Decent Americans Are Suffering from Learned Helplessness

by Bob Schwartz

American Psychological Association:

Learned helplessness is a phenomenon in which repeated exposure to uncontrollable stressors results in individuals failing to use any control options that may later become available. Essentially, individuals are said to learn that they lack behavioral control over environmental events, which, in turn, undermines the motivation to make changes or attempt to alter situations….In the 1970s, Martin E. P. Seligman extended the concept from nonhuman animal research to clinical depression in humans and proposed a learned helplessness theory to explain the development of or vulnerability to depression. According to this theory, people repeatedly exposed to stressful situations beyond their control develop an inability to make decisions or engage effectively in purposeful behavior. Subsequent researchers have noted a robust fit between the concept and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Every day, I see those in the news and those in personal life expressing serial frustration at the latest outrage from national leadership. After repeating the sordid details of cruelty and immorality, they then ask, increasingly rhetorically, why those who could do something don’t stop it. Yes some try to fight, yes some succeed or at least delay the worst, but mostly the answer seems to be to wait until the possible, though not certain, election of a new president.

Learned helplessness is, for example, at the heart of abusive situations, such as being married to a narcissistic monster. We didn’t need research psychologists to clinically identify the phenomenon of people being beaten down to the point of powerlessness and just giving up. We know it happens.

And yet…

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas

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