Learning to be Depressed
Dr. Melissa Gebbia
Throughout life we all have different experiences whether they be positive or negative. Our hope is that if an experience is negatively affecting us we ourselves have an ability to change it. Generally, most people expect that the outcome of an event is dependent on their actions and that if they behave a certain way, a certain desirable outcome will be produced. This leads us to believe that we have control over what happens to us. This idea is all based on our beliefs of control and power in previous experiences and using them in our everyday life. If we lack personal power or experienced a lack of control in the past, we are then more likely to feel helplessness when approaching new experiences. Martin Seligman, a behavioral psychologist, theorized that our perceptions of power and control are learned from experience (Seligman, 1975). Seligman believed that if someone continually tries to exert force on a situation and fails repeatedly, the individual will stop attempting to exert control all together and may generalize the perception of lack of control to all future situations. He studied this behavioral pattern with dogs as subjects at the University of Pennsylvania (Seligman, 1975). While conducting an experiment on learning, Seligman noticed a surprising conclusion with his dogs. In his original experiment, he exposed the dogs to electrical shocks that they could not control nor escape from. It was demonstrated later on that when there is an escape easily accessed they still failed to escape the shock. This test consisted of a shuttle box which was split in half by a divider. The electricity was only run through one side of the box forcing the dog to escape the shock by jumping over the divider. This behavior is normally learned quickly because it would help the dogs adapt in a real situation. This escape-avoidance behavior should occur even more rapidly when there is a signal to warn the animals of the impending shock so that they can avoid it completely. However, this assumption was proven wrong when Seligman’s dogs who were shocked initially and couldn’t escape, could not escape in the shuttle box (Hock, 1995). His hypothesis now was that the dogs had learned that they were able to control the unwanted stimulus and that control or lack thereof, determined their future experiences. To further research this belief, Seligman and Maier (1995) studied the effect of controllable versus uncontrollable shock on later ability to learn to avoid shock (p.244). They used 24 dogs, 15-19 inches high at the shoulder and weighting between 25 and 29 pounds. These animals were then separated into three groups of eight dogs, one an escape group, one a no-escape group and one a control group. The dogs were initially placed in harnesses that kept them restrained but not completely unable to move. The dog’s head was held in place with a panel on each side. To move the panel all the dog would have to do is move his head and the same applied for when the electrical shock was administered. As the shocks continued all the dog would have to do is move his head to eliminate them, and learn this behavior for the future (Hock, 1995). The no-escape dogs however, where not as lucky. When the shock was administered to them, no matter what they did the shock continued, teaching them that they had no control over the shocks. The control group of dogs received no shocks at this point. The groups receiving shocks received a total of 64 in a 90-second interval. After one day, all the dogs were placed in shuttle boxes, with lights as 10-second indicators of the impending 60-second shock. The dog could escape the shock completely if he learned to jump over the barrier in those 10 seconds (Hock, 1995). Seligman found...
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