“Learned Helplessness” And The Benefits Of Fear!

It’s not fashionable to talk about fear. The circles I move in promote overcoming fear, the negation of it, the denial. Fear is something so scary, so overwhelming it has to be tamed, pushed away, made small and trivial, irrelevant.

And yet, and yet….. fear is useful. Like so many other things fear has its upside. It can be a wonderful motivator. It can drive to great heights of achievement and heroism. It can be a great character builder. The calibre of a person is truly revealed when under stress. It helps us take action and do the scary thing.

Or it can paralyse and make us helpless. It depends on a) how much tolerance we have to fear and b) whether we perceive we still have choices. Real learned helplessness which makes us lapse into paralysis can be based on old, past experience .

Martin Seligman, American psychologist and author of “Authentic Happiness” did research into what makes us depressed, as well as happy. As an experiment he took a group of dogs and divided them in half. One half became the control group. He took each dog from the control group into a compound wired to administer an electric shock through their paws and set them free. The only way out was to leap over a low wall. Soon, dogs were leaping like mountain goats over this wall, immediately they were put into the compound.

The other group however were held down and administered an electric shock before being set free in the compound. The researchers then observed an astonishing thing. Instead of searching for escape over the low wall, the dogs lay down!

Arising from this research, the theory is that old childhood trauma can be superimposed onto current circumstance. Even though there may be an escape route out of a stressful or fearful situation, the depressed person won’t be able to find it. They have learned to be helpless in the face of childhood trauma so their response to current stress will be helplessness – to lie down.

And do you know what eventually got the dogs from the second group to escape? Well, the researchers put collars and leads on them so that when they lay down, they were pulled up and encouraged over the wall. Soon they too were leaping like little goats over the wall to escape the electric shocks too.

A salutary lesson for us all!


About anrah

Anrah is a business development consultancy specialising in helping senior women in engineering and science, their teams and doctoral students increase 'presence', improve communication and generate impact to win stakeholder buy-in at the highest level.
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2 Responses to “Learned Helplessness” And The Benefits Of Fear!

  1. johan burger says:

    I wrote a piece in my own blog about the future of the rainbow society in South Africa. I addressed the psychological dimension that was/is being ignored.

    This piece validates what I have said. Thank you!

    Question: how do we deal with it as a society?

    Looking forward to hear your thoughts.

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