Monday, November 2, 2009

Learned Helplessness. Inescapable Electrical Shock

Adapted from a chapter in Monsters and Pygmies

I began researching Martin Seligman’s experiments on dogs in 2003 for a (unpublished) book I was working on. While working on Monsters and Pygmies, I happened upon a statement by Dr. Seligman in The Daily Pennsylvanian (“the University of Pennsylvania's independent student newspaper”) from 2008.

He sums up his position:
Forty years ago, several dozen dogs got 64 brief shocks that were moderately painful. From the knowledge that was gained, depression was relieved for hundreds of thousands of people. Inflicting pain on animals or humans in medical experiments can only be justified if it is likely that the knowledge gained will eliminate vastly more suffering.

This is what I believed then, and what I still believe today. (Martin Seligman. Opinion: “Data that opens countless doors” (Counterpoint). The Daily Pennsylvanian. August 7, 2008.
“[S]everal dozen dogs got 64 brief shocks that were moderately painful.” What’s the big deal?

The cold, unflinching repetition of torture is a hallmark of a monster.

Several dozen dogs. More than a dozen dozen, actually. Treating even one dog the way Seligman did would be monstrous.

“64 brief shocks that were moderately painful.” What’s the big deal?

Seligman reported that his observations were based on over 150 dogs.
When an experimentally naive dog receives escape-avoidance training in a shuttle box, the following behavior typically occurs: at the onset of the first traumatic electric shock, the dog runs frantically about, defecating, urinating and howling, until it accidentally scrambles over the barrier and so escapes the shock. On the next trial, the dog, running and howling, crosses the barrier more quickly than on the preceding trial. This pattern continues until the dog learns to avoid shock altogether. Overmier and Seligman (1967) and Seligman and Maier (1967) found a striking difference between this pattern of behavior and that exhibited by dogs first given inescapable electric shocks in a Pavlovian hammock. Such a dog’s first reactions to shock in the shuttle box are much the same as those of a naive dog. In dramatic contrast to a naive dog, however, a typical dog which has experienced uncontrollable shocks before avoidance training soon stops running and howling and sits or lies, quietly whining, until shock terminates. The dog does not cross the barrier and escape from shock. Rather, it seems to give up and passively accepts the shock. On succeeding trials, the dog continues to fail to make escape movements and takes as much shock as the experimenter chooses to give. (Seligman, M.E. “Depression and Learned Helplessness.” In (R.J Friedmand and M.M. Katz Eds.) The Psychology of Depression: Contemporary Theory and Research. Washington D.C.: V.H. Winston and Sons, 1974.
Now, Seligman in the The Daily Pennsylvanian, quoted below, should be read with some skepticism, because “this brings us to an obvious but mostly overlooked weakness in the vivisector's position: that is, his inevitable forfeiture of all claim to have his word believed. It is hardly to be expected that a man who does not hesitate to vivisect for the sake of science will hesitate to lie about it afterwards to protect it from what he deems the ignorant sentimentality of the laity.” (The Doctor's Dilemma, Getting Married, and The Shewing-up of Blanco. George Bernard Shaw. 1911.)
I arrived at Penn as a graduate student in psychology in 1964, when Richard Solomon's laboratory was doing experiments with electric shocks and dogs. Dogs that received 64 brief inescapable shocks became passive, and this seemed to me a likely model of human helplessness and depression.
So we have to understand Seligman from the position of someone who willingly entered and became part of a vivisectionist’s lab. He wasn’t ordered to do it, like a Nazi soldier or a U.S. reservist at Abu Ghraib, people who were simply easily led, he apparently sought out Solomon’s lab.
As excited as I was by the possibilities of this discovery, I was dejected about something else.

Could I work in a laboratory that gave shocks to perfectly innocent animals? I have always been an animal lover, particularly a dog lover, so the prospect of causing pain - if only minor and temporary pain - was very distasteful. I shared my doubts with one of my philosophy teachers (who went on to become one of the world's leading philosophers), Robert Nozick.
Minor and temporary, he says. But this was written after the fact. He had already explained forty years earlier that: “at the onset of the first traumatic electric shock, the dog runs frantically about, defecating, urinating and howling,” and that “On succeeding trials, the dog continues to fail to make escape movements and takes as much shock as the experimenter chooses to give.”

“I've seen something in the lab that might be the beginning of understanding helplessness,” I started out. “No one has ever investigated helplessness before, yet I'm not sure I can pursue it, because I don't think it's right to give shocks to dogs. Even if it's not wrong, it's repulsive.”

“Marty,” Bob asked, “do you have any other way of cracking the problem of helplessness?” It was clear to both of us that case histories of patients were a scientific dead end. It was equally clear that only well controlled experiments could isolate cause and discover cure. Further, there was no way I could ethically give shock to human beings. This seemed to leave only experiments with animals.

“Is it ever justified,” I asked, “to inflict pain on any creature?” Bob reminded me that most human beings, as well as household pets, are alive today because animal experiments were carried out. Without them, he asserted, polio would still be rampant and smallpox widespread.

“Let me ask you one thing about what you propose to do,” Bob said finally. “Is there a substantial chance that you will eliminate much more pain in the long run than the pain you cause in the short run?”

My answer was “yes.”
Maybe Seligman remembers this more-than-four-decade-old conversation accurately, but one has to wonder given the fact that Robert Nozick is remembered for his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, in which he argues at length that ethical treatment of animals isn’t adequately defined by such utilitarianism. Nozick writes:
[I]sn’t utilitarianism at least adequate for animals? I think not. But if not only the animals’ felt experiences are relevant, what else is? Here a tangle of questions arises. How much does an animal's life have to be respected once it’s alive, and how can we decide this? Must one also introduce some notion of a nondegraded existence? Would it be all right to use genetic-engineering tech­niques to breed natural slaves who would be contented with their lots? Natural animal slaves? Was that the domestication of ani­mals? Even for animals, utilitarianism won't do as the whole story, but the thicket of questions daunts us. (Robert Nozick. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.
Unfortunately, Robert Nozick died in 2002, so we can’t ask him.

Robert Seligman, on the other hand is alive and well. His current shtick is the promotion of happiness; go figure.

This is from the University of Pennsylvania website:
Dr. Martin Seligman is the Director of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center and founder of Positive Psychology, a new branch of psychology which focuses on the empirical study of such things as positive emotions, strengths-based character, and healthy institutions. His research has demonstrated that it is possible to be happier — to feel more satisfied, to be more engaged with life, find more meaning, have higher hopes, and probably even laugh and smile more, regardless of one’s circumstances. Positive psychology interventions can also lastingly decrease depression symptoms. The research underlying these rigorously tested interventions is presented in the July/August edition of the American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychology Association.

Authentic Happiness has almost 700,000 registered users around the world.
Maybe Seligman has turned over a new leaf. Let’s hope so. But he hasn’t come close to apologizing for the things he has done or the lives he destroyed (from The Daily Pennsylvanian):
From the knowledge that was gained, depression was relieved for hundreds of thousands of people. [Actual improvement of symptoms is almost entirely due to a serendipitous discovery that resulted from the treatment of tuberculosis in the early 1950s. The resulting pharmacological revolution had no connection to Seligman’s experiments.] Inflicting pain on animals or humans in medical experiments can only be justified if it is likely that the knowledge gained will eliminate vastly more suffering.

This is what I believed then, and what I still believe today.
But what he did was monstrous.
[I]t is not an accident that we have used the word “helplessness” to describe the behavior of dogs in our laboratory. Animals that lie down in traumatic shock that could be removed simply by jumping to the other side, and who fail even to make escape movements are readily seen as helpless. Moreover we should not forget that depressed patients commonly describe themselves helpless, hopeless, and powerless. (Seligman, M.E. “Depression and Learned Helplessness.”)
And even if what he did was monstrous, he did it 40 years ago, right? So what’s the big deal? Yet others, who have been accused of arguably lesser crimes from 60 years ago, are being brought to justice. A March 2009, Associated Press story (Nazi war crimes suspect loses extradition appeal) reported that: “Charles Zentai is accused of beating to death teenager Peter Balazs in 1944 in Budapest while serving as a soldier in the army of his native Hungary, then allied with Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany.”

Beating a teenager to death is certainly a serious crime, but it has to be evaluated in light of Stanley Milgram’s famous discovery that the weight of authority is too often sufficient to compel us to hurt others. In a letter dated 1961, Milgram wrote to Henry Riecken, head of Social Sciences at the National Science Foundation:
The results are terrifying and depressing. They suggest that human nature—or more specifically, the kind of character produced in American society—cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of a malevolent authority. In a naïve moment some time ago, I wondered whether in all of the United States a vicious government could find enough moral imbeciles to meet the personnel requirements of a system of death camps, of the sort that were maintained in Germany. I am now beginning to think that the full compliment could be recruited in New Haven. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act, and without pangs of conscious, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority. (Thomas Blass. The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram. New York: Basic Books, 2004.)
Charles Zentai may be guilty of being swept up in the Nazi frenzy and following orders and as a result committing what is now viewed as a crime, but this is much different than simply heading out on his own and beating people to death. There is a fundamental difference between a "moral imbecile," as most of are wont to be at times, and monsters, who proceed independently, without outside direction to torture and murder others.

If Zentai should be held to account for killing one boy, while perhaps following orders to do so, then so too must someone who tortured 150 dogs and other animals so severely.

We can’t leave Seligman without thinking about his recollected conversation with Robert Nozick. Seligman claims to recall that Nozick said that “most human beings, as well as household pets, are alive today because animal experiments were carried out. Without them, polio would still be rampant and smallpox widespread.” But this is pure unadulterated bunk; how handy it would be if it were correct.

All epidemic diseases ebb and flow. Whether or not polio ebbed because of polio vaccinations is not as clear as it might seem. Polio wasn’t ever really "rampant." Heart disease and cancer account for over 40% of the deaths that occur in the U.S. In 1952, at the peak of the polio epidemic in the U.S., 3,145 died from complications related to the disease. This is a lot of people, but polio doesn’t even make the 1952 (or any other year's) top ten list of the leading causes of death.26 Polio was hyped only because President Roosevelt had the disease. [See: “Leading Causes of Death, 1900-1998.” Centers for Disease Control. And David M. Oshinsky. Polio: An American Story. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.] Polio research got funded while the real killers were left largely ignored. Most human beings are not alive today because animal experiments were carried out during the development of the polio vaccine. Seligman is wrong.

How about smallpox? A readable and informative book on the topic is Jennifer Lee Carole’s 2003 novelized science history, The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox (New York: Plume, 2003.) In short, a British woman who had herself survived smallpox, as most people did, accompanied her husband to his post as the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. In Turkey, she learned of the practice of inoculation against small pox. She carried the practice home with her to England where it was tried and written about, which led to its introduction in America.

Edward Jenner, credited with the invention of vaccination, had himself been inoculated against smallpox the old fashioned way, with a small bit of the pus from a smallpox lesion being placed into a small intentional wound. This practice, called variolation, was becoming fairly widespread and accepted by the time Jenner began trying vaccination as a safer less-stressful alternative.

Moreover, Jenner didn’t conduct animal experiments. He wondered why milkmaids didn’t seem to be as susceptible to small pox as other people. He had been inoculating people with pus from lesions on smallpox victims, but tried using pus from lesions on the hands of a milkmaid. The people he tried the new procedure on were his experimental subjects.

Any claim that “animal experimentation” led to the small pox vaccination is woefully uninformed or intentionally misleading. Seligman is wrong again. Monsters dearly want people to accept as “a necessary evil” the tortures they visit on their victims. They can’t be trusted. They can’t be believed.


Seth said...

You really see a moral equivalency between research on dogs, which is intended to lessen the suffering of human beings, and Nazi torture?

Rick said...


Please clarify your question if I have missed your point(s).

Are you asking whether I believe there is a moral equivalence between hurting a dog and hurting a human? (I do.)

Are you asking whether I believe that voluntarily torturing 150 dogs is as bad as a young soldier following orders to shoot someone? (I think hurting the dogs was worse.)

And where, by the way, did I say something about "Nazi torture"?

Most of what was done by the Nazis in their medical experimentation on prisoners and is now generally said to have been torture, was done in the name of science, just as Seligman's was and so many vivisectors' work today is. What the Nazis did in their labs wasn't torture per se, no matter how heinous and cruel it was.

rozzie said...

i read in harper magazine this guy wanted to help soldiers.. and our govt was going to spend millions on mental health for vets.. i hope i read it wrong.. i threw away the article..