image of a dog

A dog named Keone!


Dog Troubles
Dog Days with commentary: See Dr. Irene's Verbal Abuse Site!  
Abraham Lincoln Didn't Quit
Puppies for Sale This boy was certainly persistent.
Dog recording. These dogs are acting normally.
Learned helplessness. More on Seligman's work on learned helplessness.
The Parable of the Insane Dog Breeder  : Shame
Hawaiian Dog Joke 
But the Dogs....
Circus Elephants

"We are the little doggies that never give up!"

This is what my wife Linda and I say to each other, when facing a similar challenge in a new situation. Even though we might have failed before, we remind ourselves that this is a different situation, and this time, we just might succeed.

Our quote refers to a famous experiment that Martin E. P. Seligman performed during the late 1960's with a dog placed in a shuttlebox. A shuttlebox, is basically a box with two compartments, with a low fence separating them. When a normal dog is placed into one side of the box, and given a harmless electrical shock, the dog will escape by jumping over the barrier to the other side. If the dog is shocked again, the dog will again escape by jumping over the barrier to the original side. With a normal dog, this behavior will continue ad infinitum. The normal dog will always try to escape from the shock, and always jump over the fence.

However, what Seligman found, is that when a dog is restrained inside a bag and repeatedly given the same harmless electrical shock, the dog learns that it cannot escape from the shock. Now, when this so trained dog is placed in the new situation of a shuttlebox and given a shock, the dog does not jump over the fence, but instead, whimpers in the corner as he receives the shock. The learning of inescapable shock is generalized to all situations. Even though the other side of the compartment is in plain view of the dog, the dog does not realize it can go over and escape the shock. Thus, Seligman formulated the theory of "learned helplessness." He suggested that much of society's ills, result from people learning to be helpless. I see it all the time, children and adults who don't want to try.

There is a simple cure. When such a trained dog is given the shock, and the dog is simultaneously pushed or led over the barrier, it learns that in this new situation, it can escape the shock. After a few sessions of being pushed over the fence while receiving the shock, the dog once again behaves normally and jumps over the fence when shocked. It's behavior can no longer be distinguished from that of a normal dog which never had the experience. Similarly, with a child or adult, the cure is to demonstrate that they can do it, even if you have to lead them through the process a few times.

Others have learned this lesson too:

"Never give up. Never give up. Never give up!" Winston Churchill's famous words during World War II.

One caveat: the belief of never giving up (If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again) is strongly ingrained in our culture. But, there are times when this belief fails us.

The Serenity Prayer

God, grant me
The Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can, and
Wisdom to know the difference.

Last updated 20 October 2000

Copyright © 1998-9 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.


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