Elephant syndrome… The concept of learned helplessness should resonate clearly for most of you because the evidence of its existence is so easily seen in most any organization or home environment. Helplessness is any condition where a desired escape or change is impossible. When we speak of learned helplessness, we are referring to a state in which a person perceives (incorrectly) that there are no opportunities for escape or means by which they can effect a change.
Most of you have probably seen television documentaries or read stories about how elephant trainers control their huge wild animals in captivity. A full-grown male African Elephant can measure 7 ½ meters in length and weigh 6 tons or more. But a baby elephant is quite manageable in size and strength and is easily restrained to a small area with one end of a chain fastened to its leg and the other to a good sized tree. The elephant soon learns that escape is impossible. However, this inescapable condition is soon outgrown. The questions then becomes, why doesn’t the animal escape? Because it has over-learned that the specific act of escape from the restraint is impossible. Not only this, but the animal submits to the overall authority of its master because its submission to the restraint is generalized to other areas. This intelligent animal learns at an early age that it must submit to the will of its master. It is quite amazing to see these mammoth giants being guided around by a puny rope or ridden like a pony on steroids. But this is only possible because of the conditioning that the animal experienced early in its life. In essence, the elephant has learned that it is helpless, that it can not escape and that it must submit to the will of its master. Thus, the name, Elephant syndrome.
Dr. Martin Seligman, Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, I is widely accepted as the father of learned helplessness. His work on learned helplessness began in the animal laboratory of Richard Solomon at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid 1960’s. Solomon was studying what is called avoidance behavior. Avoidance behaviors are established when subjects learn that a warning stimulus or signal (in this case a light) is followed by an averse stimulus (in this case a mild shock). These researchers were studying the ability of dogs to learn the warning stimulus and avoid the averse stimulus. In essence, they were conditioning (training) dogs to expect a shock if they did not react appropriately to a warning light.
Like Elephant syndrome, what they found was that dogs could and would act (be motivated) by their own expectations that an averse stimulus (shock) would result if they did not act. However, these results were logically problematic for the researchers to explain. If what they were seeing was simply a tendency to be motivated by the absence of a shock, then wouldn’t these animals be equally as motivated to engage in all behaviors (eating, grooming, barking and pooping) that were not followed by shocks? This mystery led to further experimentation in order to determine the conditions under which dogs would develop such expectations. Clearly, eating and other normal animal behaviors were not motivated by a desire to avoid any clear averse stimuli.
At Instinct Education, Learned Helplessness is avoided by implementing fundamentals steps when getting support. For example: 1) Have you checked the forum and mastermind group to see if the question has been answered before. 2) Have you tried googling the answer before asking for help. 3) Have you watched the training module again to see if you missed anything. This tactic of pushing business owners to try and figure out the answer on their own first teaches them to learn how to learn. Which is an instrumental tool when it comes to success on every medium.