Hitching Posts: What Animals Teach Us About Learned Helplessness

Learned Helplessness
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Learned Helplessness and Horses


I was watching an old Western the other day, you know the type.  The guy in the white shirt meets the guy in the black shirt at noon for a shootout.  The shooting starts and the guy in white escapes with a slight grazing wound to the shoulder.  The guy in black staggers and falls in dramatic fashion to the dirt road.  Townsfolk shrug and go about their day.  Nothing to see here.

What struck me funny were the horses.  The cowboy rides up to the saloon, hops off his horse and wraps the reigns around the hitching post.  Of course each hitching post in a Western has the prerequisite full tub of water in front of it.  Somewhere along the line, someone in the film will comically tumble into this tub.

But what I’m curious about is what the horses do while the cowboy heads inside.  To be more specific, why the heck do they just stand there like trees when they could be making a break for it?  Now before you remind me about the reigns and the hitching post, let me warn you.  I already thought of that, and it seemed to me that no strap of leather tied to a wooden post was going to keep a horse in one place if it didn’t want to be there.  If a couple of horses can pull and entire stagecoach across the plains, they sure as heck can pull a hitching post apart.

So why don’t they?

Being the curious fellow I am, I decided to look it up.  Turns out horses are not unique when it comes to this type of thing.  The same applies to circus elephants who are kept in place by a chain attached to a small peg in the ground.  FEnced in cows- an example of learned helplessness.

Also affected are cows and other fenced in animals, and dogs, who have the distinct honor of participating in studies designed to answer the question- Why the heck do they do that?

Psychologist researching learned helplessness.The Experiment

The guys working with the dogs are psychologists, and they have a name for this phenomena.  They call it “Learned Helplessness.”  After a series of experiments the mystery was solved.

It went something like this: A dog is placed in a small room with a button on one wall.  When the dog presses the button a treat comes out of a dispenser. Dog getting treat in learned helplessness experiment.The dog gobbles it up and presses the button again and again- each time getting a nice snack for its efforts.

Nothing unusual here, but the scientists throw the dog a curveball.  For a while they refuse to give the dog a snack when he presses the button.  The dog only eats when they feed him- that’s it.  The button is disabled, but this is only temporary.  After a while they switch the button back on and watch what the dogs do.

The interesting thing is that the dogs don’t do anything.  They ignore the button.  The button isn’t working anymore, they tell their doggy selves, don’t even try it.  And they don’t, missing out on a hoard of dog snacks simply because they’ve learned that it’s useless to try- learned helplessness.

The same thing happens to young horses tied to posts they can’t move.  When they get older they don’t even try, even though they could easily break free.  An electrical fence can’t stop a determined cow.  But there are no determined cows.  They’re all helpless, but only in their bovine heads.

Human Trials

Does the same thing apply to people?  You bet.  Psychologists tried similar experiments on humans.  Note I said similar.  It turns out people aren’t terribly motivated by Milkbone dog biscuits.

So being the advanced, highly intellectual creatures we are, surely we excel at such tests, right?  Wrong.  We’re lousy at it.  In fact we’re just as bad as our animal friends or worse.

I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of scary.  Millions, if not billions of us are going around doing a lot less than we could because we’ve been taught not to try.

How sad.

But those clever psychologists, they’re always thinking.  There’s a cure, they say, and it’s simple.  If you think you can’t do something, if you think you’re trapped and there’s nothing you can do, if you think you’ll never make it so why try- try anyway.

Who knows?

You just might have all the Milkbones you can eat.




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