The Causes of Human Rights Violations (34): Learned Helplessness

Rather than try their best to escape oppression, subjugation and other predicaments, people often give up and accept their situation. This is called “learned helplessness” and it’s caused by a persistent feeling of powerlessness and┬álack of control. You learn over time that there is no escape, and you won’t escape when there’s an unexpected possibility of escape. You often see press reports of battered women, hostages or abused children who no longer try to escape and who inexplicably fail to seize opportunities.

The phenomenon was first seen in dogs. In a gruesome experiment, a dog was repeatedly hurt by an adverse stimulus which it couldn’t escape. Eventually the animal stopped trying to avoid the pain and behaved as if it was utterly helpless to change the situation. Finally, when opportunities to escape were presented, the dog’s learned helplessness prevented any action. The only coping mechanism the animal used was to be stoical and put up with the discomfort, not expending energy getting worked up about the adverse stimulus.

Similar although less cruel experiments have shown the same effect in humans. There are even some indications that people can learn to be helpless through observing other helpless people.

More posts in this series are here.

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