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#55: Natural Helplessness, Learned Hopefulness

#55: Natural Helplessness, Learned Hopefulness

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Welcome to another Mindf*ck Monday, the only weekly newsletter that isn’t afraid to piss off its own readers. Each week, I send you three potentially life-changing ideas to help you be a slightly less awful human being. This week, we’re talking about 1) natural helplessness, learned hopefulness, 2) seeking out those you disagree with, and 3) what I’ve been reading lately. 

Let’s get into it. 

1. Natural helplessness, learned hopefulness – Back in the mid-20th century, a school of psychology known as “behaviorism” was all the rage. Behaviorism was based on the assumption that actions were determined by the inputs of our environment. It saw humans in a mechanistic way, reflections of the pleasures and pains inserted into the world around us. 

As a result, a lot of behaviorist experiments involved administering electric shocks to rats, other animals, and yes, even humans. Behaviorists believed that you could “condition” certain beliefs, emotions, and behaviors via reward and punishment. A lot of the weird shit you hear about mind control techniques and brainwashing experiments in the 1950s came from behaviorist ideas. 

But it was among the shocks and rewards that, in the 1960s, a young grad student named Martin Seligman decided to try something different. He wondered what if instead of making the electric shocks predictable based on performing the wrong behaviors, you made them completely unpredictable? What if you punished people randomly, with no rhyme or reason? 

Seligman and a colleague ran a series of experiments on dogs that found something fascinating. 

As anyone with a dog knows, when you punish them for a certain behavior, they stop doing that behavior. But when punished randomly and unpredictably, the dogs did something far more interesting. They laid down and accepted their fate. They no longer even tried to respond to the punishments. They just laid there and took it. 

This observation later became known as “learned helplessness” and it was Seligman’s big claim to fame. Its applications were shown to be widespread and varied. It became an explanation for why victims of domestic violence don’t leave. It helped explain why oppressed groups rarely rose up against their oppressors in history. It helped expand our understanding of depression and mental health. 

Learned helplessness was a big deal because it showed that when we feel as though we have no control over our lives for long enough, we mentally and emotionally give up. We become passive spectators of our own existence. 

This view later informed our understanding of self-esteem and self-help in general. We’re fine, going about our lives, then something fucked up happens, we feel a loss of control, and we become a passive, depressive, emotional mess. 

Interestingly, a couple years ago, Seligman did something few psychologists ever do: he returned to his own theory many years later and re-evaluated it, given new evidence and understanding. There, he made a big and bold revision of his famous theory that, I believe, has major ramifications for how we understand ourselves. 

In that revision, Selgiman said neuroscience showed that learned helplessness had it backwards. We do not inherently have control of our lives and, once punished by the world, learn to become helpless. 

It’s the other way around: we start out helpless and must learn to take control of our lives. 

It’s not learned helplessness; it’s learned hopefulness. Feeling helpless and out of control is our default state. Taking control of our lives and developing hopeful feelings is something that we must learn and practice and protect within ourselves. 

If you think about it, this makes far more sense. When we are born, we are naturally helpless and entirely dependent on our caretakers. When we are young, we have little control in our lives. One big role of parenting and education is to teach kids to take control of their own lives, to see their problems as surmountable, so that by the time they are adults, they see themselves as the arbiters of their own destiny. 

This also means that we do not simply fail children through neglect or abuse—we can fail them by preventing them from ever facing the world. It’s in this way that the coddling and suffocating over-protection of a child can be as developmentally disruptive as neglecting or abusing a child. In both cases, the child never learns control or agency. In both cases, the child is encouraged to remain in their default state of helplessness and passivity.  

And in terms of self-help, for decades the industry has been selling the message that, “You were once functional and happy. Then somebody or something came and fucked you up.” 

But it’s quite the opposite. You were always dysfunctional and fucked. You just never learned how to be otherwise. In that sense, the role of self-help is not to help people discover some forgotten, untarnished part of their long-lost selves. Rather, it’s to help us develop the life skills of autonomy and self-control so that we may face the future. 

2. Seek out people you disagree with – Last week, I wrote a newsletter about American democracy and institutional decay. I also shared who I’m voting for. Predictably, this upset some readers. Some were upset because of my choice. Some were upset that I didn’t vocally condemn the side I disagreed with as horrible people. Some were upset that I talked about my political beliefs at all. 

Well, you’re reading the “not give a fuck” guy, so let me just say it: I don’t give a fuck. 

That said, I did it for a reason. One, I believe in transparency. And if I’m going to write extensively about American politics, I should at least suggest where I lay my hat. Second, and more importantly, such information shouldn’t be controversial or incendiary. It should be just another boring detail about me—like the fact that I prefer soccer over baseball or that I find superhero movies boring. 

This summer, I wrote out a few principles on which this newsletter is based upon. Those three principles were: 

  • Just because I write something doesn’t mean I necessarily think it’s true, it just means I think it’s interesting and/or worth considering.  
  • Research I share is not fact, it’s evidence.
  • Being wrong and changing your mind should not be shameful or embarrassing—it should be encouraged and celebrated.

Well, allow me to add another principle to that list: 

  • There is value listening to people you disagree with. The point is not consensus but understanding.

A lot of Trump voters replied to me last week. I did my best to engage with as many of them as possible. And I am happy to say that 80-90% of the conversations went well and reached a place of mutual respect, if not some sort of shared understanding. Many thanked me for taking the time to reply and share my ideas as they said that they had not talked to someone from “the other side” in years. I consider that a win. 

I think it is incredibly important that you seek out writers and thinkers you disagree with, and then listen to them. Similarly, I think it is incredibly important to have readers that disagree with me. I think it’s important that I hear from them regularly and that they hear from me. It makes me a better writer and all of you better readers. It makes us each smarter and better thinkers. And it makes our societies more functional and understanding. 

3. What I’ve been reading lately – It’s been awhile since I’ve dropped some book recommendations here. And with all the craziness in the world and a new wave of lockdowns imminent, what better time to pick up a few books? 

Below are a few of my recent favorites. 

How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD – I picked this one up due to a number of readers pushing me to read it. Barrett has become a bit of a controversial figure in psychology as she has completely subverted our understanding of emotions and where they come from. It’s extremely well-written, well-researched, and interesting throughout. If you’re looking for a great psychology book, this is a great pick. 

The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel – Most money books are tactical — they talk about how to ask for a raise or finding the best credit card deal. As long-time readers will know, I don’t really do tactical. I do philosophical. I do strategical. 

(Is ‘strategical’ even a word?)

Anyway, I’ve always wished there was a money book that took the philosophical/strategic view about money, and Housel’s book is the first I’ve come across that does and it’s excellent. It doesn’t tell you how to get rich, it asks you what “rich” means to you and why do you have that desire in the first place. I think a more accurate title for the book would be, “Mindsets about money.” It’s great. I read it in a single day. 

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey – I was fortunate enough to get sent an early copy of this, so you’ll see my quote plastered on it. Admittedly, celebrity memoirs aren’t typically in my reading stack. But McConaughey has always been a bit eccentric, and considering we’re both native Texans/Austinites, I figured I’d give it a go. 

I’m glad I did. It’s quite revealing. But also a highly interesting take on a highly interesting life. McConaughey is a very unconventional person in many ways. Therefore it’s kind of fascinating to learn how he’s achieved absurd amounts of conventional success. It’s also possibly the most Texan book I’ve ever read. And I mean that in a good way. 

Lives of the Stoics by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman – Readers ask me all the time if I consider myself a Stoic. I don’t, really (I’m more of an existentialist), although I do find a lot in Stoicism to admire. It occurred to me when I got this book that I know far less about the Stoics than I do about their ideas. So it’s been a nice little history lesson for me. It’s also Ryan Holiday, so you know it will be highly readable and high value-to-word ratio. 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – To be honest, I haven’t read much fiction this year. Much of my fiction time has been stolen by history books, as I’ve needed them to periodically remind me that the world isn’t ending. 

But Towles’ great period piece was a delight. It’s about a former Russian aristocrat stuck in the newly-formed Soviet Union. It’s been bombarded with accolades and is becoming a television series, and for good reason. A wonderful read. 

Okay, that’s it for now. Hopefully my city isn’t on fire tomorrow. 

Stay sane. Stay safe. 

Until next week,
Mark