Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Learned Learned Helplessness

Can Learned Helplessness be Learned?

I wrote before about learned helplessness.   In experiments on dogs, psychologists applied shocks to the dog's cages.  In one group, the dog could stop the shocks by pressing a lever (and perhaps receive food by pressing another).  In a second group, no matter which lever was pushed, random shocks occurred.   The first group of dogs was happy and healthy and well-adjusted as they could manipulate their environment and get feedback.   The second group cowered in the corner of the cage and whimpered - nothing they did would affect their environment.  Of course, they also were unhappy because they were being tortured by psychologists - there's that.

But I think the term has meaning and relevance to our lives.  When we are in a situation where nothing we do presents any feedback - no control over our environment whatsoever - we get depressed and give up.   When you can manipulate your environment, you are happy.   And perhaps this is why people have hobbies - they can do something and see immediate feedback from their efforts - as opposed to other aspects of our lives, where feedback isn't as apparent.

For example, as I noted before, many a person has put $100 into their IRA and then gave up when it didn't turn into a million dollars overnight - or worse yet, turned into $95 overnight.   You laugh, I think every young person goes through this phase - at least I did.   It takes decades to accumulate wealth, and the cause-and-effect is not readily apparent to the human mind.   There is no immediate feedback, and by the time feedback is given (at least a decade into the process, if not longer) it is too late to alter previous behavior.

But what about situations where people are not in a Skinner box, with levers and shocks and pellets? Can learned helplessness be learned in other ways?   I was thinking about this after writing "Portrait of a Bernie Bro." which highlighted an article in the New York Times about a young man who has basically given up on life at age 29.  Sadly, the New York Times has published a second article along these lines - profiling another young person who has "given up" on life and is voting for Bernie.  I don't know about you, but it seems to me that the NYT is intentionally setting out to find people to profile for these stories, and creating this narrative out of whole cloth.   This is not news - where you report what happened - is it fabrication, where you make up a narrative and then find data to fit the narrative.   Not reported on are the millions of young people who do have their shit together and are not saying "Oh, woe is me!" all the time.

As I thought of this, it occurred to me that this young fellow profiled in the article was suffering from learned helplessness.  He basically was giving up on trying to improve his lot in life, but instead, throwing himself on the mercy of the government and voting for whoever promises the most amount of cash in his pocket.   First, he is enamored of Andrew Yang, who literally promises to give away money.  When Yang drops out, he moves his sympathy to Sanders, whose student loan wipe-out plan doesn't have the sticky $50,000 limits on dollar amount or an income test they might flunk ($100,000 a year) that Warren proposed.

As I noted, relying on massive social change as a plan to solve your personal problems is a flawed plan.  The change isn't likely to occur, and even if such change did occur, it might not materialize in the way you thought it would.  In other words, the whole thing could blow up in your face.   A better plan is to take action in your own life and find ways to make more money, find ways to save money (the point of this blog) and find ways to put even a small amount of money aside each week.  Even a few dollars a day adds up to a lot over time.

$5 a day - the amount some spend on a breakfast at McDonald's or a designer coffee - invested over 45 years at 7% would yield $458,627.64 at retirement, such is the miracle of compound interest.  But it is not a readily apparent miracle, as I noted above.  To understand this, you have to appreciate projected learning - the hardest kind of thinking you can do.  If there isn't some kind of immediate feedback - the hot stove or the candy treat - most folks are incapable of understanding cause-and-effect.

Which got me thinking, can learned helplessness be learned?  And by that, I mean that someone doesn't have to be trapped in a cage with shocks and levers, but instead be taught to be helpless, by family, friends, government, and society in general?

For example, Andrew Yang tells people they can have free money and that this makes sense.   The press breathlessly reports that Yang is some sort of silicon valley "entrepreneur" but his actual net worth is either not much more than mine - or actually less.   And no, I am not handing out $1000 a month to random strangers.   Not because I am not generous, but because I realize that making people dependent isn't helping them, but hurting them - they learn learned helplessness from it.

That is the other side of the equation to the dog-in-the-cage.   The dog in the cage with the levers can pull a lever and get a food pellet.  The dog in the other cage gets electric shocks randomly and food appears randomly.   It is akin to how young men in the ghetto are raised - they are shaken down by the police on a random basis and then wait for a government handout check, which they receive through no effort on their part.   In our efforts to "help" and "police" people, we've turned them into guinea pigs in a massive social experiment.

No matter how raw a deal you got in life (or how raw a deal you think you got - tragedy visits most of is, at least some of the time) you do have options to make your life better.  Trying for a better job, not going to the check-cashing store or payday loan place, are just an example of two.

In the New York Times article cited above, the young man went to a Lutheran College and apparently got a worthless degree (religious studies? the article doesn't say).  He passively relied upon the bad advice of teachers (government employees with a cushy job and pension) who told him, without any basis in fact or experience, that getting a college degree - any degree - would result in greater income and financial success.  It is The Big Lie that educators have told students for the last couple of decades.  If you read the papers or watch the television, however, you should by now realize it to be the lie that it is - not all degrees are equal.  Moreover, by now, anyone should realize what a trap student loans are.

Working in a tire store might suck, but it doesn't mean there aren't opportunities.  If you are a "hands on" kind of guy, you could turn this into a career as an auto technician, which does require some training, but like the job of Nurse, will insure you always have job options and better pay.  Or you could end up in management - running the store, or maybe multiple stores, over time.   This does require hard work and ambition, of course.

That is the interesting contrast, in my mind.  The NYT piece doesn't interview the wife extensively, but her situation is far better than her husband's - something we see a lot of these days.  Women have entered the workforce, and in many cases are making better money than their men are, often because they make better educational and career choices.   $100,000 in student loans for a nursing degree may seem like a lot (and it probably is - shop around!) but with a potential income of $50,000 to $80,000 a year, this could be earned back in a few years - and paid back, on time, in a decade, which they seem to be doing at $800 a month.

It occurs to me that this fellow should realize his wife is his greatest asset, and instead of being a whiny Bernie Bitch, he should try to improve his lot in life.  Because it seems like the wife is doing all the heavy lifting here - and might find some other fellow out there who does have his shit together and doesn't spend all his time feeling sorry for himself and complaining about the unfairness of life.

I've seen it happen.  A friend of mine had a girlfriend.  She was kind of chubby but cute - sort of an Earth-Goddess type.  She wanted to settle down and raise a family, and wanted a husband who wanted these same things.   That meant a husband with a regular job and job prospects.   Sadly, her boyfriend spend all of his waking hours on politics, arguing the system was "unfair" and stacked against "the little guy".  Not surprisingly, he smoked an awful lot of pot and had a hard time getting a job, even after graduating with a degree (or because he graduated with a degree) in "communications".

Eventually, she got fed up with him - sitting around getting high and talking about left-wing politics, while she went off to work every day.   She hooked up with a guy who ran a restaurant and dumped my friend.   He became bitter - and almost a stalker in fact - and whined about how unfair life was and how she "owed" him her allegiance and whatnot.   Yes, marijuana can be a very harmful drug.

That was in 1978.   Since then, I've seen similar things go down.  Another friend had a girlfriend who was a nurse and we all thought they would be happy together.  He got into the cocaine and decided that he was a "swinger" and started dating underage girls.  Needless to say, his girlfriend moved on with life.

And I did, too.  Those two friends are no longer my friends - they were toxic people.

Like I said it seems to be a pattern, and Hollywood even has a name for it - the "Slacker/Striver" plot, where an earnest young woman who has a good job is dating a "goofy" guy who doesn't take life seriously.   He learns a valuable lesson about responsibility, and she learns to "loosen up" a bit and they all live happily ever after.  A nice fantasy, but it doesn't work that way in real life.  As they said on the set of Senifeld, "no learning, no growing!" because life isn't like that.

But I digress.  Or did I?   In all of these scenarios, there is a common denominator - learned helplessness.  People give up on life and then pine for a government bailout, or drown their sorrows in a bottle, a bong, or a line of coke.   They eschew the most obvious solution to their own life's problems - trying to better themselves - because they tried once, for ten minutes, and nothing happened right away.   People who haven't even started in life are giving up before age 30 (which is an age where you might expect to start seeing results of your efforts) and cowering in the corner.

I think, however, the depressed are in the minority in this country, even if the media likes to laud them with "profile" articles.   Recent election results would seem to indicate that even in liberal Washington State, people are not quite ready to give up and let the government take over their lives.  The vast majority of Americans are not on anti-depressants nor do they feel helpless or have "nothing left to lose."

But they never talk about such folks in the media, do they?   Because that's not a compelling story.  If they ever do profile someone who is successful, it is only to run them down for being "greedy" or something along those lines.  It makes you wonder who runs the media in America - Putin?  Because at one time in this country, success wasn't something you sneered at, but strived for.