Learned helplessness, or why the environmental communicators have got it wrong.

Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.” Arnold Schwarzenegger


Psychology has a term called ‘learned helplessness’. The concept of learned helplessness originated in animal behaviour studies. Animals that were repeatedly exposed to a negative stimulus, from which they could not escape, eventually changed their behaviour so they did not even try and escape from the situation. This behaviour was even more marked when the stimuli were random. For example, dogs exposed to random electric shocks did not attempt to escape these, even when moved to a cage from which they could easily escape, by jumping over a small barrier[1].

From this, the researchers extrapolated the animal behaviour to humans. If humans are constantly exposed to a negative stimulus, the researchers thought that they may learn that nothing they can do will help them, and then expand the feelings of powerlessness to other parts of their lives. They believed that learned helplessness is one of the factors that can exacerbate depression and hopelessness. For example, a young boy might have learning difficulties, but instead of this being recognised and strategies put into place to help him, he may instead be constantly told that he is a failure. This might have long term negative impacts on him, so much so that he feels that he is no good at anything at all.

One of the psychologists involved in this study was Martin Seligman, who went on to be the pioneer of the positive psychology movement. Martin Seligman was particularly interested in depression, and found that the fundamental issue with learned helplessness, and the strongest predictor of a depressive episode was the lack of control over a situation[2].The more people felt that they had little or no control over something, the more likely they were to be depressed. For example, if you hate your job, but you are the sole breadwinner of your family, in a town with few prospects to find another job, you may well feel helpless and hopeless. You are stuck in an awful job, on which you and your family are dependent, and you have no opportunity to get another, better job. Of course, people do have choices, and they have more control over their lives than they often think, but feeling a lack of control can be deeply distressing and depressing.

Of course, humans are not animals, and they respond differently to situations, often in quite varied ways. Humans not only react differently to one another, they also react differently between situations. One situation might cause a specific person to feel hopeless, and another might not. One person might respond to a difficult situation with learned helplessness, and subsequent depression, while another might take it in their stride. One person may feel out of control, and another may not. We are all different, but in our differences, we are all one species.

Later research showed that learned helplessness was linked to three characteristics; permanent (seeing a negative event as never changing and lasting forever); taking things personally; and far reaching (seeing themselves as being poor at everything). For example, a depressed person with learned helplessness may have a chronic illness; and feel that she will never get better (never changing), it is her fault she got the illness (blames herself), and that because she has the illness, she is also going to get other chronic sicknesses (far-reaching).

So what has learned helplessness got to do with the environment?

Since the beginning of the environmental movement, the dominant message from environmental activists has not been one of hope, but one of despair. Read just about any environmental book, website, newspaper article, and what do they all have in common?

First, they are illustrated with photographs of environmental destruction, such as open-cut coal mines, clear cutting of rainforests, dead animals or the like. Second, the language is littered with words such as crisis, devastation, disaster, etc. It is overwhelmingly negative. Third, the scale is vast, the articles talk about global problems, such as climate change, deforestation, desertification, power plants in China, excess fishing or mass flooding and landslides.

I am no Pollyanna. I am not denying the fact that there are often huge environmental problems that have to be addressed. But I feel that it is essential to frame the issue in such a way that people feel that they can do something about the problems of the earth, that what they can do WILL make a difference. If everything is communicated in an overwhelmingly negative way, then the only real response that you, me, the guy down the road, the teacher in the USA, the stallholder in Vietnam, the mechanic in Botswana, is to be depressed, is to gain learned helplessness. If the problems are so huge, so insurmountable, and to solve them requires the cooperation of other nations, some of whom hate each other, what on earth can you or I actually do? What can we do that will make the slightest difference, to be anything other than a drop in the ocean?

The negative communications of well-meaning environmentalists trigger exactly the three main factors that psychology considers as leading to learned helplessness and depression. First, environmental problems are communicated as permanent. Moreover, environmental issues are not only framed as permanent, but getting worse. That may well be so, but we humans are pretty poor at evaluating trends over time. Our memories are fallible, and we often fail to learn the history of something. I will show later, that not everything is getting worse, many things are far better than they were, even 20 years ago.

Second, environmental issues are framed as personal. The environmental movement has done a good job of individualizing environmentalism; of making us feel guilty for our way of life. All the Hurricane Katrinas are our fault. It is our fault that we drive too much, that we use too much electricity, that we want to consume too much, and like to go shopping for cheap clothes made in sweatshops, that we want to live in McMansions with 5 bedrooms and drive 4WD cars to pick up our kids from school. The earth is stuffed, and it is OUR fault. Placing all the responsibility for environmental degradation on individuals ignores the essential powerlessness of many. How can I stop Indonesian forest fires, or the Three Gorges Dam? And if I feel powerless, then what about a person in Baghdad, or Darfur?

Finally, environmental problems are framed as far-reaching, as enormous, virtually insurmountable problems. There are more than a billion people in China and they are building new coal fired power plants every day. There are almost a billion people in India, and it is certainly immoral to deny everyone on earth the same opportunities that we have, such as a car to drive, and electricity. In under 200 years, our industrial activity has increased the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere to higher levels than in the previous 800,000 years.

If these three characteristics are linked to a pessimistic explanatory style, and because of this to learned helplessness and to depression, can you see why the well-meaning communication from environmental groups has not led to wide-scale improvement in the environment, but instead to a lack of action, and feelings of helplessness. After all, what can I do? And even if I do anything at all, what impact is it going to make? Little wonder why most people decide to do nothing, and leave it up to the government or the market, or hope that a technological fix will miraculously save the day. Little wonder why a very much smaller proportion of people decide, well, if the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, they are getting out of it, and going to live out bush somewhere, and stock up on canned vegetables and survivalist paraphernalia.

These are, of course extremes. But neither attitude is going to change anything. Perhaps some miracle will happen and nations will suddenly decide that they don’t hate each other after all, or the market will cease its pursuit of the almighty dollar, or that the technological fixes will not backfire and make things worse, as so many have done in the past. And for those running away from the problems, that is all very well, but is it not an ultimately selfish attitude? Humans are a social species, that does best in small communities (these can be, and often are, in cities), and surely the global problems are after all, our problems, each and every one of us? We did make the problems after all, is it not our responsibility to help fix them?

But, the question remains, what can we, what can you or I, actually do, that will have any impact on global problems? Because even though I am talking about positivity, I am not discounting environmental (and social) problems. If we are to continue as a species, we have to solve these issues, particularly climate change. Our actions are not going to destroy the earth itself, far from it, but are very likely to destroy us. Some may argue that humans are a cancer on the earth, but I totally disagree. We have destroyed a lot, but we are also magnificent creators, singers, poets, writers, painters, scientists, and philosophers. We deeply care for one another, and people have and will continue to do incredible things to protect the ones they love, and even to help and protect a total stranger. We have so much potential within us as a species.

Nonetheless, the world is not a just place. More than a billion people live on less than US$1 per day. Vast swathes of ancient rainforest are torched; the last birds abandon drained wetlands; fish die in polluted creeks, and in a thousand far-flung places, humans are suffering. And in the comfort of the developed world, in our parochial suburbia, we are detached from injustice and environmental devastation. We seem to be moved more by the death of a celebrity than the starving children on the nightly news—they’re too far away and too easily forgotten.

But it is a moral issue as well as an environmental issue. We cannot continue to ignore the increasing injustices of the world. Our unsustainable way of life may have vast and catastrophic implications for our society, and our planet. There are arguably, four core human values; quality of life, security, justice and compassion[3], and no matter what our philosophy, we should have compassion for those who are born to none of these. A few are born to wealth, but most to poverty; and a few are born to power, but most to powerlessness. But we all DO have power, collectively. We CAN make a change, for the better, but we have to do this together.

Copyright: Heather Shearer. You may share or quote from this post, but please credit me as the author.


[1] http://psychology.about.com/od/lindex/f/earned-helplessness.htm

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_helplessness

[3] Milbraith, L. (1989) An inquiry into values for a sustainable society: A personal statement, Envisioning a Sustainable Society: Learning Our Way Out, State University of New York Press, Albany, Ch.4, pp. 58-87

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