The pike is nature's optimized predator. He sits silently in his ambush, dorsal and pectoral fins moving ever so slightly to maintain his orientation. When prey enters range, the pike relies on a rapid burst attack to maneuver his razor sharp teeth to a position to tear and consume his prey. Not unlike other aggressive species like piranha, pike are cannibalistic, territorial and very space conscious.
English poet Ted Hughes wrote a popular poem titled "Pike", his interest for the species established during childhood and pursued through his life as a recreational angler. I highly recommend you check it out here. The poem is wonderful. Here's a favourite part:
The jaws’ hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date:
A life subdued to its instrument;
The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals.
Three we kept behind glass,
Jungled in weed: three inches, four,
And four and a half: fed fry to them-
Suddenly there were two. Finally one
With a sag belly and the grin it was born with.
And indeed they spare nobody.
Two, six pounds each, over two feet long
High and dry and dead in the willow-herb-
One jammed past its gills down the other’s gullet:
The outside eye stared: as a vice locks-
The same iron in this eye
Though its film shrank in death.
“A life subdued to its instrument” is a rich account of the biological killing apparatus - the jaw and teeth - ‘determining’ the function of the organism. But also as nature has made the pike a brutally efficient killer, evolution and natural selection have left the pike with traits such as cannibalism and over-aggressiveness that guaranteed the demise of other ancient species. Yet some of the world's oldest creatures such as crocodiles and lizards share these traits. The genes allowing for both the success at killing and 'anti-social behaviour' in piranhas, crocodiles and pike are remnants of millions to hundreds of millions of years of mutation, selection and evolution. A pike is wired to be what a Pike is after all, remember the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scorpion_and_the_Frog
Or is it? Years ago a study (here) was done where minnows and a pike were placed in an aquarium. The results were as expected. The unheard screams of the minnows were offset by the silent delight of the pike. Ok not really, nature just did as nature does. New minnows were placed in the tank inside another glass vessel. Now the pike attempted to eat the minnows but the invisible glass of the vessel left the smaller fish unharmed. After some indeterminate period of time, the vessel was removed exposing the minnows again to the now famished pike. The pike did nothing, even as minnows brushed against his sharp weapons of death. Allegedly, the pike died of starvation.
So how do we explain that millions to hundreds of millions of years of genetic optimization of a species (to killing things in lakes) was 'undone' in the matter of days? Subsequent experiments with rats and other animals have shown similar outcomes. Narratives about consistency of being and character are among the most powerful in most cultures and for good reason. After all, reputation matters in a tribe or a clan. The tale of the scorpion and frog among a number of other stories we tell each other remind of us that fact. Psychologists posit that core personality traits among humans are incredibly stable throughout life. So how can this idea of learned helplessness be so pervasive to subdue the ancient killing instincts that Ted Hughes so beautifully described in 'Pike'?
Psychologist Marty Seligman coined the term learned helplessness. Repeated negative stimuli beyond the control of the subject often results in acceptance of the situation as new default programming, even when mechanisms for control are reintroduced. He tested this idea using a set of experiments involving dogs and electric shocks. The first group of dogs learned they could stop an electric shock via pushing a lever, and did so. Another group was trained that the lever did nothing to help their suffering by stopping the electric charge. Subsequently, when placed on an electrified pad with no barriers, the 2nd group did not even attempt to step off the shock pad, instead submitting entirely to what they internalized as the new normal state (random shocks).
Later experiments with humans led to similar results. Other animal studies showed that mammals that knew they had the ability to end negative stimuli experienced a better cognitive and emotional state, even if they did not end the stimuli, compared to those that had been trained into helplessness.
This means a lot to us humans. It shows that the most resourceful, prepared and competent of us all can be trained into a state of learned helplessness with relative ease. Leaders throughout history used this to their advantage. Under the weight of an oppressive medieval lord, effective domination of his subjects was best done when it had been 'demonstrated' that they were helpless louts that had no alternative than the lord's bidding. And whether that meant military conscription or taxation, that too would be normalized into helplessness.
The tools of the over-reaching state are the same tools of the over-reaching oligarchy. And by oligarchy today I mean Goldman Sachs, Facebook, Google, the IMF, Carlyle Group, and LOTS more.
Modern learned helplessness to small business was the feeling mom and pop stores had in a small town when Walmart first moved in.
Modern learned helplessness to voters is the feeling that no matter who you vote for the the outcomes and the beneficiaries are the same.
Modern learned helplessness to investors is the feeling that meritocracy is dead, the old notions of liberalism have no place in capital markets, and that the game is in fact rigged.
It's not to say that these are insurmountable things. They are big, daunting challenges that resemble a David vs. Goliath battle. But the most insidious part of learned helplessness it that it blinds you to the potential solutions to the maze. It's why the pike couldn't figure out that he could eat the minnows again, and the dogs that had been conditioned that they could not stop electric shocks would not even walk away from the electrified floor.
The widely (and often justifiably) mocked emergence of 'victim culture', particularly among young people is easier to understand in this context. Consolidating and wielding the power to control narrative has been made a larger prize and also scales easier with current technology and the reliance on social media for interaction and ‘news’, especially among younger people. At the same time, there are also real reasons why it is harder now to succeed in new paradigms - it is more difficult for the Mom and Pop main street business to succeed when the box store moves into town - but you aren't helpless. Same with voters, investors and students.
Seligman identifies three dimensions people use to explain events:
Permanence – Is the event a temporary event? People that give up easily typically perceive negative events as being permanent, and as such feel helpless. Optimists typically see negative events as temporary.
Pervasiveness – Pessimists catastrophize. “When one thread of their lives snaps, the whole fabric unravels” (Seligman, 1990). This is the opposite of compartmentalization.
Personalization – Those that have learned helplessness internalize all failure. People with optimistic outlooks often blame failure on the external environment.
Personalization controls what we feel, while permanence and pervasiveness control what we do. Personalization is the only dimension easy to fake. This is why an ‘excessive optimist’ (also a sociopath) can blame all his personal mistakes on external events or other people, taking no responsibility whatsoever. We don’t want to go far in either direction. Skepticism, and if not taken too far pessimism can provide some very useful survival instincts.
Some psychologists posit the idea that being too closely tethered to reality can result in depression. Intuitively this makes sense. Understanding the odds against success from a mathematical perspective of any venture can dissuade someone from even starting. But it also assumes that perfect, or near perfect knowledge of probabilities of outcomes is readily available about long term, incredibly complex relationships. It’s a tough case to make when most people couldn’t tell you the odds on 3 card monte.
A scarcity mindset is one associated with learned helplessness. It is the idea that there are never enough resources, be it money, food or emotional support. One feels it impossible to find new sources of resources (helplessness). Scarcity mindset traits include pettiness, selfishness, envy, short-sightedness, tunnel vision, fearfulness, and withholding information. The exact opposite of these describes the abundance mindset.
Scarcity mindset players in game theory are typically opting for non-co-operative gameplay. This is infectious as co-operative-type players are trained that many of the other participants ARE playing a competitive game and attempt to adjust their own strategy. This leads to only or predominantly single play games, because reputation does not matter (or matters less) in single play games.
With an abundance mindset, and with multiple iterations of the game an equilibrium can be reached where both players mutually benefit, but also the knowledge about the fact an equilibrium exists in a stable co-operative setting has a number of other benefits. There is certainty regarding future resource expenditure and return. Cognitive demands on the players is lower, allowing for the opportunity of refocusing bandwidth on other ventures. With a single play mindset, players become reactionary as opposed to having a framework about how things are supposed to work. They focus on 'the information' coming at them instead of a larger set of understandings based on a cooperative framework. This means the outlandish pandering of politicians to what polls and strategists tell them they think the electorate wants RIGHT NOW, whether or not this is right. This means reinterpreting economic statistics like GDP and inflation as a means to an end. This means that these 'facts' or 'information'' guiding these types of decisions are valuable, powerful and almost certain to be manipulated.
And from Seligman’s work, the real tragedy here is how this impacts the personalization dimension - how does this affect what matters – people. Both Seligman’s work as well as anecdotal evidence suggest that competent, typically well anchored people are personalizing the events of the (mostly) last ten years into a condition of learned helplessness. And increasingly of learned anti-coordination because we can’t see a better way. Seligman’s permanence dimension feels particularly potent right now because things are still accelerating the wrong way. Killers from the egg are dangerous, but as pike can be trained into ignoring their instincts (to fatal consequence), I fear many of the best of us can be trained into reactive, short sighted competitive game playing with potentially fatal consequences.