Learned Helplessness

Ijeweme Odiawa Written by Ijeweme Odiawa · 2 min read >

The DA facilitator began his talk. It is a component of his lectures that we have come to accept. That first 15-30minuite monologue on all things cerebral. Whether he delves into behavioral economics or the beauty of chess, we all know that he will take a few minutes to get us thinking about other things besides Data Analytics. He usually comes back to link whatever he is talking about to the topic for that day. That wonderfully curious man!

Martin Seligman

Today, his monologue began as usual, but he suddenly danced into an interesting concept. The concept of learned helplessness. I was intrigued.

In 1967, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania named Martin Seligman conducted some experiments on dogs. Trying to build on the seminal works of Ivan Pavlov, he got 2 sets of dogs and put both in cages. In both cages, he shocked the dogs with electricity! In one cage however, he placed a way for the dogs to stop the shocks while in the other cage there was no means of escape from the shocks. The dogs that could escape, did so promptly and the shocks stopped. In the other cage, the dogs tried at first to escape. After a while, they resigned themselves to their fate and took the shocks having realized that there was nowhere for them to go.

Now it gets interesting. When the dogs in the second cage were taken to a cage they actually could escape from, they didn’t. As the shocks came, all they had to do was take a few steps and walk away to the area where no shocks would touch them. But they didn’t. They just sat there and braced themselves for the shocks!

Protests and Helplessness

What does this all mean? 2 generations ago, youths were ‘shocked’ by their government. The year was 1978 and one Major Gen Olusegun Obasanjo was the military head of state. Food prices in universities were increased by 50Kobo, and the students had had enough! Agitations began and these eventually snowballed into the Ali-must-go riots. After the dust settled, not much changed. That generation began learning to be helpless.

11years later, there was another ‘shock’. The then military head of state, Gen Badamosi Babangida decided to implement an IMF recommendation known as Structural Adjustment Program (SAP). Many analysts and the local intelligentsia were against it, but ‘Maradona’ dribbled his way through. There was uproar! Youths were in the streets protesting, but when the dust settled, the government had its way and the people saw, even more, the reality of their helplessness.

Fast-forward to today. The ‘sorosoke’ generation. It is about 1 year since we protested the ‘shock’ of police brutality, and has much changed? That is debatable, but these events have endeared in the average Nigerian the realization that nothing changes even if we try. Already, so many have stopped trying. Many do not even have voter’s cards or will not use them on election day. Many more will hide in their houses during rallies and protests because, well, ‘what is the point?’

Where do we go from here?

We need to acknowledge the fact of our learned helplessness. We are in an abusive relationship with our country and we need to realize it.

Next, like anything learned, it can be unlearned. The only way I see us unlearning this helplessness is if the people score a major win. We need a win. Whether it is from within the present political system, from the major parties, or from a radical move coming from those outside the system, the people need a win. A win to remind them that they are not as helpless as they think. That they can make a difference. That their voices do matter. Until then, those with the means to escape this Nigerian jungle will continue to do so, and those who cannot will continue, like Seligman’s dogs, to brace themselves for the next shock that is coming.

Written by Ijeweme Odiawa
I am Ijay Odiawa. The Last Afang Bender. Profile

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