Getting used to electroshocks; Seligman’s experiment



The national disorder of the Greek people is clearly depression. You don’t have to be a psychologist to figure it out. All you have to do is to go downtown, enter the bus or –even better- to find yourself in the local unemployment office.Everybody’s glance is fixed upon infinity, unblinkingly, when they are not huffing and puffing tight-lipped. Depression is nothing else but hopelessness and helplessness – often garnished with apathy.

The psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman maintained that depression, the protracted feeling of “a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation”, is the result of a learning process or adaption and coined the term: learned helplessness.Attempting to prove his theory, he abused some dogs in an experiment that will make all animals lovers (and not only them) rip their garments.In this experiment he divided the dogs into two groups: the experimental group and the control group. We will call the first ones “lucky” and the second “unlucky”. The unlucky dogs sustained constant electroshocks, being tied up so that they could not escape.

(With your mind’s eye, you can now see this very scientist tied up and the poor dogs pushing a lever which channels electricity. But the animals aren’t vindictive.)

The lucky dogs were left alone in their box, eating and sleeping.

Then Seligman put all the dogs in a box with two compartments. In the first one there was food but the floor could give off electric shocks. The second one was neutral. Ten seconds before the electric shock occurred, the lights would go dim.

The lucky dogs, after sustaining some shocks too, learned to run to the neutral compartment when the lights went dim.

The unlucky dogs, that had already sustained shocks when tied up, made no effort to leave the place. They simply lay down passively.

Also pay attention to this: Seligman underlines that they faced other things passively too (imagine what he did to the animals)

It’s certain that some disputers will contradict: “This experiment was carried out with dogs. People behave differently, because their perception is more developed.”


In 1972 an analogous experiment was carried out on humans, without the electricity of course because it would be unethical.

Glass and Singer asked a group of people to carry out a complex task.

At some point, a loud and repetitive noise came from the vent. The subjects were distracted and quit trying.

Changing the experimental conditions, Glass and Singer explained to the subjects that they could stop the noise if they got up and thumped the vent in a specific way.

Since they had the control over the noise, even though that every now and then they were interrupted and had to get up and thump the vent, their skill and tenacity on the task that they were assigned, improved.


These two experiments stress the importance of “perceived control” when it comes to reacting to negative stimuli.

The unlucky dogs that had learned that they could do nothing to avoid the electroshock reacted passively or maybe with apathy. They did nothing to avoid the negative stimulus – when all they had to do, was to leave the compartment.

Respectively: The subjects of the second experiment, the humans, when they were given the option to eliminate the noise, when they gained perceived control, when – in other words –they understood that they could control what was occurring, became more creative and effective in their task.


The set-up of “loss of control” and the fatalistic acknowledgment of the superiority (the undisputable superiority) of the leaders, is an old story.

Once it was “god” and its clergy, the emperor, the tsar and the king (by the grace of god) , the feudal lords and squires, the ever-present Masons, the abominable Elders of Zion, the General Secretary of the Party, the omnipotence of America.

Now is the metaphysical and faceless monster of the free and globalized markets (carrying the sweet name TINA –There Is No Alternative)

The civilian is convinced that they are helpless against the Sacred Monsters.


Before I wrap up this text, a last observation about Seligman’s experiment: The unlucky dogs that some times were taken from the experimenter to the neutral room when the lights went dim, eventually learned to avoid the painful electroshock.

But we have nothing to hope for from the experimenter.

(I read about this experiment in the book Catastrophe theory by Alexander Woodcock and Monte Davies.)


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Translated by Alexandros Mantas

Edited by Jackie Pert