SYNDICATED COLUMN: Learned Helplessness
In 1967 animal researchers conducted an interesting experiment. Two sets of dogs were strapped into harnesses and subjected to a series of shocks. The dogs were placed in the same room.
The first set of dogs was allowed to perform a task—pushing a panel with their snouts—in order to avoid the shocks. As soon as one dog mastered the shock-avoidance technique, his comrades followed suit.
The second group, on the other hand, was placed out of reach from the panel. They couldn’t stop the pain. But they watched the actions of the first set.
Then both groups of dogs were subjected to a second experiment. If they jumped over a barrier, the dogs quickly learned, the shocks would stop. The dogs belonging to the first set all did it.
But the second-set dogs were too psychologically scarred to help themselves. “When shocked, many of them ran around in great distress but then lay on the floor and whimpered,” wrote Russell A. Powell, Diane G. Symbaluk and P. Lynne Honey in Introduction to Learning and Behavior. “They made no effort to escape the shock. Even stranger, the few dogs that did by chance jump over the barrier, successfully escaping the shock, seemed unable to learn from this experience and failed to repeat it on the next trial. In summary, the prior exposure to inescapable shock seemed to impair the dogs’ ability to learn to escape shock when escape became possible.”
The decrease in learning ability caused by unavoidable punishment leads to a condition called “learned helplessness.”
Which brings us to the midterm elections.
Battered and bruised, with no apparent way out, the American electorate has plunged into a political state of learned helplessness. They’ve voted Democratic to punish rapacious Republicans. They’ve voted Republican to get rid of do-nothing Democrats. They’ve tried staying home on Election Day. Nothing they do helps their condition. They’re flailing.
The great mass of Americans works longer hours for less pay. Until, inevitably, they get “laid off.” Is there a working- or middle-class American who hasn’t lost his job or been close to someone who got fired during the last few years? Even in 2009, when global capitalism entered its final crisis and millions of Americans were losing their homes to the same banks their taxes were paying to bail out, the world’s richest people—those with disposable wealth over $30 million—saw their assets soar by 21.5 percent.
Go ahead, little leftie: smash the windows at Starbucks in Seattle. It won’t stop transnational corporations from raping the planet and exploiting you. Enjoy your Tea Party, little rightie. It sure is cute, listening to you talk about the wee Constitution. “Your” government and the companies that own “your” leaders have your number. And they’re listening to your phone calls.
The public is now in full-fledged flailing mode. Just two years ago, you will recall, Obama and the Democrats swept into power on a platform of hope and change: hope that things might improve, by changing away from the Bushian Republicanism of the previous eight years.
Now, depending who you listen to, people have either turned against the hope and the change, or against the failure of ObamaCo to deliver it. “The voters, I think, are just looking for change, and that means bad news for incumbents and in particular for the Democrats,” says Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster.
Change from change we can’t believe in. Again.
According to the latest NBC News/Washington Post poll, this is the same electorate that “shows grave and growing concerns about the Gulf oil spill, with overwhelming majorities of adults favoring stronger regulation of the oil industry and believing that the spill will affect the nation’s economy and environment.” Because you know the Republicans are all about more regulation of Big Oil. And care so much about the environment.
Does your head hurt yet?
There is some good news: Three major polls find that most Americans don’t believe Obama has a plan to fix the economy. Yes, this is good news; it proves that the public isn’t totally crazy.
Like the poor Set B dogs in that 1967 experiment, Americans are running around aimlessly, veering between two parties that differ only in their degree of harm. Republicans are evil; Democrats enable it.
Next: lying on the ground and whimpering.
The way out is obvious. If a two-party corpocracy beholden to gangster capitalism is ruining your life, get rid of it.
Don’t whimper. Bite.
(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto,” to be published in September by Seven Stories Press. His website is tedrall.com.)