Training Circus Elephants, an Example of Learned Helplessness

Blind Men & the Elephant
We are the Doggies that never give up!

I found the following passage in a book written by Gavin de Becker in 1997 entitled: "The Gift of Fear, Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence," Boston: Little Brown (pages 228-9). It essentially explains the dynamics of learned helplessness. "The way circus elephants are trained demonstrates this dynamic well: When young, they are attached by heavy chains to large stakes driven deep into the ground. They pull and yank and strain and struggle, but the chain is too strong, the stake too rooted. One day they give up, having learned that they cannot pull free, and from that day forward they can be "chained" with a slender rope. When this enormous animal feels any resistance, though it has the strength to pull the whole circus tent over, it stops trying. Because it believes it cannot, it cannot. "

"You'll never amount to anything"; "You can't sing"; You're not smart enough"; Your're a loser"; "You should have more realistic goals"; "You're the reason our marriage broke up"; "Without you kids I'd have had a chance"; You're worthless"-(more)-"This opera is being sung in homes all over America right now, the stakes driven into the ground, the heavy chains attached, the children reaching the point they believe they cannot pull free. And at that point, they cannot."

"Unless and until something changes their view, unless they grasp the striking fact that they are tied with a thread, that the chain is an illusion, that they were fooled, and ultimately, that whoever so fooled them was wrong about them and that they were wrong about themselves-- unless all this happens, these children are not likely to show society their positive attributes as adults."

Last updated 22 September 1998

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


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