George Orwell (English 246: Fall 2011)

Learned Helplessness?

December 20, 2011 · Leave a Comment

Martin Seliman proposed the theories of learned optimism and learned helplessness. He claimed that people’s reactions to events and their internal explanations of them can indicate personality characteristics. His first findings focused on the trend of learned helplessness. He noticed this pattern during his first experiences in graduate school conducting experiments with dogs that refused to move despite being repetitively shocked with small electric charges. In these studies, Seliman found that most dogs did not try to escape even when they had the chance because in earlier trials, they had not been able to escape- they had “learned” to be helpless. Seligman’s findings demonstrate that “animals can learn that their actions are futile, and when they do, they no longer initiate action; they become passive” (Seligman, 2002, p.23).

Individuals who exhibit learned helplessness “learn” that their actions do not have any relation to the outcome of an event. Conversely, individuals who exhibit learned optimism believe that they can control the outcomes of their lives. Both learned helplessness and learned optimism are the behavioral outcomes of cognitive representations of actions, which are either believed to be random or related and controlled by the individual, respectively.
To test what qualities people have, Seligman created the Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ) to determine if people demonstrate styles of optimism or pessimism- associated with learned optimism or learned pessimism, respectively. The ASQ is a personal questionnaire that asks people to respond to prompts. An administrator analyzes each response on scales from 1-7 on internality versus externality, stability versus instability, and globality versus specificity (Peterson, 1992).  Responses that rate higher on internality, stability, and globality are more associated with a pessimistic attribution style linked to learned helplessness while responses that demonstrate externality, instability, and specificity are moer indicative of optimism and are more associated with learned optimism.

Seligman’s theories could apply to George Orwell’s shifting perception of his own impact.  In “Why I Write” Orwell describes how he felt that he had to write about politics due to the current events indicating that he felt he had an impact However in Homage to Catalonia and “Inside the Whale” Orwell seems much more despondent. It seems that he no loner deels that he has as much control.

I think this shift could demonstrate a shift in attribution style from optimistic to pessimistic which arose from his own life experiences and the difficulties he faces in the Spanish Civil War.
Peterson, C., Explanatory style. In Schulman, P., Castellon, C., Seligman, M. (ed.), (1989). Assessing explanatory style: The content analysis of verbatim explanations and the attributional style questionnaire.27 (5).
Seligman, Martin. Learned optimism. (1991). New York: A. A. Knopf.

Categories: Nineteen Eighty-Four

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