Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Learned Optimism - sort of a book review

Yesterday on the DriveWeSaid beta forums, a link was posted to a very interesting book review: The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children from Depression & Build Lifelong Resilience. At first glance, this would appear to be a load of hooey--yet another sappy entry in the endless stream of self-help and good-parenting crap that's been clogging up bookstores for decades. However, upon reading the review, another picture began to emerge:
Dad brings home a Lego set. Ian, 6, and his 9 year-old sister Rachel, set to work building spaceships. She's fast and efficient. He fumbles and fails. And he angrily throws the Lego pieces at his sister. "I'm a dumbo," Ian says. "I can't do anything right."

Not surprisingly, Dad wants Ian to feel better.He tells Ian that his incomplete rocket is terrific, that he's "the best rocket maker around," that Ian can grow up to do "whatever you set your mind to." And to make Ian feel better, Dad takes the Lego pieces and builds a rocket for his son.

Wrong. All wrong, says Martin Seligman, the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at University of Pennsylvania and former President of the American Psychological Association. Dad means well, but he's hurting his kid. Why? First, just about everything Dad says is a lie --- and Ian knows it. Second, by building the rocket for Ian, Dad sends the message that the cure for failure is rescue by another person --- instead of building self-esteem, he's given Ian "a lesson in helplessness." Finally --- and for Seligman, worst of all --- "not only does Ian gravitate to the most pessimistic causes, but his way of reacting to problems is with passivity, giving up, and a whiny inwardness. Ian's learned pessimism is self-fulfilling."
This, quite frankly, sounded like a page taken out of my own life--not just the event itself, but Seligman's interpretation of it. So I got interested, and headed over to the library to see if I could find this book. Needless to say, the library didn't have a copy, but it did have a copy of Seligman's older book, "Learned Optimism", which I proceeded to read. This reading, which is still in progress, inspired the following, which I posted in response to the original post on DWS.
Seligman is the real deal. I got interested in that link that Tim posted yesterday, and went to the library to see what I could find. They didn't have that precise book, but I ended up getting a book that Seligman published back in 1990 or so: "Learned Optimism". I'm about 60 or 70 pages into it at the moment.

It turns out that, back in the sixties, Seligman and another guy (Maier) were the ones who originally came up with the idea for learned helplessness, a concept which the dominant behaviorists of the time claimed was impossible. Noam Chomsky had already poked a hole in behaviorism in 1959 by showing that human language isn't solely a learned behavior, but Seligman and his research partner Maier managed to conclusively demonstrate a behavior that was based on an animal's expectations, rather than solely on reinforcement (and they did it while they were still graduate students).

The research was compelling enough that a variety of other people began to expand on it, and it was soon discovered that the same principles applied to humans. What was also quickly noticed, though, was that about 1/3 of experimental subjects never learned to become helpless. Seligman and Maier also discovered that it was possible to train puppies in such a way that learned helplessness did not occur, and to retrain dogs out of their pattern of learned helplessness.

Seligman also draws a lot of parallels between helplessness and unipolar depression. In fact, he claims that unipolar depression is basically helplessness writ large. He argues that the conventional view that clinical depression is a biochemical disorder not only is not supported by the evidence, but is specifically contradicted by the fact that only a few generations ago, the incidence of depression in Americans was much, much lower than it is now. He argues that it is simply not reasonable to say that human brain chemistry has changed that much in only two or three generations, and therefore, the cause of the massive epidemic of depression that began in the latter half of the 20th century clearly must be something else. Naturally, this view has not endeared him to mainstream psychiatrists or to the mental health business in general, which makes untold billions of dollars selling quick-fix drugs. Seligman argues, though, that the belief that the only cure for depression is a quick fix drug actually contributes to the problem. Why? Because the belief that we are powerless to better our condition contributes to a feeling of helplessness, which in turn makes depression either more likely, or harder to come out of.

Anyway, Seligman's research after 1975 focused on that interesting 1/3 of subjects who never learned to be helpless. What was different about those people, and could it be used to help other people? And how could human beings learn to break out of patterns of learned helplessness?

I'm not far enough into the book yet to offer a very conclusive explanation, but optimism is apparently the key, and the key to optimism is, according to Seligman, how we explain to ourselves the good things and bad things that happen to us. The book includes a 48-question questionnaire that Seligman and his research partners developed to quantify optimism in people. Optimism and pessimism are measured along two main axes: how we account for the bad things, and how we account for the good things. Within those two axes are three further dimensions, namely whether the explanations are permanent, personal and/or pervasive. All six of these dimensions are rated on a scale of zero to seven (IIRC--I actually didn't get higher than a five on any scale). The three "bad" axis numbers are combined into an overall bad rating, and the three "good" axis numbers are combined into an overall good rating. Then the bad rating is subtracted from the good rating to obtain a grand total score.

My grand total score was -7, which is pretty damn low. (Anything below zero is considered "very pessimistic.") This wasn't surprising to me, as I've long known myself to be a pretty bad pessimist. What was interesting was learning that the root of my pessimism comes more from my interpretation of the good things in my life than from the bad. As far as the bad things, I'm only a little bit more pessimistic than average. But I rate very low on interpretation of the good things. When something good happens, I tend to attribute it to a temporary factor, rather than seeing it as a permanent quality of life; I tend to view it as external to me, rather than resulting from my own actions; and I tend to view it as an isolated incident, rather than as part of a pervasive pattern. I guess this tends to create an internal expectation that good things can't be expected to happen. Combine this with my somewhat stronger-than-average tendency to attribute the bad things to pervasive, personal and permanent causes, and the result is, well, kind of grim. But I knew that already, before I even opened this book.

(One interesting aspect of this which has only been alluded to so far is that realism tends to be pessimistic. If this is true, and if it's also true that we need to be optimistic to attain optimal functioning, then it follows that realism is a selective disadvantage, from an evolutionary standpoint. And what are the ramifications of this, in terms of the long-term survival of civilization? Being a pessimist, I must conclude that, in the long term, the human race is fucked. ;)

Anyway, to relate this all to the book review that Tim linked to yesterday, Seligman's research has concentrated on developing techniques to "unlearn" helplessness, as well as how to teach children in such a way that they are "innoculated", so to speak, against it. In other words, my tendency is to give Seligman a good deal more credence than your typical self-help author, simply because he's been out there in the trenches, doing the actual work on which this field is based.


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