Ex-JW and Learned Helplessness

The subject of my honors research is Learned Helplessness.  This is a subject that is of interest to Jehovah’s Witnesses, active and former, because they too may experience Learned Helplessness.  Let’s discuss what helplessness is and why it might be affecting you.

Learned Helplessness was discovered by Martin Seligman.  In addition to publishing various research articles on the subject, he Authored the book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.  I highly recommend checking it out if you are an active or former Jehovah’s Witness.

Learned Helplessness is the state of hopelessness and powerlessness that comes from being exposed to some sort of traumatic environment which cannot be escaped.  Seligman discovered this working with dogs in a shuttle box.

Dogs were placed in a box with a partial divider in the middle that they could jump over.  One side of the box would deliver electric shocks.  When Dogs who had never been in the box before were placed in the box and given shocks they quickly learn to jump to the non-shock side of the box.

Other dogs, an experimental group, were put in the box and given shocks which they could not escape.  Eventually, the dogs stop jumping around.  They learn they can’t escape the shocks so they just lie down and stop trying.  What’s most fascinating is that when the Dogs who have been exposed to inescapable shocks are given the opportunity to escape they don’t.

What’s more is that when the dogs were given the opportunity to escape if by chance they did happen to move across to the non-shock side of the box they did not learn that moving provided relief from shocks.  That’s right they would jump back to the shocks without ever learning that their behavior was affecting their pain.

So being exposed to traumatic inescapable events made the dogs A. learn they could not escape so they didn’t even try and B. it impaired future learning.  Mice who are given similar conditioning have reduced the ability to escape mazes, as their ability to both learn and navigate spaces has been decreased due to the helplessness.

These deficits are associated with changes in the physical brain structure, in particular, the hippocampus.  A paradoxical overreaction of the parasympathetic nervous system is also thought to play a role in passive behavior. The Parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for reducing respiration and heart rate but the overactivity can produce lethargy, inactivity, and in extreme cases even death.

Yes in some laboratory experiments the animals were thought to be so overwhelmed with hopelessness that they stopped breathing and their hearts stopped beating.  They experienced what the researchers called “sudden death”.  I have to wonder if there is also some relationship between helplessness and human suicide but I have not specifically looked into this yet.

Interesting right?  See any parallels to your experience with Jehovah’s Witnesses?

How does this apply to the Jehovah’s Witness experience?  Well in two ways, and this would be especially true of individuals who were born into the organization.  The first is when you are currently in the Jehovah’s Witness organization.  Growing up you are not allowed to do a lot of things.  You aren’t allowed to do things to help yourself or change your situation. So as an adult even if you’re no longer living with your parents you might not do anything to escape despite the profound harm something might be causing you.

The second way is after we escape the organization. We may continue to experience helplessness in various areas of life. This can take so many forms.  It can be apparent in the way we put up with things rather than fix them.  This may take the form of being passive in the face of social adversity.  It may even take the form of failure to explore, make changes, or advancements in your life.

So how do we fix this?  Researchers were able to help dogs overcome their state of helplessness and we can overcome it too.  I will be writing more articles on how the dogs overcame helplessness and how we can as well.  Stay tuned!

Additionally, I am looking for people who have specific examples of when they have experienced some form of helplessness.  Feel free to reach out to me at elryancitoblog@gmail.com with your story or post in the comments below.  Thank you.


Published by Ryan David Tuttle

PhD Graduate student studying Behavioral Neuroscience, Addiction, Stress, Behavioral Economics, and Individual Differences. Former member Ministerial Servant and Pioneer in a Spanish speaking congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses.

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