TAS Voices: Choose Optimism

by David Matlock, Upper School Math Teacher

What happens when we believe our success is completely out of our control?

In 1964, a 21-year-old Martin Seligman entered a lab in the Psychology Department at the University of Pennsylvania for the first time as a new graduate student. In Seligman’s book, Learned Optimism, he describes what he witnessed as chaotic. The experiment the lab was working on had hit an unexpected snag that day. As a result, the lab was full of frantic behavior among the graduate students while numerous dogs whimpered in pain.  

What was happening? The lab was working on a transfer experiment. The idea was to associate a small electric shock to a high-pitched tone. Then, they wanted to see if the dogs would respond to the tone as if it was an electric shock. The experiment had three stages:

1. Repeatedly expose each dog to a high-pitched tone followed by a small electric shock.

2. Put the dogs in boxes/cages with two compartments divided by a wall that can be jumped over. A small electric shock will then be activated in the floor of the side the dogs are in. They will train the dogs to jump to the other side to escape the shock.

3. Place dogs in the same boxes/cages from step 2 and expose them to a high-pitched tone to see if the dogs will then jump to the other side as they did to escape the shock.

That first day Seligman arrived at the lab, the researchers were working on step 2, but they were not getting the expected results. Before this experiment, they successfully taught a different group of dogs all to do step 2 without doing step 1 first. That is, they trained every dog to learn how to jump the barrier when exposed to an electric shock. But, now that they did the initial step first, most dogs laid down on the ground of the box during the second stage without attempting to escape and just whimpered in pain. No one understood why this was happening. What was different about these dogs was that they did not try to escape the pain?

In follow-up experiments, Seligman and a colleague showed that the dogs in the experiment on Seligman’s first day had most likely experienced “learned helplessness”. That is, the dogs had experienced an inescapable electric shock in step 1 which was repeated so much that, eventually, the dogs learned that whether or not they experienced the pain was out of their control. So, in step 2, when they had a chance to escape the shock, they no longer tried. They had been conditioned by the first step that nothing they do could improve their situation. So, the dogs did nothing but accept the pain.

I understand that this may seem like an odd story to retell in an article titled “choose optimism”. Hopefully, you have hope that the rest of the article is less sad. I do apologize for how sad it is that researchers chose to inflict pain on these innocent animals. And, I do recognize how extremely sad it is that the dogs learned to accept the pain without trying to escape.

It is also extremely sad to me when students convince themselves or allow themselves to be convinced by others that they are unable to learn something.

The goal for these experiments for Seligman and others was not really to show that dogs can learn helplessness. The goal was to go further. The researchers were inspired to learn how to help people unlearn helplessness and help people take control of those aspects of life that are in their control. 

First, is it true that “learned helplessness” also occurs in people?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes, it can. Children raised in orphanages compared to other children are often more insecure and tend to take fewer academic risks in school. The belief is that, in orphanages, there is a constant turnover of caregivers, frequent transfers between institutions, and rigid schedules which results in children experiencing a complete lack of control over their lives. What about adults? A survey was given to adults who were convicted of a crime at the start of their sentence and again at the end. The researchers were surprised to find that very few of these people were depressed before their prison time began while almost all of them were depressed when they were released. Is this due to their actions being almost completely out of their control during their time in prison?

To test these ideas, in 1971, Donald Hiroto conducted an experiment. The previous examples of “learned helplessness” were from observational studies which are very limited in their ability to establish causal relationships. So, Hiroto designed a randomized experiment that allows for such a causal inference to be established, assuming the results are statistically significant.

The idea behind his experiment is that groups of volunteers are randomly assigned to one of two rooms. In both rooms, a loud noise is activated and there is a control panel. In one of the rooms, there is a combination of buttons and levers that can be pushed which leads to the noise being turned off. In the other room, nothing can be done to stop the noise no matter what combination of buttons and levers are tried. Later, after a rest, the groups are brought to a second room. Again, there is a loud noise. Those people who came from the room where they had control to stop the noise, easily and quickly found a way to stop the noise in this room. Two-thirds of the people who came from the room where they did not have control to stop the noise in the first room assumed they also had no control in this second room. These results were consistent with the concept of “learned helplessness”. Interestingly, consistent with Seligman’s experiment with dogs, some people appear to be immune to “learned helplessness” and are forever hopeful and optimistic that their actions matter.

If “learned helplessness” is indeed real, why does that matter? And what does it have to do with optimism?

Let’s think about the answers to a few questions:

  • If you fail a math test, what thoughts cross your mind as to the reason why? Is it that you believe you are not a “math person” and this confirms it? Or, do you start to think that you should have studied and practiced more (rather than watching the newest binge-worthy seasons of a Netflix show)?
  • What do you do when you don’t make a varsity sports team? Do think that you were not born an athlete and there is nothing in your control to change that? Or, do you focus on what skills you need to practice and develop to try again next year?
  • What do you do when someone you ask out says no? Do you think that no one will ever say yes? Or, do you think that the next time you meet someone you are interested in, you should ask that person out?

The difference between the answers to these questions is the difference between a pessimist and an optimist. At the core or pessimism is helplessness.

A pessimist interprets the outcomes of events as permanent and beyond their control. Optimists believe they have control in the outcomes of an event. So, when an optimist has a setback, they look for ways to change their actions to make a more positive outcome the next time. Overall, pessimists end up giving up more easily and getting depressed more often. Pessimism turns out to not be good for you on any level. More on this momentarily. For now, I want to stress that pessimism is escapable. Individuals can choose the way they think and react to events. You can choose the way you interpret the world. As we experience life, we develop theories about ourselves and the world around us. Those theories determine what we do. Many people never realize how much power they have to take control of those theories and shape their own potential. One of the founders of neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, said (paraphrased), “Everyone can, if one so desires, become the sculptors of own’s own brain.” This sentiment is based on and supported by all the work done with growth mindsets (Carol Dweck), grit (Angela Duckworth), research into the world’s top athletes, chess masters, musicians, and memorizers (Anders Ericsson), and so many more.

In addition to sculpting our own brains, we also have the power to do the same to our reactions and views. We can choose optimism and the belief that we can succeed.

You can choose to be hopeful. You can choose to be optimistic. For some, the choice does not require much effort; for others, it may take a lot of work. However, the choice is available for everyone. Everyone can be successful. With time and the right kind of effort, we can increase our control over the way we think about adversity.  These thoughts become our beliefs. Our beliefs shape and determine what we do.

Why is it so important to choose optimism?

  • Vaccines – A 2006 study shows that people who describe themselves as cheerful, energetic, and relaxed produce 73% greater antibody response to vaccination against hepatitis B compared to those who described themselves as nervous, tense, or angry. A similar study showed similar effects in response to a flu shot.
  • Studies are showing that optimism can act as a vaccine boost on a biological level.
  • Hypertension – Several studies have shown that pessimism makes it more likely (about 3 times more likely) to develop hypertension compared to optimistic people, even after other risk factors are taken into account.
  • Surgery recovery – optimists were found to be half as likely to require re-hospitalization compared to pessimists. This study was done with patients who have had coronary artery bypass surgeries and angioplasties.
  • Cancer – Madelon Visintainer was the first person to demonstrate that “learned helplessness” produced more rapid growth of cancer cells. This was an experiment done in rats, but other studies have shown an increase in the immune system of those with “learned optimism” compared to a control group. Optimism and pessimism seem to affect us on a cellular level.
  • Life expectancy – One study showed that optimists live about 7.5 years longer, on average than pessimists.
  • Other – In general, optimists do better in school, at work, and on the playing field. They regularly exceed predictions on aptitude tests.

Optimists resist helplessness. Preventing helplessness seems to keep the immune system stronger potentially leading to a happy and healthier life. Optimists more readily take matters into their own hands.

This all sounds wonderful, but can we really choose optimism … especially if we tend to be naturally pessimistic?

There are numerous stories of people in Anders Ericsson’s book titled, Peak. It is a fascinating read that describes a 2014 experiment in Tokyo where they trained 24 out of 24 two- to six-year-olds to have perfect pitch. There is another story of Laszlo Polgar and his wife Klara who trained all three of their daughters to be chess masters. Their youngest daughter was the number 1 ranked female chess player in the world for 25 years until she retired in 2014. After studying those people who were top in their field for over 30 years, Ericsson concluded: “There is actually no evidence that any otherwise normal person is born without the innate talent to sing or do math or perform any other skill. No correlation between IQ and scientific productivity.”

Just as we all have the ability to learn all these various skills, we also have the ability to learn an optimistic approach to life. We all have numerous choices to make. There are people who are born with a tendency to be pessimistic or optimistic. There are people who are taught helplessness from a variety of environmental factors. There are people who do not believe they can learn something because they were not born a certain way. Learned helplessness tends to lead to pessimism which tends to lead to depression and other unhealthy conditions. Optimism tends to lead to longer and healthier lives.

I am convinced that every student I come across can learn anything they want if given enough time and the right kind of practice. I have never had any reason to question this belief during my 15 years of teaching so far.

How you react to life can be an act of choice. How you shape your beliefs can be an act of choice. How you define your life can be an act of choice. To decide to be rich in happiness is an act of choice. What is your choice?