The Other Virus: Learned Helplessness

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The American Conservative

Peter Van Buren

What is a culture of compliance, and ever-shifting rules, doing to us?

Why would any American allow the government to deny him a final goodbye to the person who raised him? Why would anyone allow grandma to die untouched in a hospital room without fighting back? In the post-vaccination era, why don’t people remove their masks? Learned helplessness, employed as a control tool.

Learned helplessness is well documented. It takes place when an individual believes he continuously faces a negative, uncontrollable situation and stops trying to improve his circumstances, even when he has the ability to do so. Discovering the loss of control elicits a passive reaction to a harmful situation. Psychologists call this a maladaptive response, characterized by avoidance of challenges and the collapse of problem-solving when obstacles arise. You give up trying to fight back.

An example may help: You must keep up with ever-changing mask and other hygiene theater rules, many of which make no sense (mask in the gym, but not the pool; mask when going to the restaurant toilet but not at your table; NYC hotels are closed while Vegas casinos are open; Disney California closed while Disney Florida was open) and comply.

You could push back, but you have been made afraid at a core level (forget about yourself rascal, you’re going to kill grandma if you don’t do what we say) and so you just give in. Once upon a time we were told a vaccine would end it all, yet the restrictions remain largely in place. You’re left believing nothing will fix this. Helpless to resist, you comply, “out of an abundance of caution.”

American psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier created the term “learned helplessness” in 1967. They were studying animal behavior by delivering electric shocks to dogs (it was a simpler time). Dogs who learned they couldn’t escape the shock simply stopped trying, even after the scientists removed a barrier and the dog could have jumped away.

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