When I first came to Kosovo in January 2007, I was impressed with what I had learned about the society in Kosovo: the push in the 1970s for recognition as a Republic, which led to status as an autonomous province with representation in the rotating presidency; the student protests in 1981 in which the poor conditions for students were challenged. I admired the strength and courage of the people at the time who made a choice to challenge status quo for better conditions.
But as I continued to work in Kosovo I was surprised by something else, a type of apathy amongst people over an array of issues. “Oh, ku ku bre, whats the point, what to do?” These phrases surprised me considering the strength of the people. There was mention of corruption and nepotism. Things were ‘fixed’. I wondered what had happened to the fight within the people? How could such cynicism be present in a populous that had fought for the right to self-determination? How could the youth have inherited this outlook when they had their whole lives ahead of themselves?
While reading Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, I came across the concept of learned helplessness. Psychologists Martin Seligman and Steve Maier coined this term while conducting experiments on German shepherds. In psychology animals such as dogs are commonly used as models for the human mind and behavior because “the study of animal behavior is a cornerstone of experimental psychology, shedding light on complex human emotions.”
In the experiment, the dogs were divided into groups, some subject to shocks with levers to make the shock stop, some of which worked, some not exposed at all. The psychologists discovered that dogs subjected to the shock with functioning levers or those not subject to any shock quickly learned to physically adjust to a place where the shock would not be felt. The dogs whose levers didn’t function didn’t adapt or adjust and did nothing to try to avoid getting shocked, because they didn’t know they had any choice other than to take the shocks, leading to their discovery of the theory of learned helplessness.
Although humans are more complex beings than dogs, learned helplessness is evident in all societies. In the United States, voter turnout is typically amongst the lowest in the democratic world. Registered voters are often heard stating, “My vote won’t make a difference anyway, so why should I bother” inciting political parties to increase voter-turn out in hopes of an electoral win. In Kosovo, I have seen this apathy at public meetings with low participation or heard the typical complaint “why should we attend when the decisions have been made already? I have seen this passivity amongst skilled professionals that refrain from applying to jobs citing, “Why should I bother, its probably fixed anyways”. While their reasons behind their decision to not participate are sometimes true at times, they show evidence of the learned helplessness discovered by Seligman and Maier.
While at times we do not have the energy or will to challenge what some may perceive as inevitable, my concern with this behavior is that over a longer period of time what becomes a decision to relent turns into a habit or worse, influences one’s character. McKeown argues in his concept of essentialism that the ability to chose can be quickly forgotten, resulting in learned helplessness. “When we surrender our right to choose, we give others not just the power but also the explicit permission to choose for us.” He believes that one may not have control over their options, but one always has control over how to chose among them.
So next time you find yourself in that situation where you feel like your efforts are futile think carefully about how that will impact your behavior in the future. Are you slowly forgetting your free will, that core ability to choose? Maybe there is something that you could learn from this experience? Maybe there are others that could support you in making a positive impact during this situation. What do you risk losing by not engaging? Remember, you may be giving others the power to choose for you.