How is it possible for a human to control a fully-grown, 6 tonne elephant with only a piece of string?

And how does this relate to people feeling like there is no point in doing anything with their idea, or thinking that they aren’t even creative?

It all has to do with a psychological condition known as learned helplessness.

This is the condition where is someone (human or also animal) is put through a negative situation which they cannot control for so long, that they learn there is no point in fighting it anymore, even if later on they are shown a way to stop the negative effects.

Now, the way this theory was historically tested included what would now be considered some very cruel experiments, so please be warned about those before reading on.

Seligman’s dog shocking experiments

The psychologist Martin Seligman started experimenting in 1967 and published his results in 1972 to find out the reasons for depression. His view was that if someone felt like they had no control over outcomes, it would be the basis for them accepting negative situations. In order to test this, he administered electric shocks to dogs (I told you these experiments were cruel). While the shocks were definitely painful, they didn’t permanently hurt the dogs.

The experiment ran as follows:

  • Dogs were divided into 3 groups:
    • Group 1 dogs were put into a harness for a period of time, but not shocked, and then later released
    • Group 2 dogs were put into a harness and given electric shocks at random times, but the dog could easily stop the shocks by pushing a lever (which they did)
    • At the same time as Group 2, Group 3 dogs were put into a harness which was connected to the lever of one of the Group 2 dogs. They were given electric shocks at the same time and intensity as the Group 2 dogs, and were given a lever, but when the Group 3 dogs pushed their own lever the shocks did not stop. Instead, the shocks stopped when Group 2 dogs pushed their own lever. Therefore, for the Group 3 dogs, it seemed as though they were being shocked randomly, and could not stop their own shocks.
  • Later on, these 3 Groups of dogs were put through another experiment. There were put into a “shuttle box” with a metal floor and a small hurdle in the middle dividing the box into two halves, which the dogs could easily jump over. Then, when the dog was put in the box, the floor was randomly shocked.
  • The dogs in Group 1 (no initial shocks) and Group 2 (could turn off their shocks with a lever) quickly learned that only half of the floor was shocking at the time, and quickly jumped to the other side to avoid being shocked.
  • But the Group 3 dogs (which couldn’t stop their own shocks), didn’t try to move. Instead, they laid down passively on the electrifying floor and whined while they were being shocked.

Essentially, the Group 3 Dogs had learned that there was nothing they could do to control themselves being shocked, and so had given up. They were suffering from Learned Helplessness.

Now, this type of experiment may fail to pass an Ethics test in modern universities, but unfortunately in other parts of the world a similar process is still used for other animals.

Crushing elephants

An elephant is an immensely powerful animal, capable of pulling trees out of the ground. And yet many tamed elephants can be tied up with a rope which the elephant could easily snap if it wanted to.

Unfortunately, these elephants are also suffering from Learned Helplessness.

While they are younger, many of these tamed elephants undergo horrible treatment by their tamers, aimed to “crush” or break the spirit of the animal so that it will follow a human’s orders.

One way to do this is to tie up very young elephants with thick, strong iron chains which they aren’t strong enough to break. The young elephant may then spend, days, weeks or months trying to break free of its shackle, but slowly learn that it is not strong enough to do so. When they are tied up, they cannot escape.

They associate the feeling of resistance from the chain with a lack of being able to break it.

Then when they are older, thinner chains or even just rope can be used to tie them up. If the elephant were to use all its strength as an adult, it could break the rope. But once it feels the first bit of resistance, it is likely to give up since it has learned there is no point in trying harder.

What does this have to do with creativity?

We have talked about animals so far, but humans definitely suffer from learned helplessness as well.

There are many examples, from depression, to victims of torture, to people not leaving abusive relationships.

But in the context of innovation and creativity, to a lesser extent, many people have also given up on their ideas because they have experienced failure or rejection often before, or have even been told by superiors not to continue with an innovative idea enough times.

Or, a person may be comparing their own creativity with those of world-class performers, and feel powerless to reach that level.

They feel like they don’t have the control to make their ideas work, either because a superior, society or even their own ability will not allow it.

So when an opportunity comes up to improve their situation, they don’t take it.

Ask yourself, in your personal or professional life, has there been a situation where you gave up on an idea before you even started, because you said to yourself “Why should I even bother when I know it won’t work?”.

That is a form of learned helplessness.

So how do we address this?

Well the good news is that just like helplessness can be learned, so can “helpfulness”. In fact, since the 1970s, the more recent research has actually found that we start out assuming that we are helpless, but what we learn is that we have control to change things (Learned helpfulness).

This has also been shown by experiments where is people believe that they could control a situation, even if they don’t, they perform better.

And the good news is that when it comes to creativity, you definitely can improve your performance.

Whether it is building up your skills or allowing yourself to be more creative, most people have learned that they aren’t as creative as they could be. But with a mindset shift, this can be improved.

You have the ability to come up with ideas.

You have more control than you think.

So you can get started on those ideas you’d like to develop.

They might not be amazing when you first start. But all ideas are born ugly.

Just keep at it.

You’ll get better.

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.