tl;dr: We’re culturally and socially conditioned to avoid not-knowing or pretend it doesn’t exist. This conditioning is a form of learned helplessness that stops us from figuring out how to respond appropriately to — and be happy in — an increasingly uncertain world filled with many different types of not-knowing. This is part 1 of 2 (read Part 2 here).
(Thank you, Midjourney, for these images of “an adorable dog being zapped.”)
In 1967, a pair of psychologists (Bruce Overmier and Martin Seligman) ran an experiment on 32 probably extremely adorable dogs.
In the first part of the experiment, they used a cubicle designed to zap each dog with electric shocks that they could not escape: “The unit in which [the dog]s were exposed to inescapable shocks was a rubberized, cloth hammock located inside a shielded, white, sound-reducing cubicle. The hammock was constructed so that [the dog]’s legs hung down below its body through four holes. The [dog]’s legs were secured in this position, and [it] was strapped into the hammock. In addition, [the dog]’s head was held in position by panels placed on either side with a yoke between them across [its] neck. The shock source for this unit was a 500v AC transformer and parallel voltage divider with the current applied through a fixed resistance of 20K ohms. The 6.0mA shock was applied to [the dog] through brass plate electrodes coated with electrode paste and taped to the footpads of [the dog]’s hind feet” (Overmier & Seligman 1967).
They used a different cubicle for the second part of the experiment (illustrated in the diagram below1). This second cubicle was divided by a barrier low enough for the dogs to easily jump across. The cubicle floor was electrified on the side of the barrier the dogs were put into; on the other side of the barrier, the floor was not electrified. One by one, the dogs were placed into the electrified side of the new cubicle. Would the dogs figure out that the situation had changed, and that they could now avoid electric shocks by simply jumping over the barrier?
The finding: Dogs that had been exposed to inescapable shocks were less able later to learn how to avoid shocks that were escapable. They had learned to be helpless.
The broader idea underlying learned helplessness is that conditioning works and it persists.
The dogs in this experiment were put into a situation that conditioned them to believe that they couldn’t do anything to avoid getting shocked. When they were put into a different situation where they could take action to escape shocks — the second cubicle — that conditioning held even though it was inappropriate to the new situation.
Situations condition us to have particular beliefs about how the world works; that conditioning affects the beliefs we use in responding to future situations.
Humans are also susceptible to learned helplessness and conditioning. But what happens to humans is harder to see. The situations that condition us aren’t as cleanly defined as a laboratory experiment on dogs.
Our conditioning situations are the uncountable experiences, big and small, that we’re exposed to purely by being alive in the world. They are so ubiquitous we sometimes forget all of this lived experience shapes who we are and what we believe. Through these experiences, we become culturally and socially conditioned about many things — one of which is to avoid situations of not-knowing or even thinking about not-knowing.
To be precise, human cultural and social conditioning overwhelmingly teaches us that the situations of not-knowing we face call for us to either 1) pretend that they don’t exist or 2) treat them as a specific form of not-knowing that we call risk.
This is a big claim which I’ve fleshed out in earlier essays in this series which I link to in the next few sentences. Previously, I explained how we use the same word “risk” to describe many situations of not-knowing that aren’t formally risky. This leads us to apply the wrong mindset (of risk) to perceiving and interpreting the world. As is often the case with the risk mindset, terrible outcomes result when this mindset mismatch is serious (i.e., when the beliefs we hold about the situation are very unsuited to the situation).
This conditioning is one of the most subtle human versions of learned helplessness.
It’s increasingly hard to deny that the world is becoming more uncertain in different ways. Yet we’ve somehow been conditioned not to take action to change our beliefs so that we can respond appropriately to this increasing uncertain world. Intuitively, this seems to be a big part of why we’re increasingly unhappy in ways that feel hard to pin down.
What the dogs needed to do in the experiment to escape being zapped was leap over a small barrier, yet the barrier seemed insurmountable. They remained trapped in a nightmare of little electric zaps.
For us humans, the leap is both tiny and enormous in the same way: What we need to do is break our conditioning so that we can take not-knowing seriously.
Part 2 explores how thinking clearly is a way to escape our learned helplessness about not-knowing, and thus a path to being happier. Read it here. A preview: Happiness results from being curious about the world around you, being free to take action, being effective in the actions that you take, and being content with what you achieve. Thinking clearly about not-knowing is an essential precondition of these four states of being.
This article is part of a project on not-knowing. 🙏 to Chatham Sullivan for commenting on a draft and suggesting that I use adorable dogs getting zapped to frame this idea, and to Yoann Joyeux for a conversation about the real obstacles to talking about not-knowing. I’m entirely responsible for any remaining poor thinking.
The cubicle illustration is by Rose M. Spielman, PhD; Psychology: OpenStax, p. 519, Fig 14.22, CC BY 4.0↩︎