mental_slavery

Back during the sixties, a pair of psychologists (Seligman and Maier) at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a sadistic animal study in order to learn more about depression. And they did find out a great deal about depression…and about learning, conditioning, the nature of will, and many other important things. Their experiments were troubling on all sorts of levels. Yet even though thinking about this is painful, we need to do so, because what they learned by torturing dogs into near-catatonic apathy applies very directly to us as well.

OK, here is the basis of the experiment: groups of dogs were placed in restraint harnesses with access to a lever which they could activate with their paws. Group 1 dogs were put in the harness and then nothing happened and they were released…they were the control group I suppose. Group 2 dogs were put in the restraints and given a painful electric shock—which they could stop by pushing the lever. Group 3 dogs were put in restraints and shocked seemingly at random. Group 3 dogs were helpless to escape their predicament: the lever did nothing.

dog-shuttle-box

After sufficient conditioning (I imagine an agent of Hydra saying that phrase in a faux German accent), the dogs were removed from the harnesses and put in a box apparatus with an electric floor. The floor would start shocking the dogs, but they could escape by leaping over a low threshold or finding a hidden panel or what-have-you. Innocent Group 1 dogs were appalled at human perfidy, but quickly found a way out of the electrified box apparatus! Group 2 dogs knew they could change their fate and they too quickly found a way to escape the painful box. They bounded around until they got out. Group 3 dogs, however, had been taught that their actions were meaningless and so their response was heartbreakingly sad: they just lay down on the dreadful electrified floor to take their shocks and whine in misery.

sad-dog

The researchers discovered that the group 3 dogs were fundamentally broken. They could not be threatened or cajoled to jump over the barrier. Only by literally moving the dog’s limbs in the correct motions and holding the creature upright could the animals be taught to escape the electrified floor (it should be obvious that these dogs were thoroughly conditioned till they were effectively destroyed, and, of course the animals used in this study—and its subsequent iterations—were destroyed after being so relentlessly abused). These studies worked the same way on other animals and in other iterations which you can look up on your own if you so like.

So what did we learn from all this? People (or other similar organisms) who have been subject to abuse and neglect have been taught not to seek a way out of their predicament—even when the way is so obvious as to be self-evident. Frustratingly it seems like those infuriating optimists who are always going around saying “you make your own luck” and “always look on the bright side” and suchlike twaddle are right…sort of. A person’s way of explaining the world to himself matters greatly in how he then tries to deal with that world. What truly matters seems to be perceived control over the situation—or perceived lack of control. Neurophysiologists even discovered the biological circuitry of learned helplessness—mood and learning affect each other in discernible chemical patterns in the brain. The wrong feedback loop can lead to crippling anxiety-related emotional disorders—as seen in the group 3 dogs (interestingly, physical exercise can help break this feedback loop, so if you end up in prison camp, or being tortured by the Viet Cong, or trapped in a hall of evil mirrors, you had better quickly start getting fit!).

 

Plus, if you get buff enough, you could just physically bust free

Plus, if you get buff enough, you could just physically bust free

Of course a philosopher would correctly point out that none of the dogs in any of the three groups ever truly had any control—it was always an illusion fostered by godlike experimenters. In our world of powerful machines, giant corporations, ineluctable plate tectonics, false democracy, and billions upon billions of hungry greedy antagonistic humans, control is likewise an illusion, but a very important one! Maybe I should not even have included this paragraph, so that we can all can pretend we have some modicum of agency in the actual world.

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Speaking of the true nature of the world, the real lesson of the dog study is short and hard. Life is a series of shocking boxes box and we need to keep bounding around banging on the walls all the time to get anywhere. Maybe the way forward is there and maybe not, but you had better believe with all your heart that it is…and that your actions have meaning. Otherwise you might as well just lie down on the floor and die.