Learned Helplessness

I’m back from the ISSA conference in Baltimore. Conferences are a great place to test out ideas to find out which ones stand up to scrutiny. I was giving my “Death by a Thousand Facts” presentation (otherwise known as the We’ve Got It All Wrong Roadshow) when Marcus Ranum pointed out a problem with my application of the term “learned helplessness”.

Learned Helplessness is a concept used to describe the effect when animals essentially “give up” and consign themselves to negative consequences. In a famous series of experiments, Martin Seligman put dogs in pens with a low wall and ran an electric current through the floor to produce an unpleasant sensation. The dogs which had not encountered the shocks before jumped over the wall to escape the sensation. Surprisingly, the dogs which had previously been exposed to shocks which they hadn’t been able to escape essentially “gave up” and lay down in the pen.