October 11, 2007


Caption: She's not learned but is kind of helpless.

Aside from links and comments about current events, the theme for this week's Goat Rope is optimism and pessimism. The first three posts tilted towards the pessimistic end of the spectrum. In the interests of fairness, I'm trying to work the other side of the street today.

If this is your first visit, please click on earlier entries.

In 1965, the psychologist Martin Seligman preformed a classical experiment which probably did not endear him with dog lovers and which, if the Buddhists are right, racked up a good deal of bad karma.

The short version was that he put a caged dog in a situation where it seemed that no matter what it did it would receive an electrical shock. Eventually, the dog gave up on even trying to escape it when it was really possible. He called this phenomenon "learned helplessness," which has since been used as a model to explain some types of depression and has been applied to many different situations.

In variations on this experiment, it took many efforts and much intervention for the dog to unlearn the helplessness.

Most of us have probably been in situations where it seemed like we were *&^%-ed no matter what we did. If it happens enough, people tend to give up too.

Since then, in a move probably cheered by dog lovers, Seligman became one of the leaders in the positive psychology movement and developed the theory of learned optimism.

To use the short version once again, he found that the way people think about experiences can make all the difference. As he put it in his book Authentic Happiness:

Pessimists have a particularly pernicious way of construing their setbacks and frustrations. They automatically think that the cause is permanent, pervasive, and personal: "It's going to last forever, it's going to undermine everything, and it's my fault."

By contrast, optimists

have a strength that allows them to interpret their setbacks as surmountable, particular to a single problem, and resulting from temporary circumstances or other people.

In other words, pessimists (the term is not used in its philosophical sense here) tend to come up with global explanations when things go badly. When things go well, they attribute it to accident and unique conditions. With optimists, the reverse is true. The kind of thinking we engage in can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies and has wide ranging effects. According to Seligman, people stuck in the pessimistic groove can learn new ways of thinking that can lead to different results.

There are some who criticize positive psychology as don't worry/be happy feel good fluff. Here's an example of that point of view. Point taken. But on the other hand, if you think changing anything is impossible, you probably won't try very hard to do it.

BEYOND THE CULTURE WARS. A new paper by Third Way looks at ways Evangelicals and progressives can meet in the middle over the common good. This was also the subject of a recent column by E. J. Dionne.

PRIORITIES. This Economic Policy Institute snapshot highlights the Bush administration's spending priorities on war and domestic needs.

IRAQI CIVILIAN CASUALTIES. These are the opening lines from a piece in the Baltimore Sun by two public health professors:

Not wanting to think about civilian deaths in Iraq has become almost universal. But ignorance of the Iraqi death toll is no longer an option.

An Associated Press poll in February found that the average American believed about 9,900 Iraqis had been killed since the end of major combat operations in 2003. Recent evidence suggests that things in Iraq may be 100 times worse than Americans realize.

News report tallies suggest that about 75,000 Iraqis have died since the U.S.-led invasion. But a study of 13 war-affected countries presented at a recent Harvard conference found that more than 80 percent of violent deaths in conflicts go unreported by the press and governments.

DEMAND SIDE ECONOMICS. Supply side economics has become orthodoxy in far too many circles these days. Here's an item by Jeff Madrick in The Nation about the other end of the spectrum.


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