Learned helplessness

“Learned helplessness” is a behavior observed in animal experiments. When a dog in a cage is subjected to shocks but restrained so that it cannot escape, it eventually stops fighting. Even when the door is open, the dog just lies there, “taking” it.

It has been proposed that people who suffered sufficient degrees of abuse (especially women, and especially those subject to intimate terrorism) eventually manifest this same tendency. This is used to explain why “she doesn’t just leave him”.

However, others have observed women in these situations, and have contented that the women do not demonstrate this behavior. In fact, they do still “rebel” in various ways. It’s just that that ways aren’t particularly useful or effective. Therefore, the thinking goes, the women are not “helpless”; they are just… well, they’re something that makes the results pretty much their own fault. “Hysterical” or “immature” or “manipulative” or something.

I think each position has merit, but is too absolute.

Another metaphor for “learned helplessness” is the elephant who was trained in its early years not to fight the chain holding him to a stake in the ground. When the elephant is small, that stake is sufficient to hold him fast. If he fights, he only tires (and perhaps injures) himself. Fighting has no positive result, and potentially negative results.

Once the elephant is grown, he has more than enough strength to pull the stake from the ground, but he never tries. Instead, he may toss its head, trumpet, give his mahout a dirty look, or otherwise generally act cranky or resentful. He does “rebel”, but not in effective ways. He learned long ago not even to try. Pulling the stake doesn’t even occur to him as a valid option.

This, I think, is a better model of the ineffective patterns resulting from prolonged abuse, especially when it started in childhood. The diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) generally includes the accusation of manipulativeness, but also condemns the sufferer for her ineffectiveness and clumsiness. The abused spouse is condemned for staying with her abuser, and her staying is used to accuse her of making it all up or blowing things out of proportion.

But the problem is simpler than that. She makes those dysfuntional decisions because she honestly can’t conceive of other options. She is ineffectual because she learned, long ago, that the effective means of rebellion were not options. Fighting for help (as a child) or leaving (as a spouse) simply never occurs to her.


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