Sep 02 2009

Dogs, painful electric shocks, and explanatory style: feeling discouraged

It’s pretty simple. The research shows us that when people feel discouraged and helpless, they are more likely to become depressed. There are several landmark studies conducted by Martin Seligman and Steven Maier describing the phenomenon of learned helplessness using dogs and the effect of exposing the dogs to unpleasant electrical shocks while in a harness.

Ouch! While it does seem unpleasant to expose dogs to electric shocks, the results of the studies have helped us understand some of the underlying causes of depression and hopelessness.

In the research, there were 3 groups of dogs who were placed in a harness. In the first group, the dogs were placed in the harness for a period of time, then released.

The dogs in group 2 were intentionally exposed to pain from electrical shocks which continued until the dogs learned to press a lever which ended the painful electric shock.

The dogs in group 3 were placed in harnesses which were wired to the harnesses of the dogs in group 2. This meant that when the dogs in group 2 were exposed to the painful electric shock, the dogs in group 3 experienced the same identical painful shock.

However, the dogs in group 3 did not have a lever to end the shock, so they experienced the electrical shock as random, out of their control, and inescapeable.

The dogs in groups 1 and 2 recovered quickly from their experiences, but the dogs in group 3 exhibited symptoms similar to depression.

The most revealing finding of these studies came when these same three groups of dogs were placed in a box with a low partition from which they could easily escape when exposed to the painful electrical shocks.

What do you think happened?

If you guessed that the dogs in groups 1 and 2 easily and quickly jumped over the partition and escaped the painful electric shocks, you were right.

You may not have been able to guess that the dogs in group 3 who did not learn to control the electrical shock simply layed down on the floor of the box with the painful electrical shock.

Although they could have easily excaped the painful shocks, they remained in the box due to their learned helplessness.

Now in later studies, not all the dogs in the group 3 remained in the box. Of the approximately 150 dogs used in these studies, about a 1/3 did not become “helpless.”

So, it’s good news that some dogs didn’t learn to be helpless in the face of painful stimuli. They had a resilience to adversity, similar to human beings who are exposed to adversity, but seem to bounce back quickly.

The term used to describe this difference in people is called “explanatory style.”

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