Seligman’s Dogs

Okay – this may be a stretch – but stay with me on this one. Professor Jani asked the question on Monday:

Balram describes the great Indian chicken coop; though the chickens know they’re up for slaughter, they don’t resist but continue on as if everything is fine.  Is it only an Indian phenomenon, or do we also live in a chicken coop?

The first  thing that popped into my mind when I thought of a ‘chicken coop’ was an experiment conducted by researcher Martin Seligman – “Seligman’s Dogs”.

In a nutshell, Seligman came up with the idea of “learned helplessness”. Basically, his experiment consisted of a couple different tests (I’m unsure as to how many times each were done).

Seligman placed a dog in a cage wired with electrical flooring. He would flip the switch and the dog would receive electrical shocks every time they moved around the floor. The dogs banged around, tried to get out and couldn’t. He’d turn the electricity on, and off, on, and off untill finally the dogs quit banging around and instead would just stand there whimpering, shuddering, and would even urinate. The dogs acknowledged their circumstances and understood that there was no escape.

After a period of this back and forth with the electiricty, Seligman decided to open the door to let them out – and yet, the interesting thing was (although the electricity was off) the dog chose to stay in the cage. To entice the dogs, Seligman sat food outside of the cage, turned the electricity back on and, again, they stayed in the cage. Seligman called this situation “learned helplessness”.

Alright, this is where I draw my connection back to The White Tiger and this idea of a ‘chicken coop’. In many ways we have (in regard to suffering) learned helplessness. When suffering comes upon us, we become stuck and frozen. We believe that we can’t escape  our circumstances and therefore we decide just to wait until the period is over.

I defintiely think Balram was on to something when he descibed India as a ‘chicken coop’ – heck – the world often acts as though they are in a chicken coop. We chose to stay within our circumstances with little hope that they’ll ever improve. I’m not justifying this mindset – I believe it could be changed if we fix our attitude but I also recognize that, for many, it’s easier said than done.

Thoughts? Am I completely off on this one, or does it make sense?

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