In 1873 German Zoologist Dr. Karl Mobius conducted experiments with a pike. Pike are a very aggressive predatory species of fish. In his experiment the pike and smaller prey fish were placed into the same tank, separated by a pane of glass. When the pike attempted to rush the smaller fish in order to feed on them, his charge would be stopped by a violent impact with the glass pane. The pike, at times, was stunned by the impact enough to float upside down for a time before it recovered. With time, the onslaughts became more rare, until, after three months they ceased altogether. After six months the pane of glass was removed altogether and the pike roamed freely among the prey fish. However, the pike had “learned” that the small fish were unattainable, and contented himself by feeding only on the food offered by Dr. Mobius.
Dr. Martin Seligman would later call this, “Learned Helplessness.”
So what does this mean for human beings? Can we, also, “learn helplessness?” According to Seligman, we can…and do. It is indeed a simple thing to look around us and find people who have learned to be helpless in an environment that actually offers them control. Seligman believes there to be a strong link between learned helplessness and depression, and more specifically links it to what is called “explanatory style.”
Now, the implication of all this is fairly clear. People who are prone to the depression that feeds learned helplessness tend to use an explanatory style that is External, Permanent and Pervasive to explain negative events. In other words, when they experience a setback or failure, their inner talk goes something like… “The cause is outside of me, so it is out of my control; it is permanent, so it’s never going to change, and the principle extends to many other aspects of my life, so it’s hopeless to even start to try to fix me.”
On the opposite end of the scale, people who overcome great adversity, rise above their circumstances, enjoy success in life and command their own attitudes in the midst of hardship have similar explanatory styles. Their inner talk in the midst of a setback or failure tends to be Internal, Temporary and Local. If we could listen in it might sound something like this… “The reason for that failure is in my own attitude, which I can change. And, just because I failed to achieve what I wanted this time, it doesn’t mean I’m stupid or incompetent. I will learn from this, change my approach or attitude, and try again.”