An experiment was conducted in the 1960s by two eminent psychologists, Martin Seligman, and
Steven F. Maier, using dogs. In the experiment, dogs were kept in two separate cages – where
they could not see each other. One cage had an escape door which if pushed will open and allow
them to escape, while the second cage had no escape door. The two cages then had an electric
shock passed into the cages such that the dogs were very uncomfortable. They rushed around the
cage seeking an escape route. The dogs in Cage 1 soon found the escape door and went out of the
cage, thus experiencing relief. While the dogs in Cage 2 continued to run around in painful
distress. The electric current was stopped after some seconds and the dogs in cage 1 returned
back to their cage, while the dogs in Cage 2 simply collapsed in exhaustion. After a period of
respite, the cycle was repeated and the dogs in Cage 1 who had found the door previously,
immediately escaped via the door. Dogs in Cage 2 continued to struggle in distress as they
searched in vain for an escape route. This sequence was repeated a few times until the dogs in
Cage 2 stopped bothering to escape and simply endured the pain, knowing that it will be over
after some seconds.
After establishing this consistent pattern of behavior in the two cages, the dogs were switched
to different cages. The dogs that were in Cage 1 which had an escape door were now placed in
Cage 2 which had no escape door. While the dogs who were previously in Cage 2 were now in
Cage 1 – which had an escape door. However, the surprising finding was that the dogs
previously in Cage 1 with an escape door, kept searching for an escape door in Cage 2 and they
didn’t get tired. Whereas the dogs in Cage 2 who had given up after failing to find an escape
door, even though they were now in Cage 1 which had an escape door, simply didn’t bother to
search for one. They just lay down and endured the electric shocks…even though they were now
in a cage that had an escape route. The psychologists described this observed behavior as
“Learned Helplessness,” and extrapolated that human beings exhibited similar behavior when
they have had numerous negative experiences in life. They become conditioned to accept or
learn that they are helpless and there was no escape. Thus, there was no point in bothering to find
a solution. They simply accepted their fate and were resigned to it, instead of proactively seeking
to solve them.
Learned helplessness occurs when a person is unable to find solutions to difficult situations, even when one exists; while they frequently complain, feel overwhelmed, and appear unable to make
a positive difference in their circumstances.
Resilience, on the other hand, is the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or
challenging life experiences, through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and
adjustments. In simple terms, it is the ability to adapt to difficult situations and circumstances.
The key difference in resilience is NOT the absence of difficult circumstances but the proactive
and action-based response in the search for a solution and a way out of the quagmire. This
includes asking for help and acknowledging when you can’t resolve the issue, or lack the
expertise to do so on your own. In fact, being able to reach out for help from others is an
important part of being resilient.
We should aim to acquire resilience and be adept at navigating the challenges of life; while
avoiding learned helplessness, as a form of resignation to uncomfortable challenges – especially
the circumstances that we can solve if we only bothered to search for solutions.
Nigerians, and indeed other African countries have experienced a long history of negative
adverse events, collectively, as well as individually, that have resulted in many citizens giving up
hope that things can ever get better. Or that the nation can be made to work for every citizen,
with progress in infrastructure as well as all-round development. We often make jokes and
exchange banter even when we are faced with biting hardships – the so-called “catching cruise”.
Is this an exhibition of resilience, when we do not seek to improve our circumstances and we
give up on our nations?
Thus we are constrained to ask the question and leave you to answer it: Have we been especially
gifted with powers of resilience? Or have we simply learned that our helplessness is beyond what
we can influence, and we are therefore resigned to our fate?
Dr Jibril Abdulmalik
Tribune Article for the column “Your Mental Health & You”
Thursday, 9th March 2023