Posts Tagged learned helplessness
Quite a while ago I blogged about Learned Helplessness and I followed it up with an unsettling video in which at teacher induced learned helplessness in half a class by making them attempt impossible anagrams. So I was interested to find out about another bit of research which used impossible anagrams to get students into a bad mood.
In one of a pair of experiments by Webb et al. (2010) students were given impossible anagrams that they were told were easy in order to get them frustrated and annoyed.
Following this, they were presented with scenarios representing various opportunities for risky behaviour. The grumpy students were more likely to consider engaging in risky behaviour than the non-grumpy control group.
None of this is particularly surprising. It is reasonably well known that negative moods can lead to poor decision-making and unhelpful behaviours.
In preparation for a day-long workshop for doctors on interpersonal communication I have been refreshing my memory on Transactional Analysis.
TA (as it is known to its friends) first endeared itself to me when it helped me to understand a bizarre pattern that would happen with certain clients. Some people seemed to take a strange delight in shooting down every idea that I came up with. Every single suggestion about how they might make progress was found to have a fatal flaw. At the end of the session I felt exhausted, frustrated and a complete failure.
Thanks to TA I now recognise that this could an individual trying to engage me in the ‘Why Don’t You…Yes But‘ game. It was a bit of a revelation to me that someone might prefer the disappointing pay-off confirming their belief that they were beyond help to the more positive pay-off of actually being helped.
Last week I learnt a new piece of jargon. A ‘fat-tail event’ is something that you thought was virtually impossible, but it happened anyway. In theory, it could be very good or very bad, but it usually refers to something extremely unpleasant, such as a financial crisis.
The phrase comes from statistics. Many randomly occurring events (such as the height of the person you sit next to on the bus) are assumed to follow what is called a Normal Distribution (the classic ‘bell-shaped curve’). So you are more likely to sit next to someone around average height and less likely to sit next to someone really short or really tall. With the Normal Distribution the probability of something really unusual happening tails off really rapidly the further away you get from the average — it has a thin tail.
However, some things in the real world don’t follow the Normal Distribution curve. Instead of a thin tail, they have a fat tail. This means that certain extreme possibilities are more likely than you might think.
I was quite pleased to be able to use my newly discovered jargon in a session on negotiation skills I was running last week. I was talking about the usefulness of assessing any negotiated deal by imagining how it would look if subsequent events turned out a lot better or a lot worse than you were expecting (e.g. your fixed-rate mortgage doesn’t look so good if the Bank of England cuts rates to zero).
A related term for unexpected events is a Black Swan, coined by author Nassim Nicholas Taleb. This is the unexpected event which you could not have predicted based on your previous experience and derives from the fact that, until they were discovered in the 17th century, most Europeans thought that black swans could not exist.
Impact of a recession on beliefs
How will the recession affect the world-view beliefs of those young people living through it?
A discussion paper from the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) in Germany, analyses certain beliefs held by United States citizens and tries to link these beliefs with an individual’s exposure to recessions. They found that people who experienced a recession during a key impressionable age range (18-25 years old) were more likely to believe that success in life was down to luck rather than hard work. They also found that this belief tended to persist throughout the person’s life.
This belief that success in life is beyond your control can lead someone to make less effort, which then makes the belief a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Should we be working with the students currently at university in order to encourage a belief in the benefits of effort and hard work?
- Do you think it would be useful to let students know about this research directly?
- What do you attribute success to?
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Just a quick update. I came across this demonstration of how to induce learned helplessness in the classroom.
Could be interesting to use in careers sessions…
Related post: Learned helplessness and the recession
In 1967 Martin Seligman conducted some slightly disturbing experiments on dogs. The dogs were exposed to electric shocks that they could not escape because of restraints. Eventually they would give up trying to do anything about their suffering. This lack of response continued even when the restraints were removed and it was possible for them to avoid the pain. The dogs had come to believe that they could do nothing about the shocks, so they didn’t try.
Based on this, and further experiments on animals and humans, Seligman formulated the theory of learned helplessness. In essence, it says that when someone is exposed to an experience in which they feel they have no control or ability to change things, this can lead to an assumption of helplessness which persists even if it subsequently becomes possible to effect a transformation.
Throughout the recession there has been talk about how to help the ‘lost generation‘. However, if learned helplessness is real, then it will require more than just providing opportunities. The recession may have affected the perceptions and attitudes of a generation of job-seekers.
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