, our insurance rates rise - but maybe not so much one year - and we're looking at a couple hundred dollars coming to us in May. This is worse than shock; it's shock and biscuits.

So what's the solution? To carry the analogy, one dog could break the leash, crash the door. But we have minders, and before a shit is taken on the floor, we're back in the cage awaiting our next shock.

No, all the dogs must break loose, surround the minders, and in one solid and strong barking voice shout "NO! No more!"

I know. Dogs can't talk. But we can.

We've been led to believe we are a government of the people, by the people, for the people, yada yada. I have yet to see that play out in truth in my lifetime. I'm guessing many of you haven't. And lest we sit around watching American Idol and the Superbowl, we never will.

Any suggestions?

"Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable."


Bend the bars. Make the change.

No comments: