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Learned helplessness: The "why bother" or "how for do" syndrome

4 March 2020 at 18:12 | 815 views

Learned helplessness: The "why bother" or "how for do" syndrome

Commentary

By Dr. Hassan Sisay, Special Contributor, USA

Learned Helplessness (LH) in human behavior, is a condition that is prevalent in many parts of the world including Sierra Leone. While it can be argued that there are many causes for Sierra Leone’s current slow pace of economic development, some observers have indicated that a major factor for the perpetuation of such a condition is the existence and continuous embracing of the (LH) syndrome. Psychologists believe that (LH) provides participants with a social and cultural justification to rationalize their inaction to solve personal problems.

Oftentimes, individuals in (LH) utilize appropriate linguistic terminology to fend off allegations of any responsibility for conditions they may have willingly learned to embrace, defend, and or reluctant to abandon. What comes to your mind when you hear the following frequently used statements by friends and relatives in Krio, the nation’s lingua franca.

KRIO-ENGLISH TRANSLATION
HOW FOR DO: WHAT CAN I DO?
WE DAY MANAGE: WE ARE TRYING TO SURVIVE
WE DAY NAR GOD IN HAND: OUR FATE IS IN GOD’S HANDS
NAR SO GOD SAY: THAT’S HOW GOD MEANT IT TO BE
NAR SO WE MEET: THINGS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN LIKE THIS
NAR FAMBLE SWEH RAM: HE/SHE WAS CURSED BY RELATIVES
EE GET BAD SABABU: HE/SHE HAS ALWAYS BEEN UNLUCKY

The invocation of the proverbial preordained “God’s will” is another phenomenon that is often employed in (LH) to rationalize lack of action or disperse the responsibility for one’s status. The above excuses intentionally linked to God’s will seem to promote the culture of do little or “nothing” to improve oneself, since your current situation is preordained. As noted by Samantha Atherton in a well written Master of Education thesis in educational psychology at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, “people learn to be helpless if they explain their misfortune in terms of their own inadequacies and regard their suffering as pervading their entire lives, both in the present and the future.” Could it be that the above frequently used expressions in Sierra Leone’s widely spoken Krio language are other forms of justifying inaction as well as confirming a crucial “why bother” (LH) hypothesis about the needlessness of self-improvement?

Further, People in (LH) situations, believe that their problems are so ingrained and inescapable, that they give up serious efforts at self-improvement, and instead convey the impression that they are indeed victims of factors that are outside of their control and might last forever.

Behavioral Psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Mayer who initiated the original (LH) study conclusively asserted, “if you believe that regardless of what you do today, it won’t positively impact tomorrow, you’re not going to try” to improve yourself. Instead you “learn to be poor,” defend the status quo, embrace powerlessness, and often dismiss ways to improve oneself as counterproductive. While such a conclusion may seem to justify an individual’s inability to solve his or her own problems, often extended family members who are financially thriving are called upon or expected to intervene and to provide assistance.

Conversely, psychotherapists have also provided us with another study that seems to explain the “how for do” conundrum. Divided into internal and external locus of control, the former states that success in life generally depends on one’s motivation and efforts, and the latter attributes success to a variety of factors including “luck or fate.” The above rationalization reminded me of my late brother’s response when I asked him why almost everyone in the family depended on me for financial support. He quickly stated “because God took all of our luck and gave it to you.”

To which I responded, “you can have your luck back."

We both smiled at each other.

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