Learned Helplessness and Voter Apathy

24 Jul

There are things that are important to us, and things that are not. There are things that we can control, and things that we cannot. Our ability, or not, to control unimportant things is of little consequence. It is otherwise with our ability to control important things.

We cannot control the weather, for example, not very much. Nor can we control the fact that we, and everyone we know, is going to die. Yes, we may have some limited control over the timing and circumstances but the fact of death itself is beyond our control.

So how do we deal with those things that are enormously important to us, but which we cannot control?

Learned Helplessness

I want to come back to that, but for now let’s set it aside and think about learned helplessness, a phenomenon identified by Martin Seligman and his colleagues in the late 1960s. Here’s a typical experiment as explained in the Wikipedia entry:

In Part 1 of Seligman and Steve Maier’s experiment, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses. Group 1 dogs were simply put in the harnesses for a period of time and later released. Groups 2 and 3 consisted of “yoked pairs.” A dog in Group 2 would be intentionally subjected to pain by being given electric shocks, which the dog could end by pressing a lever. A Group 3 dog was wired in series with a Group 2 dog, receiving shocks of identical intensity and duration, but his lever didn’t stop the electric shocks. To a dog in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was his paired dog in Group 2 that was causing it to stop. For Group 3 dogs, the shock was apparently “inescapable.” Group 1 and Group 2 dogs quickly recovered from the experience, but Group 3 dogs learned to be helpless, and exhibited symptoms similar to chronic clinical depression.

That is to say, the dogs in Groups 1 and 2 did not appear to be depressed. The experiment had a second part:

In Part 2 of the Seligman and Maier experiment, these three groups of dogs were tested in a shuttle-box apparatus, in which the dogs could escape electric shocks by jumping over a low partition. For the most part, the Group 3 dogs, who had previously learned that nothing they did had any effect on the shocks, simply lay down passively and whined. Even though they could have easily escaped the shocks, the dogs didn’t try.

Read that last sentence again: The dogs who had learned they were helpless against shocks in a different situation continued to act as though they were helpless in this new situation, one where they could have avoided the shock if they tried.

Now, consider this experiment performed with human infants:

One such later experiment, presented by Watson & Ramey (1969), consisted of two groups of human babies. One group was placed into a crib with a sensory pillow, designed so that the movement of the baby’s head could control the rotation of a mobile. The other group had no control over the movement of the mobile and could only enjoy looking at it. Later, both groups of babies were tested in cribs that allowed the babies to control the mobile. Although all the babies now had the power to control the mobile, only the group that had already learned about the sensory pillow attempted to use it.

Like the dogs who could have controlled shocks when put in a shuttle box, but didn’t, babies who could control a mobile, but had been unable to do so in another situation, didn’t even try.

The phenomenon is a complicated one, and even the Wikipedia article has more to say. But that’s enough to give a sense of what the phenomenon is.

The Helpless Electorate

I’m wondering if the American electorate is infected with learned helplessness. People don’t vote because they’ve learned over the years that it really doesn’t matter. If you look at data about voter turnout for presidential elections going back to the first quarter of the 19th century you see that turnout between 70% and 80% (and even just a bit above) was typical. Of the 18 presidential elections from 1828 to 1896, only four had a turnout of less than 70% and on of those, 1852, was only just less: 69.9%. Of the 28 presidential elections from 1900 to 2008, only one had a turnout of above 70% and that was 1900. There were only 11 (of 28) where the turnout was above 60%.

What happened at the beginning of the 20th Century? I don’t know, though I assume the political scientists have a lot to say. What I’m going to say now is that people have learned that it doesn’t matter. A vote in the presidential election simply doesn’t affect their lives in way where they can get a sense of control.

And so we have major parties that have become alike in many ways. Both are parties of big business and of war. Business controls most of the issues (war, after all, is good for many businesses). Voting in presidential elections isn’t going to affect those matters at all. So why bother?

Still, Many People DO Vote, Why?

Yet, if turnout has been less than 60% in most cases over the last century, it’s been less than 50% in only two cases, 1920 and 1920. Why have most eligible voter in fact been voting?

Perhaps many of them have not succumbed to helplessness; maybe they’re content with the choices offered to them and so gain a sense of participation through the act of voting.

And perhaps many do not, in fact, vote as an attempt to exert control over their lives. They vote for another reason: To express solidarity with others and, in effect, with the aggressor politicians who are, in fact, ruling on behalf the interests of the oligarchic 1% rather than of the democratic 99%.

And this brings us back to our opening paragraphs. We can’t control weather and we can’t control death. So what do we do? We propitiate the weather gods and goddesses and the gods and goddesses of the afterlife. These rituals make us feel good, especially because WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. We can’t control the weather, but we can cozy up with our fellows during the rain and drought.

And so that’s what national politics is about these days in the USofA, finding people who think like you do and hoisting a few with them in your local bar while you curse whomever your chosen candidate tells you to curse.

What it ISN’T about is making choices about, well, about the weather for example. We CAN in fact control what we are doing to make the weather worse. But we can’t do it as individuals acting alone.

How do we unlearn the helplessness we’ve been trained to so that we can make the choices available to us?


5 Responses to “Learned Helplessness and Voter Apathy”

  1. Janet Hays July 24, 2012 at 3:58 pm #

    We can get rid of the Electoral College and let the popular vote determine the President. Now all the campaign efforts go to a few swing states. I always vote, but it’s easy to feel that we here in New York don’t matter much. I’d be interested in seeing if the % voting is greater in those swing states because people know that their state’s vote can make or break their candidate.

    Another approach: Some years ago I thought about a K-12 curriculum that would turn out responsible citizens of New York – not residents, but citizens. Starting with, say, the idea that you’re a member of your kindergarten class so you take part it making it a good place for everyone in your class – clean, attractive, convenient, good place to work, etc. Over the years your scope broadens to include your school, neighborhood, the whole city – you learn history, geography, geology, social, political and economic life and take appropriate action in an area of your interest. I hadn’t thought about expanding to the national level, but it could be done. People would learn that they don’t have to be helpless about the place where they live.

    • Janet Hays July 24, 2012 at 4:00 pm #

      Who are the moderators?
      Janet Hays

      • Bill Benzon July 24, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

        Basically, I am, Janet.

        And thanks for your thoughtful comment above.

        As for the TnT Party, there’s some links up at the top, below the banner heading: Declaration, TNT Defined, etc. That’ll tell you about the party. It started as an attempt to catalyze another party that would field candidates, etc. but is not NOW about education and provocation.

  2. Charlie Keil July 25, 2012 at 6:17 am #

    It is NOW about education and provocation, or so I think. And also about a complete paradigm shift, described comprehensively as the Great Transition by “new economics foundation” in UK and New Economics Institute in USA. The Green Party’s “10 key values” are also in alignment with nef and NEI. I wish they would all join hands with whatever remains of the Ron Paul youth and the Occupy movement to chant “End the Fed” and “End the Empire” and End the Endless Wars of waste & species extinctions.


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