Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Learned Helplessness

see here: learned helplessness

I am struggling with the irony of learning that in the face of learned helplessness, we can be rendered helpless. Impotent even.

Your country is being invaded by horrible fascist communist aliens. They round up civilians and use them for horrible experimental testing that results in much pain, suffering and eventual death. All you have to do to avoid this horrible fate is get in the car and drive north. Yet you don't. You just sit there frozen. You don't even have to drive, your family and loved ones are imploring you to just get in the car and flee with them.

You insist that it is 'hopeless' and lay your head down on the table and fold your hands behind your head as if pinning yourself down.

This 'you' of the story is exhibiting learned helplessness. Actually, I'm not qualified to make the diagnostic. There's not enough backstory. Let's just assume they do.

Here's the philosophical question of relevance - are they or aren't they capable of helping themselves?

Physically capable seems to be the case. They are able bodied, and have the material means to flee. They seem psychologically incapable of perceiving this, or constructing the possible reality where this works. They also appear to not be able to formulate that the downside risk of trying to flee is exactly the same as doing nothing at all. Which is to say if you don't speak in terms of 'downside' and 'upside' risk like I do. Your fate is no worse if you attempt to flee and fail, than if you merely surrender. But there is some possibility that fleeing will provide a better fate than surrendering. Furthermore, surrendering does not make your eventual fate any more pleasant.

Learned helplessness is so bizarre to observe from the outside. Imagine meeting an adult whom throughout their entire schooling was told that the question 2 + 2 does not have an answer and the answer cannot be determined. When you say '2 + 2 = 4, everybody knows that.' they look at you like you just said your parents are leprechauns. When you try and demonstrate it using fingers on each hand and counting, they shake their head and say 'I don't know what you are talking about.'

This should be noted, as being a different experience from when you meet some mathematics PhD and they are telling you how Fermat's Last Theorem was eventually proved and saying 'I don't know what you are talking about.' or more likely 'buh?' because in this case, I at least am willing to believe that there is an answer and that my PhD toting party guest has an expertise I should defer to. It costs me nothing to believe her, I simply don't understand what we are talking about because of my lack of expertise. I haven't 'learned' to not believe her, I just haven't learned to speak her language. Politeness demands of me that I try, curiosity motivates me to.

So... what are we left with?

First and foremost, a frustration that somebody is seemingly capable of helping themselves, and for some reason they choose not to. This is distinct from somebody who is suicidal, because this person actually dreads their fate, they just can't/won't do anything to avoid it.

Here then do you step in? Relieve this person of their executive command over their fate and pick them up and dump them in the car and drive them to safety? Possibly, here though, it does cost you something to save somebody incapable of saving themselves. Compensating for helplessness is possibly harder than compensating for injury or physical disability.

It is September 11, 2001 and you are evacuating the twin towers down however many flights of stairs there were. On one floor you notice two people, one in a wheelchair trying to figure out how to descend the stairs, you offer to help, with two able bodied people the task should be manageable. The next floor down, you see a completely able bodied person curled up on the floor with their head between their knees you yell 'come on man! we gotta evacuate.' They look at you and shake your head.

I'm not a doctor or rescue worker, but I imagine the mind makes a physically harder obstacle to overcome in rescue than paraplegia. (It should also be noted, that people who obtain a physical disability I imagine are far less likely to come down with learned helplessness).

I suspect now I have answered my own question, though it's wholly unsatisfying.

The first is that you have to let go of the frustration, and accept that this person, though the condition may be hysterical, physically can't see the answers in front of them. They are not prone to panic, they just cannot perceive reality accurately in the first place. Their mind renders them incapable of escaping their fate. So don't get frustrated with them, it doesn't help.

Secondly, you can carry them out of the burning building only if you can afford to. You have to weigh up the costs of doing so. Will it result in the two of you dying? Is it at the expense of somebody whose ongoing survival prospects are greater? It is no good clearing one immediate hurdle for them if there are a thousand hurdles to go and you barely have the stamina to get yourself over them all.

But sure, you may rescue them once, and as you carry them out of the smoke into the clear blue skies, they may even remark 'I couldn't have done that.' and that's where you need to remember to say 'hey no problem.' instead of slapping them across the face.

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