The Road to Reconciliation: Learned Helplessness

I’m glad that I didn’t decide to be an experimental psychologist. If I had, I might’ve had to lock dogs up in cages and shock them for the sake of science. As it is, others can do it and we can benefit from the things they learned by doing so.

There was a classic experiment where they locked dogs up in cages. They rang a bell a few seconds before they administered an electric shock through the metal of the cage. The dogs quickly learned to go limp and flop when they heard the bell. I guess relaxing like that made the shock hurt less. Then the researchers did something very interesting. They would ring the bell and open the door of the cage before administering the shock. The dogs could easily escape, but they failed to do so. They were too busy flopping. Consequently, they would receive the shock, as before, but had no good reason to do so.

We call this learned helplessness. The dogs had learned to be helpless as an effective way of coping with something they, at first, could not avoid. The problem was they learned to be helpless too well and could not distinguish a situation in which helplessness made sense from a situation where it was unnecessary.

You, too, might have learned helplessness. If you have been stuck in an abusive relationship, then you probably have learned not to care too much, not to try things that would just add to the pain. You learned to put up and make do. You settled. That’s fine. I get it. You didn’t have a choice.

But, maybe, at one point, you did have a choice. Maybe a door which had not been previously open, got opened. You might not have gotten out as soon you could have. You might not have spoken up when you could. The moment help became available, you might have dithered and said you’d be fine.

Look for the open door.