Are We Hopelessly Helpless?


'Laolu Samuel-Biyi
Are We Hopelessly Helpless?

A long time ago, Martin Seligman, an American Psychologist, conducted a very interesting experiment. I’ll describe a simplified version: 

Two groups of dogs were placed in torture chambers where they received random, painful electric shocks. One group of dogs had access to a lever that they could press to stop the shocks, while the other group of dogs had ineffective levers that couldn’t stop the shocks. After a while, the first group figured out how they could stop the shocks, while the second group continued to suffer, with futile efforts to stop the shocks. For a second part of the experiment, the same two groups of dogs were placed in a different apparatus. In the new set-up, they were tortured with electric shocks, but this time, both groups of dogs could escape the shocks by simply jumping over a low partition. 

Results: The dogs in the group that had the effective shock-stopping levers figured out that they could escape by jumping over the partition, while the dogs in the other group that had ineffective levers just laid down and continued to whine in pain as they suffered the shocks, even though the escape route was different this time. They had resigned to their belief that shocks cannot be stopped in general.

The phenomenon that immobilized the second group of dogs, even though they could escape under different circumstances if they tried, was described as Learned Helplessness. Variations of this experiment that take into account higher cognitive processes were performed on humans, with similar results. In these versions, the mere awareness that one can correct a hindrance towards achieving a task (or self-efficacy) was sufficient to improve individual performance on that task, even if that hindrance is not removed. 

The socio-economic state of Africa is such that I cannot come across theory like this without overlaying it against the continent, particularly over Nigeria, to come up with yet another diagnosis for why there seems to be such strong inertia about virtually everything. There is just a mass resignation into the idea that we are perpetually screwed, no matter what the problem is, and that helplessness is indeed paralyzing at a societal level. The consideration of paralysis only at a societal level is important: To make positive macro-level or systemic changes; that is, changes that affect all, the population needs to move like a single organism, with one collective arm to press the lever. Tragically, the learned helplessness is so widespread among the population that disparate efforts by a small group of individuals will have the same effect on pressing Seligman’s safety lever as twitching ears will on a mentally paralyzed dog.

Decades of inescapable abuse in the hands of primary and secondary school teachers with canes have rendered independent university students (as a body) paralyzed against a torturous adult system, and created docile employees in the workplace. Decades of casual abuse by the military have taught citizens to be paralyzed when faced with abusive law enforcement in a technically democratic state or be appreciative of any public official that is at least not terrible. Centuries of patriarchal dominance trigger cognitive dissonance among both men and women when the abusive system is weighed against any form of logic. Religious organizations have leveraged fear as the conditioning tool to mentally cripple people, and the elderly will die before they can regard younger people as whole, sentient beings. 

To get the second group of dogs to overcome their learned helplessness, Seligman tried offering rewards to the dogs. He tried threatening them, and he tried to show them examples of other dogs escaping, but all that didn’t work. The only thing that eventually worked was him physically moving the dogs’ legs over the partition a number of times before they unlearned and relearned that they could actually help themselves. It’s similar to how one might have to physically remove a tortured spouse from an abusive relationship a number of times before they actually learn that they can be saved. 

How can a human population with superior cognitive abilities than dogs be rescued from a state of learned helplessness? Rewards and threats won’t work, as the human mind is already able to process the advantages and disadvantages of systems. We are aware of the threat of how worse things can get in Nigeria, and we can imagine the rewards of a better system. We can also see societies that do certain things right, so it’s not for a lack of models that we remain paralyzed. I’m not sure exactly what the human society equivalent of physically moving the dogs’ legs is, but I think history has shown that it could be Movements. 

A movement is the only mechanism where self-propelled entities like humans can move in the same direction. It’s the emergent behavior that one can observe in a swarm of birds or a traveling school of fish. The triggers of these movements can be anything and what sustains them appear to be quite random, but it is always chaotic at the beginning, sometimes only gaining a little momentum then fizzling out until it emerges again more coordinated and effective. 

Today, we can see coordination with the Black Lives Matter movement out of a trigger in the murder of George Floyd. Chaos in the form of mass protests has always proven to be effective. In Nigeria, the e-feminist movement is an emergent behavior that is still small and chaotic, yet promising. Education and the internet have helped to enlighten a lot of Africans away from a lot of religious and cultural illogic. For this reason, I have learned not to frown at the lack of finesse that is characteristic of the beginning of movements. While protests have destructive side effects, and some might find ‘radical e-feminism’ or any form of feminism distasteful, emergent behavior that will move the mass population towards a new general direction simply cannot form any other way. With humans, the orderliness of the status quo is comfortable; that’s why it is the equilibrium state in the first place, hence the resistance to any disturbance. Only the action of computers can be redirected in a beautiful, permissioned manner.

In Nigeria, many people are wisely extricating themselves from society to Canada and elsewhere. It’s hard to blame them. For some, it’s a purely economical move, but for many, it’s to escape deeper frustrations. The society has advanced from learned helplessness to a dark satisfaction. It is one thing for a society to be subject to the effects of learned helplessness, after all, that can be solved; it’s many times more difficult when a big portion of that society is now interpreting the pain as positive sensations (you can guess the results of a poll asking Nigerians if capital punishment should be banned in schools, or if men should be entitled to paternity leave, or if it’s right to tell a Professor you think they’re wrong in class, or if a policeman should be fired for any illegal detainment, or if a public official should disclose the state of their health, etc.). 

If Seligman’s dogs began to actually believe the shocks were positive stimuli, saving them would be much more difficult. He would likely have been bitten while trying to lift the feet of the dogs over the partition, and it would take longer for the dogs to first learn that what they’re feeling from the shock is pain, not pleasure, then learn that they can remove themselves from the area. That bite is what a Nigerian would consider “staining their white” when they contemplate entering public service or the lack of support they’d receive from society when they choose to take an ethical high-ground during a process, or even a logical ground (e.g seeking a divorce from an abusive marriage or calling out an abusive pastor). Many are simply not interested in getting bitten, and would rather exist in a society where their problems require only one layer of unlearning to resolve. 

Experiments have shown that humans are able to perform better and help themselves after being exposed to the simple knowledge that they could be suffering from learned helplessness. I guess the point of this rambling is to present that information to one or two people. Perhaps, you only think that a system/person/solution is good because you’ve managed it for so long? Maybe that positive sentiment you feel is just simply the cognitive ease you have from hearing and experiencing it over and over all your life. Over the past decade, there’s hardly any long-held belief I hold that I’m not willing to hold against the light. If we all similarly put all our human faculties to work, perhaps then we can all one day collectively lift our paws and press the needed levers to fix some of the large societal matters we’ve been struggling for so long to overcome. 

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