Summary of Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman

I would recommend autistic-leaning people first read What You Can Change And What You Can’t. However, if you only want to read one of the two, read this one. Both are very informative but this one is also useful.

Summary of Learned Optimism:

-There’s an epidemic of depression due to the West’s out of control individualism and concomitant breakdown of community, institutions, and religion. Major depression is ten times as common than it was a century ago (often beginning at age five instead of thirty-five) and twenty times more common among women (3% to 60%). Seligman doesn’t explicitly draw this connection but these are similar to the differences between West Germany and East Germany under Communism:

Fifty percent of West Berliners sat or stood upright, but only 4 percent (!) of East Berliners. Eighty percent of West Berlin workmen had their bodies in an open posture—turned toward others—but only 7 percent (!) of the East Berliners did.

-Excepting the bipolar subtype, which can be treated with drugs, all depression is caused by hardship and learned helplessness in varying degrees of severity.

-Learned helplessness is 100% curable, provided it is just learned and not ACTUAL helplessness (in which case ACTUAL skills are also needed, e.g. assertiveness training).

STEVE MAIER and I had now found out how to produce learned helplessness. But, having caused it, could we cure it? We took a group of dogs that had been taught to be helpless, and we dragged those poor, reluctant animals back and forth across the shuttlebox, over the barrier and back again, until they began to move under their own steam and came to see that their own actions worked. Once they did, the cure was one hundred percent reliable and permanent. We worked on prevention and discovered a phenomenon we called “immunization”: Learning beforehand that responding matters actually prevents learned helplessness. We even found that dogs taught this mastery as puppies were immunized to learned helplessness all their lives. The implications of that, for human beings, were thrilling.

…So the fit between the model and the real-life phenomenon was exceedingly close. Inescapable noise, unsolvable problems, and inescapable shock produced eight of the nine symptoms which contribute to the diagnosis of major depression. The closeness of this fit inspired researchers to test the theory still another way. A number of drugs can break up depression in people; the researchers gave all of them to the helpless animals. Again the results were dramatic: Each of the antidepressant drugs (and electroconvulsive therapy as well) cured learned helplessness in animals. They probably did so by raising the amount of crucial neurotransmitters available in the brain. The researchers also found that drugs that do not break up depression in people, like caffeine, Valium, and amphetamines, do not break up learned helplessness either. The fit, then, seemed almost perfect. In its symptoms, learned helplessness produced in the laboratory seemed almost identical to depression. When we now looked at the upsurge of depression, we could view it as an epidemic of learned helplessness. We knew the cause of learned helplessness, and now we could see it as the cause of depression: the belief that your actions will be futile. This belief was engendered by defeat and failure as well as by uncontrollable situations. Depression could be caused by defeat, failure, and loss and the consequent belief that any actions taken will be futile. I think this belief is at the heart of our national epidemic of depression.

-Resilience, or lack thereof, is produced by a positive feedback loop between setbacks and explanatory style. Therefore a positive explanatory style (tendency to interpret hardships as temporary, externally caused, and highly specific) will create a virtuous cycle of rebounding from failures. A negative explanatory style (tendency to interpret hardship as permanent, personal, and pervasive) will create a vicious cycle of rumination and self-alienation.

-Explanatory style can be measured through fairly simple textual analysis and used to predict everything worthwhile with stunning reliability: presidential elections, sports performance, employee retention, survival of cancer, etc. In some domains it outperforms IQ!

-There are two main ways to stop a negative explanatory style, distraction and disputation. Disputation works better in the long run but distraction has some uses (e.g. explosive ordnance disposal).

-Two ways of training disputation are to keep an ABCDE journal (Adversity, Belief, Consequences, Disputation, Energization) or to have a trusted friend play “negative Nelly” and practice debunking their catastrophizing inferences. Get defensive like in a political debate and use contrary evidence from memory, suggest a range of alternative interpretations, and deny overgeneralized implications.

The fundamental guideline for not deploying optimism is to ask what the cost of failure is in the particular situation. If the cost of failure is high, optimism is the wrong strategy. The pilot in the cockpit deciding whether to de-ice the plane one more time, the partygoer deciding whether to drive home after drinking, the frustrated spouse deciding whether to start an affair that, should it come to light, would break up the marriage should not use optimism. Here the costs of failure are, respectively, death, an auto accident, and a divorce. Using techniques that minimize those costs is inappropriate. On the other hand, if the cost of failure is low, use optimism. The sales agent deciding whether to make one more call loses only his time if he fails. The shy person deciding whether to attempt to open a conversation risks only rejection. The teenager contemplating learning a new sport risks only frustration. The disgruntled executive, passed over for promotion, risks only some refusals if he quietly puts out feelers for a new position. All should use optimism.

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16 Responses to Summary of Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman

  1. Koanic says:

    Textmind solves learned helplessness. Yet another reason to prioritize it first. It also renders superfluous and discardable many psychological defenses against depression which have undesirable side effects, such as defensive delusions. Comprehensive journaling pierces the fog of subjectivity, which clouds only the present moment, with its false projections of past and future.

    • Aeoli Pera says:

      You’re confusing learned helplessness with actual helplessness.

      • Koanic says:

        I don’t think so. The combination of repeated failure with an impossibly complex environment triggers buffer overflow and emotional crisis resulting in pathological responses. These psychological responses cause much more harm than the initial cognitive deficiency would’ve by itself. Learned helpless in certain areas is only one potential consequence. If these failures had been accepted with equanimity and deferred for future review without the need for an immediate resolution, performance would be much improved. Textmind automates that.

        Of course, when one’s civilization and race are plausibly in terminal decline, it can be difficult to muster the required faith, or to know what to have faith in. That is where KJV Bible audio immersion comes in – it provides the foundation that Boomers demolished.

        One man can’t be expected to resolve the meaning of life, the universe and everything, but those questions are already answered. What remains of the individual’s task is well within Textmind’s throughput capability.

        • Aeoli Pera says:

          You’re interpreting learned helplessness as an information complexity problem. Information complexity is an actual helplessness problem.

          • Koanic says:

            Obviously I am aware that information complexity is a real problem. There is always some real problem that contributes to learned helplessness. I am saying that the psychological overreaction to postmodern information complexity is much worse than the real component of the problem. Textmind brute-forces both problems, which is quite helpful. But it isn’t necessary. Both postmodernity and information complexity are addressed satisfactorily by the Biblical ethos. Ask Solomon. One may escape postmodernity by living instead in that time in which there is no new thing under the sun. Modernity has ended many times before. The shrinking borders of Aryan Christendom hardly matter when one remembers that, before every knee bows to Christ, every nation must kneel to Anti-Christ. The sooner this prison planet ends, the better.

            • Aeoli Pera says:

              There’s a burned utopian inside the heart of every accelerationist.

            • Koanic says:

              I am neither, I merely use the one argument to cancel the other. The Biblical ethos admits neither utopianism nor despair. We are not in the straits of Noah nor Elijah nor Mordecai nor Moses.

    • Aeoli Pera says:

      Here’s the sort of problem for which Cyborganize is well-suited:

      The attitudes, behaviors and actions that people assume at work are seldom directly correlated to how one was raised, one’s values, insights and perspectives, who one loves and who loves them. Attitudes, behaviors and actions at work are largely set by the organization. They are much cruder and simpler than those beyond the workplace. This means that they can be changed or skewed, as I’ve described in the previous section. The organization makes us do things and behave in ways that are not natural. The organization changes us. When we start to work with organizational dynamics related to people, we seldom have the opportunity to do appropriate diagnosis—we can’t get inside people’s heads, lay them down on the couch, as it were, and try to figure out how they have been adapting and reacting to the organization’s dynamics over the years. At a basic level, a manager shouldn’t actually care what causes someone to be as they are at work; that’s for their family and psychiatrist to figure out. What a manager cares about is what’s prompting someone to behave in ways that prevent them from doing their best work and how to get them to turn down the volume on those behaviors and actions. To do this, we need to become a pinball wizard of our organization’s dynamics. We need to pinpoint the patterns: what happened when something worked and what happened when something didn’t work? Who was involved? How did the conversation start? Where did the conversation happen? What time of day or what day of the week was it? What were the various parties wearing? How did they express themselves, verbally and visually? What happened just prior to the conversation or encounter for yourself and, as you may know, for the others involved? All of these questions and others provide a glimpse into the systemic patterns that influence people at work. They are very straightforward. They are pretty easy to answer. The challenge is to actually ask them, answer them, and track the patterns over time. When we start asking questions about what may be causing someone to behave and act in the way they do in an organization we can start to pinpoint things that may break that pattern. We can find simple ways to get people to change their behaviors and attitudes in ways that enable us to do good work, to be committed and motivated, and to actually enjoy our work.
      -Dorian LaGuardia, “Bad Company: The Joys, Sorrows and Mind-Numbing Frustrations of Working with Other People”

  2. chezgr@y says:

    What is ‘textmind’?

  3. bicebicebice says:

    I just felt like this belongs here

    the “training potential” is interesting. Only a Borgonizer can re-inforce high IQ behavior, and yes for the sake of the argument you need high IQ to be evil aka Dr.Evil to “take over the world”, your average 80IQ sape can’t do that. Daily prayer “might” deterr a sape from sapery if that sape fears HELL enough but thanks to ******* that option no longer works in the west.

    Will you live in a treestump or sit in the great chairmans party? which way western whiteoid man

  4. Pingback: Comeback kings | Aeoli Pera

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