Learned helplessness

I’m reading a book called “The Choice: Embrace the Possible” by Edith Eva Eger, a concentration camp survivor.

In the book, she writes about learned helplessness:

In the 1960s, Martin Seligman, a psychologist, conducted a series of experiments on dogs. It would be deemed cruelty to animals today, but these laws weren’t around then. 

He found that when dogs who were given painful shocks were able to stop the pain by pressing a lever, the dogs quickly learned how to stop the pain. And they were able, in subsequent experiments, to figure out how to escape painful shocks given in a kennel cage, by jumping over a small barrier.

In contrast, dogs who hadn’t been given a means to stop the pain learned that they were helpless against it. When they were put in the same kennel cage and given shocks, they ignored the route to escape, and just lay in the kennel and whimpered. 

From this, Seligman concluded that when we feel we have no control over our circumstances, when we believe that nothing we do can reduce our suffering or improve our lives, we stop taking action on our own behalf because we believe there is no point. 

As I read it, a memory flashed across my mind. It was my memory of learning Mandarin in school. My Mandarin has always been bad. No matter how much I studied, how hard I tried, and how much tuition I received, I was always borderline passing the subject.

In JC, I finally dipped below the passing grade, and no matter how hard I tried, I just could not pass the subject. In my first year of JC, I put so much effort to the subject that I was failing at everything else. In my second year, I told my parents that I was not going to continue tuition, because no matter how hard I tried, I just wasn’t passing it. I was just going to stop learning Mandarin and focus on my other subjects.

I was able to pull up my grades at ‘A’ Levels, and my Mandarin grade actually improved by one, but it was still a fail grade.

And since then, I always believed that there was no point for me to learn another language, that somehow, I sucked at languages.

I think I have this learned helplessness, regarding language and memory.


Reading further on, it says that self-defeating behaviour first emerged as useful behaviour, to satisfy a need, usually a need for one of the A’s: Attention, Affection, Approval.

Once people start to see why they developed a certain behaviour, they can then decide if they want to maintain it.

So let’s see…

I developed the behaviour regarding language because I was failing at all my other subjects. But that doesn’t mean that I am really bad at language. Maybe I just needed another approach.

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