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You’ve lost all your property to your dad in your “light-hearted” family game of Monopoly. The words on the pages are starting to blur as you desperately try to reach the 10 page minimum for your Research Paper about climate change. It’s day two of your diet, and all you can think about is cheesy popcorn. Giving up sounds pretty appealing. As humans, we crave success, and we prefer it to come easily. We don’t like engaging in activities that we do poorly in, and with every failure, the option to give up becomes more and more attractive. Conversely, the reason that success is so rewarding is that, more often than not, it comes at the expense of persistent motivation and effort.
Learned Helplessness and Dogs
“Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.”
The feeling of inevitable failure and inadequacy during a challenging task or experience has a scientific name: learned helplessness. At the risk of alarming animal enthusiasts, psychologists discovered the impact of learned helplessness in a depression study conducted on dogs.
Martin Seligman, the Director of the Positive Psychology Center, at the University of Pennsylvania, and his fellow graduate student, Steven Maier, wanted to study the effects of learned helpless across multiple scenarios. Each dog was secured in a “kind of rubberized cloth hammock” and administered a shock to their hind feet every sixty to ninety seconds. While fastened in the hammock, the dogs’ heads were placed between two panels that could be easily reached.
The dogs were split into two groups: the control group, and the “learned helplessness” group. When the dogs in the control group made an effort to touch a panel with their heads, the shocks stopped. For the dogs in the experimental group, however, touching the panel did nothing. The initial shock for the experimental group endured for thirty seconds, with gradually shorter periods with each new shock.
The following day, all of the dogs were individually moved into their own two-compartment cage that was divided into two sections with an adjustable barrier. When the lights in the cage were turned off, the ground would release an electric shock to the dogs’ feet, which could be avoided if the dog stepped or jumped over the barrier into the other section of the cage.
The dogs that were in the group from the previous day that had been able to stop the shocks by touching the panel consistently jumped the barrier to escape the shock. The dogs that had not had any ability to control the shocks, however, didn’t even attempt to escape over the barrier. ⅔ of this group spent all 10 trials shaking in a corner of the electrified surface, and the remaining ⅓ took an average of seven trials before attempting to cross the barrier.
The study was saddening for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the experiment got the ethical backlash that it deserved. Despite the valuable information it provided, people were furious at the way Seligman and Maier went about doing so. The results themselves were eye-opening, but saddening as well. Learned helplessness was stronger and harder to overcome across different scenarios than anticipated. The phenomenon was the cause for a significant lack of motivation and generalization of one’s ability across multiple scenarios.
The first series of experiments in the hammock taught the dogs that could not end the shock that even their best efforts had no influence on the outcome. This mindset was maintained in a unique environment the second day in the two-compartment cages. The results of the study were so extreme that the C.I.A. began adopting learned helplessness techniques as a mode of torture and interrogation.
Clearly giving up has a lot more to it. It isn’t the “easy way out” – more often than not, we give up because, after enough failed attempts, we perceive defeat as the “only way out.” Rather than setting up an environment where learned helplessness is probable, avoid the decision to give up by preventing the situation in the first place.
Looking at the big picture can be overwhelming. Take the research paper example. Staring at a blank screen for a document that needs to be 15 pages long is overwhelming. Instead of resorting to a panic attack, set small, incremental goals. Try to finish the Introduction of your paper today, and worry about the Body paragraphs tomorrow. The more specific the goal, the better. That way, you can actually see the finish line. Aim for finishing a page or two of your research paper by the end of the day. With that new diet, try to stick with it for three days. Additionally, make sure your goals are challenging BUT still attainable. If the goal is beyond your ability, you’re more likely to give up. Cheat days are okay as long as they are sandwiched between your designated meal plan.
Learn by Example
We learn by imitating others. If we see another individual successfully complete a challenge we are facing, it can help for a number of reasons. First and foremost, we see that it’s possible. Watching a fellow classmate put a period on that last sentence of that 10-page research paper allows you to see that, although an enormous amount of time and effort may still be in front of you, the finish line isn’t as far away as you thought. We also tend to be competitive by nature. Sometimes there is no better incentive to complete a task than by watching someone else complete it before you.
Be Kind to Yourself. Seriously.
Chances are, the road to success isn’t always going to be smooth sailing. Expect bumps in the road, and when you make headway, reward yourself. Next time you eat an apple instead of a cookie for dessert, treat yourself to that new jean jacket you saw in the store display. Giving up can seem like the best answer. Looking back on a challenge knowing you could have given in but didn’t is unbelievably more satisfying.