Don’t Be That Helpless Dog: Control Your Situation!

By - Dr. Damon Bryant On Mar 20, 2017

Don’t Be That Helpless Dog: Control Your Situation!


I love psychology and how we can apply it to improve understanding our culture and our people. Thus, I often read a lot of the early scientific research. Here is a summary of one study by Dr. Marty Seligman on learned helplessness. He conducted the research in the mid-1960s. Originally, he designed a study to look at how an organism can be conditioned to be helpless. In this case, the organism was a dog, but later research shows how it applies to humans.


There were several conditions in this study, but I’ll only refer to two that were the most important. There were two boxes (Box A and Box B) in which dogs could be placed. Both boxes had high walls and metal floors where electric shock could be applied at random for any amount of time. In Box A, when a lever was pressed, the shock from the floor could be stopped. In Box B, there was a lever that could be pressed, but it did not stop the shock from happening.

Conditioning Phase

Seligman and his researchers conditioned several dogs in each of the boxes. One set of dogs was in Condition A with Box A: Random shocks were applied and dogs could press the lever to stop the random shocking. Another set of dogs was in Condition B with Box B: Random shocks were applied, and dogs could press the lever but the shocks continued. In other words, Condition B was the condition in which dogs were helpless and could not change their situation or stop the painful shock. Conversely, Condition A was the condition in which the dogs could do something to change their situation and stop the shock. Across both conditions, when a bell rang and researchers shocked the dogs, the dogs whined, howled, barked, jumped, and scratched initially. This is evidence that they felt the pain when aroused by the electric shock.

As the conditioning phase moved along, the bell rang and the shock occurred to both sets of dogs. The dogs in Condition A moved around randomly and eventually learned to press the lever to stop the shock. Dogs in Condition B moved around randomly and even pressed the lever, but they could not stop the shock. In other words, Condition B dogs whined, complained, howled, and shivered helplessly. Condition B dogs eventually stopped jumping but just helplessly howled and prepared for the shock when hearing the bell. This is sad, truly sad. After researchers shocked the dogs in both conditions over a set number of times, then the real purpose of the study started.

Test Phase

Researchers placed two boxes side by side. In one box (Box C), researchers created a metal floor on which they could apply electric shocks. In the other box (Box D), researchers created a floor on which electric shocks were not applied. On one side of the boxes, researchers lowered it whereby a dog could jump from one box to the next. In other words, boxes (C and D) were adjacent to each other and a dog could easily jump from one box (C) to another (D). Then, researcher evaluated both Condition A and B dogs in the new condition.


When the bell rang and shocks administered, which dogs jumped from Box C to Box D? Dogs from Condition A, who could control the shocks in the conditioning phase, quickly jumped from Box C to Box D when the bell rang. Dogs from Condition B, who were helpless and could not control the shocks in the conditioning phase, did not jump from Box C when the bell rang. The helpless dogs cried, whined, complained, and balled up in the fetal position and took the shock. This is very depressing. The researchers trained the dogs to be helpless; researchers conditioned the dogs to just whine, howl, and do nothing; the dogs lost their natural ability to deal with the environment and gave up. They took the shocks and did nothing to change their condition – even though they could change their condition by jumping over to the other box!

Real World Application

The Impact

Seligman conditioned the dogs into a state of learned helplessness. He's been able to replicate this (under more humane conditions in a psychology lab) with white college-aged students. The results generalized. Now let’s apply this. America and our shared dark history of racism have conditioned most descendants of kidnapped Africans to be helpless. This is evident with the legacy of American chattel slavery, black codes, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and racism/discrimination in employment, education, and healthcare. In the past, slave patrols, plantation owners, mistresses, and overseers conditioned most of our ancestors in immoral captivity in this cruel manner as well. The effects of centuries of racism and oppression in American have created this helpless condition. Our ancestor’s response to this condition was about mere survival. However, today this is not our natural psychological state and collectively we must change.

Our ancestors have passed down this learned behavior unconsciously from generation to generation. At some point, this information may be embedded within our genetic code, and our descendants may express this behavioral pattern. We must change. The congressional Black Caucus (CBC, who are virtually useless in my opinion) periodically proposed bills to study the effects of chattel slavery in America. Every time, the bill never makes it out of committee; the CBC does nothing to advance the agenda and is helpless. They must change.


I don’t need permission to tell you. Slavery psychologically and physically jacked up our ancestors. There is no question about it. Our ancestors very likely passed some dysfunctional psychological behaviors, including learned helplessness, to us through our parents and culture. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome proposed by Dr. Joy DeGruy is clear evidence of this psychological and physical trauma. It is the most serious attempt to address this multifaceted issue. This is good to know as a path to recovery. Considering the aforementioned, I will chat briefly about one of potentially many alternatives.

The Flip Side

On the flip side of this horrible psychological condition, learned helplessness, is another psychological condition, learned optimism. Dr. Marty Seligman, the father of the recently created movement of Positive Psychology, has also discovered this condition. Being less than 30 years old, Positive Psychology focuses on strengths – specifically positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning of life, and achievement. The focus of my work is on expertise, motivation, and achievement. I hope to increase the level of self-awareness so that we all can move to higher states of psychological functioning and growth. I’ll start by saying: Don’t be that dog! Stop whining and complaining about your situation. You have unimaginable powers to change your situation - you only need to see and believe in your true self. Let no one give you permission! Now is your time. Be more optimistic. You can control your situation!

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