What science and two simple stories can tell us about the way we see our place in the world, and how we may have placed limitations on ourselves that are not actually there.
Years ago, I came across an illustration of a bird in a cage. The bird is looking up at the sky longingly, watching not only the sky but the other birds—birds just like this bird—flying free above him.
When you look closer at the illustration, you see that the lock on the cage is missing. If a lock were ever there, it has long since been removed. The cage door is even slightly ajar—nothing more than a nudge from within, and the door would be open. But still the bird sits and stares, wings growing weaker for want of use.
One of three things will happen to this bird. The first is that the bird will one day actually look and see that the lock is no longer, and the cage door is unlatched. The bird will allow himself to see that he is free, and though it may hurt to realize it, he has been free for perhaps as long as these bars have held him. The bird will scooch over, use his beak to nudge the door open all the way, and then fly through the space with no bars to take his place in the open sky.
The second is that the bird will never allow himself to look at the place where he believes the lock to be. Seeking to protect himself from that sharp pain, he will deny himself the joy of seeing it open. Instead he will live a life—a non-life, really—trapped in steady and underlying pain, until the day he dies with his wings at his sides in his open cage.
Then there is the third ending. The bird will one day look at the lock and the latch. He will look almost accidentally–just a glance—and he will see that the cage does not contain him, and never has. His heart will thrill at the sight of the open latch, and he’ll lean to nudge the door open. But it has been too many days to count in this cage, too many moons and suns and seasons. He will test his wings and find them to be weak and lifeless—years of sitting stagnant have left his wings atrophied. Or he may simply question if his wings are strong enough, since it has been so long since he’s used them. His cage is too far up to risk it; it is too far down to fall. And so he stays, and lives the rest of his life knowing he was trapped not by bars or locks or latches, but by his own little bird brain.
∞ ♥ ∞
But this would never happen to us. This is a quaint if not overly obvious metaphor, one might think, but this would never happen to me. I would see right away, one might think. I would see.
Some of the most well-known research studies in psychology would suggest otherwise. These studies are famous, seminal works, and are considered enormously influential in the field of psychology. But these studies are also infamous in certain respects—mainly because of the study design, which is the kind of thing you don’t want to talk about because it is horrible and elicits uncomfortable and less than ladylike inclinations to punch someone repeatedly and in earnest.
Yet, you also want to share it, since the study findings have led to an entire discipline dedicated to improving health and well-being, and seem to have been enormously helpful for countless people[i]. So if you are like me, you take certain creative liberties in the illustration of said studies.
The first studies were conducted in the mid-1960s, and involved exposing dogs to a series of shocks. In Part 1, one group of dogs was exposed to escapable shocks—the dogs could escape the shocks by, for example, pressing a panel with their noses. Another group of dogs was exposed to random and inescapable shocks—there was nothing the dogs could do to escape the shocks or avoid the pain, no matter how much they tried.
In Part 2 of the study, the dogs from both groups were placed in a situation with escapable shocks—the dogs simply had to jump over a small barrier to reach a shock-free area. Most of the dogs who in Part 1 had received escapable shocks jumped over the barrier. But most of the dogs who had received inescapable shocks did not even try, even though there was a simple way to escape.
This was the beginning of the theory of what is called Learned Helplessness. As Martin Seligman, one of the lead researchers, later wrote in his book Flourish:
We found that animals…later became passive and gave up in the face of adversity once they had experienced noxious events that they could do nothing about. After that first experience with helplessness, thereafter, they merely lay down in mildly painful shock and took it, just waiting it out, with no attempt to escape.
Yes, but these are dogs, one might think. Dogs and people are different. You can’t assume that we would act the same way. We would figure it out.
Dogs and people are certainly different, but apparently not so much when it comes to learned helplessness.
Seligman and his team later carried out the experiments using humans in the place of dogs, and loud noises in the place of shocks. In Part 1 of the experiment, one group of people was placed in a room where it was possible to “escape” (turn off) the noise by pushing a button. A second group of people was put in a room with inescapable noise—it went on and off no matter what they did. A third group, the control group, was not exposed to noise, or anything along those lines.
In Part 2 of the experiment, all three groups of people were placed in a room with a switch box[ii], which allows a person to turn the noise on or off by moving their hand around inside the box.
Most of the people from the escapable noise group quickly learned to turn the noise off, as did those who had been in the control group.
The vast majority of the people from the room with inescapable noise, though, didn’t even try. As Martin Seligman writes in Flourish:
Human animals do just what nonhuman animals do…The people from the inescapable group typically do not move. They just sit there taking the noise until it goes off by itself. In part one, they had learned that nothing they did mattered, and so in part two, expecting that nothing they do will matter, they do not try to escape.
∞ ♥ ∞
Over the years, Dr. Seligman and many other researchers came to realize that these aren’t simply behaviors you find in experimental studies and laboratories, but learned helplessness is how many of us, in many ways, behave in real life. This is not good news, as learned helplessness is well-known as a root cause of depression, and is also linked to lesser (or less obvious) issues such as anxiety, worrying, elevated stress, and lack of motivation to take care of our health.
We are taught learned helplessness in real life in the same way people learn it in the laboratory—through experiencing situations where we lack control, or even where we perceive or believe that we lack control [iii].
Once we are in such a situation, learned helplessness may sneak up on us in three ways [iv]. First it can have negative cognitive effects [v], leading us to believe a situation is uncontrollable, because we have learned this in the past; we may not even be thinking straight, and we may see limitations that are not actually there. Second, it can affect our motivation, discouraging us from even trying to change a situation, because we’ve learned that there is no point. Because we do not see a link between our effort and the outcome, we lose the motivation to try. Third, it can affect our emotions, leaving us feeling down, depressed, anxious or stressed. We feel down both because of the negative situation we are in, and because of our perceived inability to escape it.
All of these responses seem quite appropriate from where we sit. Imagine you were trying to bake a cake, but every time you tried, it came out a disaster, no matter what you did or what you changed. Maybe you lived in an area with high elevation, and so the directions did not match where you were. Or maybe you had a faulty oven or faulty ingredients, but didn’t know it. Eventually you would believe that you couldn’t bake a cake, even though in other circumstances you probably could. Eventually you would stop trying to bake cakes. And you might be sad or stressed when your kid’s birthday came along.
The inability to bake a cake might not be the most dramatic example, and might not seem particularly life-changing. But here is the kicker: you probably wouldn’t just believe you couldn’t bake cakes; you might begin to believe you couldn’t do a lot of things. Learned helplessness, it seems, may leach from one area of our lives to another.
Later studies found that once people have experienced lack of control in one area, they are more likely to believe they are helpless or incompetent in other areas. People exposed to inescapable noise, for instance, are less likely to solve word problems afterwards. And the uncontrollable problem does not have to be traumatic to have this effect: people given solvable word problems are more likely to escape loud noise later, while those given unsolvable word problems fail to escape the noise.
Once we have learned we are powerless in one area, we are more likely to believe we are helpless in other areas. Since we believe we lack the power to change the situation, we do not try, or we perform poorly simply because we believe we will—whether or not we are aware of this belief.
So maybe you tried bake a cake, and realized you couldn’t. Maybe later, then, you felt like you couldn’t bake at all, or couldn’t cook. And so maybe you didn’t even try to cook, or you messed up pretty badly because you believed you were no good. And then maybe you began to feel like you couldn’t even do a simple thing in the kitchen, or a simple thing for your kid’s birthday, things that all the other mothers seem to do so easily…
∞ ♥ ∞
Most of us, upon hearing of studies such as these, like to believe that we would not be among those who did not try to escape. Most of us, if not all of us, are fairly certain that we would be the ones who would figure out how to turn off the noise.
But nearly all of us, in one way or another, sit and take the noise. We may complain about it, we may talk loudly to cover it, or we may smile big smiles and pretend it doesn’t bother us. Some of us may scream and rebel and yell at the ceiling, wondering who would ever do such a thing. Some of us may sit in a corner, hugging our knees. Meanwhile, we may point fingers and judge each other for each of these actions, which are different than, but just as futile as, our own. Meanwhile, we either ignore, or are unaware of, the switch box in front of us. We have forgotten how to look for a better way.
What learned helplessness teaches us is that quite often the problem is not that we are lazy or irresponsible, or hopelessly dense. The problem is that we may be, at a key level of our consciousness, unaware of the option, or believe we are incapable, and so we are.
We are all walking around, or sitting down, carrying our own can’ts. Some of our can’ts are objective limitations, especially for where we are now. A bird can fly, but it can’t fly to the moon. And some birds really are in cages. But I’d venture that nearly all of us have can’ts that are imagined. In these situations we firmly believe that we are powerless, that we are trapped, that it has to be this way. And we believe this so deeply and completely that we do not even know it is a belief. We are unable to see that the bars enclosing us are not actually there.
∞ ♥ ∞
I’m Like a Bird, Free Bird, and other popular song titles that may or may not apply
Here I should point out that my description of the illustration of the bird in a cage was misleading, though unintentionally so. I first wrote about the illustration from memory. Later I looked it up and saw that it was different than I had remembered. It wasn’t that the lock was open and the door unlatched, it was that the bars were not actually there—the bird had imagined them.
Earlier I wrote that many of us might think this is a quaint story, but it doesn’t apply to me. When I first saw the image I felt this way too. The bird in a cage metaphor seemed true, and seemed inspirational, but it seemed true and inspirational for other people. I, of course, would know if there was a door hanging askew in my life. I, of, course would be able to see if the bars were not really there. Over time, the image slipped my mind.
One day many years later, after years of being as mentally and physically healthy as I’d been in my life, I found myself in what might be generously referred to as a precipitous decline. And I found myself in therapy.
I’m not sure how long I had been seeing my therapist at this point, but I was at least several sessions into it—probably even months—and she had heard me cry and complain about all sorts of things. It was a period in my life where things looked good on the surface—things you could point at or post pictures of, things you can measure or mark down. Things of substance, things of significance, were not so good. Among other things, I was feeling very lonely, and it was what might be the worst kind of loneliness—the kind where you are not alone on paper, where you are in the presence of people, but lonely you are nonetheless. It was comforting to have someone to talk with in my therapist, who was patient, compassionate and understanding.
But one day she looked at me in a very different way in response to something I’d said. She had a somewhat perplexed, somewhat impatient look on her face. Then, using a tone that matched her expression, she said: “Well, did you ask?”
Admittedly, this would be a better story if I remembered what I had said. But I do not [vi]. Whatever it was I was assuming that what I wanted or needed was impossible, and there was nothing that I could do to change it.
When she asked me that, my mind did that little dance that minds do when someone calls your bluff or finds a hole in your logic or argument—when you kind of dance around in your head thinking “Yeah, but…”, “no, but…”, or anything to contradict what they said, or to show that what they are suggesting is impossible, and why.
But my mind couldn’t find anything, because nothing was there. I had not asked, and I had not even entertained the possibility of asking. The option was sitting there all along, but was invisible to me.
∞ ♥ ∞
We all have our bars, is what I am saying. There are bars that are very personal and very specific to us, to our upbringing, and to our own life experiences up to this point. These bars might have been put in place by our parents or other people we loved, by things they said to us, or told us we were or were not, or things we learned to fear because of scarcity, or over-protectiveness or neglect, or unhealthy or abusive relationships, or whatever invisible levers our people pushed and pulled. These bars might have been put in place in school, when we learned that we weren’t smart because we hadn’t mastered the timeless arts of memorization and multiple choice (or hand-eye coordination in a competitive context), and hadn’t been put in a position where our real skills could shine. These bars might have been put in place by messages we heard on the television, or from our friends…or the people we called friends before we knew what the word friend meant, and what it meant to be a friend.
I may be taking some liberties with these examples, but there is indeed research indicating that we can come about learned helplessness during childhood, in school, and through sports, media, and social situations, and through failures and rejections [vii]. There are all sorts of scientific theories and evidence showing how we can be conditioned or indoctrinated, or delude ourselves and each other in any number of ways. We won’t explore these in this chapter, but for now suffice to say that they exist. The truth is we don’t know all the ways we can come about our limited ways of thinking—life isn’t a laboratory.
Stephen Covey, in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, suggests that we all have limiting beliefs about ourselves that we have learned from others around us, things like: You’re never on time, Why can’t you keep things in order, or This is so simple, why can’t you understand? He calls these beliefs the Social Mirror, because they are reflections of others’ opinions and perceptions—but we may see them in ourselves, and unconsciously reinforce them.
Countless others have said similar things in the last couple thousand years or so. These are all different ways of relaying a deeper truth: So many of us, in so many ways, have forgotten who we are, and what we are capable of. We have forgotten what we are here to do, and why.
∞ ♥ ∞
Finding The Way Out
The important thing when you are in a cage is not so much where did the bars come from. The important thing is, how do we move past them?
There are recognized ways to treat learned helplessness. One of them is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)[viii], which helps people to become aware of their negative or limiting thoughts and beliefs about a problem or situation, and, recognizing where those beliefs are faulty so that a person can reshape them, point to another way. CBT has been successful in treating depression, PTSD, and anxiety, but has also been helpful in simply managing stressful situations.
For those with no interest or inclination to explore therapy (and perhaps no need to[ix]), another way to move past learned helplessness is what is called Learned Optimism, a concept developed by Martin Seligman and his team after realizing that about one-third of the people (and dogs) in the learned helplessness experiments never became helpless. The researchers wanted to learn what it was that made the never-helpless people different, and led them to keep trying. Eventually Seligman learned that the people who tend to be immune to learned helplessness also tend to be optimists.
Optimists, as Seligman defines it, believe the following: It’s going away, it’s just this one situation, and/or I can do something about it [x]. Though these may not be default thoughts for us, learned optimism can move us toward this way of thinking. Optimists tend to be happier and healthier, experience less stress, live longer, are less prone to heart disease, colds and cancer, and are typically more successful in their work, and have better relationships[xi], so it might behoove us to try, and to ignore the cynical, pessimistic part of us that says optimists are uninformed and have no sense of reality.
The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails. ~William Arthur Ward
William Arthur Ward makes an important distinction here. Pessimists and optimists tend to judge one anothers’ perspectives: optimists are ignorant Pollyannas; pessimists are Negative Nancies and Grumpy Guses. But though they believe they are on opposite sides of the spectrum, pure pessimists and pure optimists quite often behave in the same way—they do nothing to better the situation.
Learned Optimism is more like learned realism with an optimistic slant. It helps us to realize that we can do something about the situation. It helps us to see the sails, so that we can adjust them, or it helps us to see that the bars on the cage are not really there, so that we can be on our way. “Optimists believe that their actions matter, while pessimists believe they are helpless and nothing they do will matter,” Seligman notes in Flourish. “Optimists try, while pessimists lapse into passive helplessness.”
Learned Optimism is based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and works in a similar way, but with a nifty ABCDE motif to boot.
A: First, you identify the Adversity—the problem or situation you are facing, whether it be a relationship that needs mending (or tending…or ending), work, your health, financial troubles or time stress, or anything in between. Here is where you look at the cage you are in.
B: Next, pay attention to your Beliefs, thoughts and feelings about this problem. Here is where a lot of I can’t, I’m not good enough, it’s impossible because, or people will hate me thoughts might come up. Here you are looking at the bars, real or not.
C: Think about the negative Consequences of your beliefs. Are they keeping you from even trying to change the situation? What parts of life are you missing out on because of this thinking? What parts are painful, or unfulfilling, or cause anxiety, or boredom, or dread? Here you are exploring what it feels like to be in the cage.
D: Try to Dispute your negative or limiting belief—think of how you might be wrong or mistaken, and try to think of any evidence against your belief. Is it true? Are you sure? Has anyone else in a similar position done what you believe you cannot do? Here is where you start to see the bars for what they are (or are not).
E: Examine how you feel now that you have seen your limiting belief for what it was…do you feel Energized and motivated? Perhaps your perspective is starting to shift. Perhaps you are seeing new openings. Perhaps your wings are beginning to flutter a little…perhaps.
∞ ♥ ∞
And this bird you cannot change
It is funny how memory works. I remember so clearly sitting on my therapist’s couch, slouched over to the point I was pretty much pulled in on myself, holding a balled-up dilapidated tissue. And I remember so clearly her question, “Well, did you ask?” But I truly do not remember what the problem was that I didn’t think to ask about.
Since I don’t remember exactly what the problem was, I can’t remember how the story ended for that particular issue. I believe that it was a small problem in the scheme of things at the time, I believe that I asked, and I believe that the answer was yes. What I know is that the conversation marked a turning point for me, as I began to look at a belief I didn’t even know was there.
In hindsight this followed decades of not asking. I had never asked for a raise in my life, though I had received my share[xii]. When I was a teenager, a friend of mine said to me “You know, you can ask us [your friends] to hang out, too—you don’t have to wait for us to ask you.” I had only responded to my friends’ invitations, assuming they would reach out to me if they wanted to spend time with me. These are little examples, but they are the ones I have. I suppose it’s hard to remember all the things you didn’t ask, when you didn’t even realize you could be asking.
Shining the light on this one issue was enough of an opening to want to look for, and look at, the other bars that might be holding me in. That was the beginning of a new phase for me, and the beginning of making my way out of the cage I had, over countless years, unknowingly constructed.[xiii]
And I lived happily ever after.
No. For those of you who know me personally, no, indeed. I have seen some serious turbulence since then, if we are to continue with the flight metaphor[xiv]. And all the time it seems I am seeing new bars, or looking again at ones I thought I’d moved past, seeing that I’ve put them up again somehow when I wasn’t paying attention.
But I have also seen some of the greatest joys of my life since then, and have experienced true connections and opportunities that were unthinkable to me at the time—mini-miracles of all kinds.
∞ ♥ ∞
Do You See What I See?
Countless others have used the bird in the cage metaphor. Just the other day[xv] I received an email with a link to an article about Van Gogh’s letters to his brother. One letter included this passage:
“There are idlers and idlers, who form a contrast.
There’s the one who’s an idler through laziness and weakness of character… Then there’s the other idler, the idler truly despite himself, who is gnawed inwardly by a great desire for action, who does nothing because he finds it impossible to do anything since he’s imprisoned in something…Such a person doesn’t always know himself what he could do, but he feels by instinct, I’m good for something…I know that I could be a quite different man! For what then could I be of use, for what could I serve! There’s something within me, so what is it! That’s an entirely different idler.
In the springtime a bird in a cage knows very well that there’s something he’d be good for; he feels very clearly that there’s something to be done but he can’t do it; what it is he can’t clearly remember… the bird is mad with suffering. “Look, there’s an idler,” says another passing bird — that fellow’s a sort of man of leisure. And yet the prisoner lives and doesn’t die…then comes the season of migration. A bout of melancholy —but [people say] he’s got everything that he needs in his cage…he looks at the sky outside…and within himself feels a rebellion against fate. I’m in a cage, I’m in a cage, and so I lack for nothing, you fools! Me, I have everything I need! Ah…freedom, to be a bird like other birds!
An idle man like that resembles an idle bird like that.…You may not always be able to say what it is that confines, that immures, that seems to bury, and yet you feel [the] bars…”
Learned helplessness does not give us permission to judge. If anything, it should teach us compassion for one another, as we do not know what other people believe, and we do not know the reality they see. The people around us have lived entirely different lives: they had different parents, they were exposed to different political propaganda and experienced different prejudices, they had different friends and enemies and education, and have experienced their own rejections and failures. In each of these places—all of which are invisible to us—they may have learned limitations we can’t even fathom from our perspective.
Without belaboring the point (too much), since we do not know from the outside which kind of cage a person is in (real or not real), or which kind of idler they are (by choice or by misperception), it is not our job, nor is it even within our ability, to judge others, their actions, or their lack thereof. The young Van Gogh’s letter, incidentally, was in response to his family’s perception that he was floundering about aimlessly and failing to take initiative. And we all know what a dud that guy ended up to be.
One sad thing about this world is that the [things] that take the most out of you are usually the ones that other people will never know about. ~Anne Tyler
We are becoming better at learning not to judge people by their outward appearances or surface things—things that we can point at or mark down on a form. But we have a ways to go in learning not to judge one another’s choices, and what we may perceive as their character flaws or failings. People who appear the same on the surface, or who have a similar situation on paper, differ dramatically in the deeper-rooted experiences that taught them who they are and what they are capable of. We do not know the bars that people see, or feel, or actually bump up against.
I won’t deny that I’ve done it myself, on a personal level and on a larger level. I spent so much time over the past few years compiling research on things people can do to live better, or be happier and healthier, etc. It took me an embarrassing amount of time—and an alarming number of incredibly uncomfortable life lessons, as well as uncomfortable research—to learn that there are deeper reasons why people are not so good to themselves or to each other.
And who knows if we are in the right or wrong when we make our criticisms, since our perspectives, too, are limited. How can we really know that we are not the bird in the cage, criticizing the flying bird: How is he going to get food, we might think, who will bring the water? What if he flies into something, or falls?
We would do well to have compassion for others and their choices and circumstances. And understanding how we might be (or might have been) mistaken in our beliefs, we should have compassion for ourselves as well. But we also need to have the courage to look for, and look at, our own cages, lest there we remain for the remainder of our lifetimes.
∞ ♥ ∞
For Next Time.
There are our personal beliefs which limit us, and then there are the ones we share—where we may have learned to be helpless together.
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’.”
David Foster Wallace told this story in 2005, in what is now a famous commencement speech. “The point of the fish story”, he said, “is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the hardest to see and talk about.”
Yet next time that is what we will try to do.
∞ ♥ ∞
One Final Thought: Even if a bird can’t fly, maybe he can dance.
A few weeks ago, while I was writing this, a dear friend of mine sent me a story about a cockatoo named Snowball, who can dance. I’d encourage you to read the story and watch the accompanying videos, which brought me and my sister to hysterics. The best part of the story (besides his slicking-back-the-mohawk-moves) is that Snowball apparently taught himself to dance, and choreographed his own dance moves—fourteen of them. After a video of Snowball went viral, scientists reached out to his owner to study him. Cockatoos apparently aren’t supposed to be able to do this sort of thing. But no one told Snowball that, I guess.
P.S. Yes, he is out of his cage when he dances.
∞ ♥ ∞
References and Further Reading:
Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. Martin E. P. Seligman. Free Press (2011)
Learned helplessness: theory and evidence. Steven F Maier, Martin E Seligman Journal of experimental psychology: general 105 (1), 3, 1976 https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/bd0b/38c23bb66a0762b0023b0306c86411f47edc.pdf
Learned helplessness, depression, and the attribution of failure. David C Klein, Ellen Fencil-Morse, Martin E Seligman Journal of personality and social psychology 33 (5), 508, 1976 https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1976-26083-001
Generality of learned helplessness in man. Donald S Hiroto, Martin E Seligman Journal of personality and social psychology 31 (2), 311, 1975 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0076270
Learned helplessness in children: A longitudinal study of depression, achievement, and explanatory style. Nolen-Hoeksema, Susan, Girgus, Joan S., Seligman, Martin E.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 51(2), Aug 1986, 435-442 https://psycnet.apa.org/buy/1986-31259-001
Locus of control and learned helplessness. Donald S Hiroto Journal of experimental psychology 102 (2), 187, 1974 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0035910
Learned helplessness in social situations. Goetz, T. E., & Dweck, C. S. (1980). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(2), 246-255. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.168
Sex differences in learned helplessness: II. The contingencies of evaluative feedback in the classroom and III. An experimental analysis. Carol S Dweck, William Davidson, Sharon Nelson, Bradley Enna Developmental psychology 14 (3), 268, 1978 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0012-1622.214.171.1248
What Is Learned Helplessness and Why Does it Happen? Kendra Cherry (Updated July 2019). VeryWellMind https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-learned-helplessness-2795326
Learned Optimism. Kendra Cherry (Updated July 2019). VeryWellMind https://www.verywellmind.com/learned-optimism-4174101
Learned helplessness in social situations. Goetz, T. E., & Dweck, C. S. (1980). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(2), 246-255. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.199;
Naturally acquired learned helplessness: The relationship of school failure to achievement behavior, attributions, and self-concept. Johnson, D. S. (1981). Journal of Educational Psychology, 73(2), 174-180. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-06188.8.131.52
Role of epistemological beliefs and learned helplessness in secondary school students’ learning science concepts from text. Qian, G., & Alvermann, D. (1995). Journal of Educational Psychology, 87(2), 282-292. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-06184.108.40.2062
Learned helplessness: A case study of a middle school student. Walling, MD & Martinek, TJ. (1995) Journal of teaching in physical education 14, 454-466 https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/6f1f/dcb173caa5fa63ab60518ceb570e7237e788.pdf
Learned helplessness and the evening news. Levine, G. F. (1977). . Journal of Communication, 27(4), 100-105. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.1977.tb01863.x
[i] Martin Seligman, who was one of the lead researchers of this study, is also the founder of the field of Positive Psychology. As he explains in his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, the learned helplessness studies helped him to identify questions which then led him to explore how to improve mental well-being of healthy people instead of only treating mental illness or mental disorders.
[ii] It is actually called a “shuttle box”, but these descriptions seem to be confusing enough on their own, without these unnecessary complications and what appear to be imaginary science-words .
[iii] In one version of the learned helplessness studies, scientists sought to see if there was a difference between the response of people who were exposed to the same loud noise, but who believed that they had the power to turn it off. The study subjects were put in a room with the loud annoying noise, but they were told that a device in front of them would allow them to turn it off. They were told, however, that it would be preferred that they did not turn off the noise. The people who believed that they had control, but still did not turn off the noise, did not experience learned helplessness.
[iv] A more scientific way of saying this would be, “We experience three different negative effects, which are indicative of learned helplessness.” But I couldn’t do it.
[v] The actual names of these negative effects are cognitive, motivational, and emotional.
[vi] I’m not being demure or evasive here. While I was writing this, I reached out to ask my therapist, even, and though she does remember the conversation, she does not remember what it was either (she thinks it might have had to do with work).
[viii] Incidentally my therapist was not using CBT…at least not that I am aware of (ha…ha).
[ix] CBT should be undertaken with a therapist.
[x] This is the opposite of Seligman’s definition of pessimism (believing there’s nothing I can do about it, it’s going to last forever, and it’s going to undermine everything.).
[xi] Some of this research is detailed in Martin Seligman’s book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. Other sources are included in the notes section.
[xii] More than my share, some might say.
[xiv] Or perhaps more adequate metaphors might center around birds smashing into thirty-first floor windows or electrical equipment. But perhaps that is for another day.
[xv] Incidentally, this was nearly a year after I drew my own version of the bird in the cage and began writing about learned helplessness. I started writing this in early September of 2018, by the way. Yes this actually took me an entire trip around the sun to complete, in case that wasn’t clear.