Thursday, March 14, 2019

Seligman's Hope Circuit

Martin Seligman is famous for a learned helplessness study I wrote about a few years back:
In a famous experiment, dogs were put in a compartment and trained to jump a barrier when given an electric shock. After one or two tries, the dogs jumped the barrier immediately after being put in the compartment even when no shock was given. BUT some dogs were restrained the first time and not able to jump the barrier. They had to tolerate the shock without being able to escape. When they were unharnessed, they still didn't jump the barrier, but just stayed there, tolerating the pain.

"Seligman found that it took many experiences (up to 200) of being forcibly dragged across from the shock compartment to the safe compartment for them to rediscover that responding could bring relief and thus to break out of the learned helplessness syndrome." 
Up to 200 times after just one inescapable experience! We are hard-wired to stay put, to hunker down and tolerate abuse after just one bad experience. That's how we survive. When dogs are beaten, they often follow their abuser around even if there are kinder family members to hang out with. We align ourselves with the strongest in the pack, and an abuser can fit the bill. These are basic animal behaviours that are difficult to overcome despite our big brains, even for the best and brightest among us.
What I didn't know at the time is that Seligman spent decades rethinking this idea. He has a big, long book out, The Hope Circuit, that's part theory development and part memoir. And he does feel badly for what those dogs went through in the name of science (78).  The book is weirdly written with long descriptive passes dedicated to how each woman in his life looks, how flattering their clothes fit - even if they're in army fatigues, or if they "move like a panther." Kinda gross. (If you think that's just my oversensitive SJW perspective, here's a male reviewer's take on the writing style.) He's also defensive about his work, particularly when discussing criticisms that are valid - like overstating the effect of some trials, but he only acknowledges this stance when discussing the impact his studies have had on torturing techniques used on prisoners in Guantanamo Bay (295-310). That chapter's not nearly as engrossing as it could be, unfortunately. But I did enjoy reading about the trajectory of studies on depression formation and prevention and about the ins and outs of the American Psychological Association (APA), a bureaucratic organization run by a biased lot affected by money, who get to decide what research is important and what's allowed to fall to the wayside (so, just like every other huge organization then). Seligman was right there for the evolution of the APA (or at least he perceived himself to be), and there's lots of name-dropping throughout, but it's really too bad that he didn't seek out a ghost writer to put this all together. In more capable hands, this could have been written like a who-done-it - a page-turner instead of an awkwardly personal, self-helpy textbook. Here are some of the interesting bits:

In a nutshell, psychology is transforming away from Freud and behaviourism, which both focus on misery, towards a better understanding of evolutionary necessities that guide our thinking. Seligman embraces studies on cognition and evolutionary brain constraint, and he hopes to end the fixation on what's wrong in order to focus on the positives as he theorizes that we're less effected by our past than how we're drawn into the future.

Origins of the American Psychological Association:

The APA was formed in 1892, and William James, an American philosopher and physiologist, and an original founder of the APA, was president in 1894 and again in 1904. Seligman writes of that first board meeting, "You, my reader, and even I would have found the session dull" (60) and refers to him as "Bill" as if they were on familiar terms despite James having died some thirty years before Seligman's birth. Okay, whatever. In those early years, Freud, an Austrian neurologist, was researching the dreams of 'hysterical' women, and Pavlov, a Russian digestion surgeon, was doing his classical conditioning experiments, dispensing with mental life on the ground that only behaviours can be reliably measured. He also did studies on "experimental neurosis," a phenomenon he saw when rats were taught to jump to the left or to right for food, but if given a task that was not solvable, the rats froze at the starting post and became susceptible to seizures. It's natural for us to need to see the rhyme and reason to assigned tasks. The APA worked as more of a think-tank until, in 1947, the Veterans Administration Act gave them grants and transformed psychology into a health-care profession. The APA became three overlapping constituencies - scientists, therapists, and social activists. Then, "in the 1970s the therapists had become the majority, and the scientists were in retreat" (216).  In 1979, Seligman's wife left him for Walter Mischel - the delayed gratification marshmallow test dude (161), but Seligman happily remarried and was made president of the APA in 1998.

The Shift from Behaviour to Cognition:

In the 50s, behavioural conditioning was peaking, with John Watson developing learning theory, and Edward Thorndike putting cats in puzzle boxes. The dominant ideology was that behaviour could be known with certainty, but mind was unknowable. However, Seligman worked with Richard Solomon to look at the irreversibility of fear conditioning in dogs with the dog shock experiment that Seligman made famous. Today we know (or, the current ideology is) that thoughts powerfully influence our emotions, and that thoughts of helplessness produce passivity.

It's interesting to me that Seligman doesn't look further into William James's work, because he said the same thing long ago: Thought "presides over the perception of sensations, and by giving or withholding its assent it influences the movements they tend to arouse." Our perception of the world affects our reactions to it. And, like the stoics said centuries earlier, we can affect our perception of the world in order to change our reaction to it. It's Marcus Aurelius's famous line: "Your soul takes on the color of its thoughts" (141).

Now it's called cognitive psychology.

Noam Chomsky got in the picture in 1959 when he knocked down Skinner's explanation of language development as entirely a conditioned response to external rewards. Chomsky, wearing his linguist hat, "argued that the essence of language was not reinforcement--the repetition of old verbal habits--but generativity: speakers could produce and understand entirely novel utterances" (73). Piaget's studies on children and the learned helplessness studies on animals demonstrated that learning was cognitive - that something else was going on beyond rote learning, and it knocked Skinner's theory off its pedestal.

The Skinnerian approach argued that "Animals learn only responses--they don't learn that anything" (75). At the time, Seligman thought animals were learning that, since they couldn't affect the shock, that they shouldn't bother trying anymore. But fifty years later he changed his theory to be more in line with Skinner after all: "helplessness is not learned; rather it is mammals' default response to prolonged bad events" (76). But another important aspect of this is that animals can be 'immunized' to trauma: dogs that expected they could control the shock didn't give up on trying. If we have one success with a difficult experience, we develop persistence in the face of that obstacle. Joe Wolpe's research added to this immunization theory with the novel idea that whole body relaxation in the face of fears decreases fear because we can't be scared when the body is relaxed. It's that kind of training that allows firefights and soldiers to act in the face of danger instead of freezing or retreating.

The Dawn of Evolutionary Psychology:

A turning point came in the field now known as evolutionary psychology. There was the belief in "equipotentiality" - that any stimulus paired with any other produces learning. Susan Mineka's work corrected that in experiments that showed that an animal has to perceive and respond to a stimulus in order to learn from it. It can't just be anything (92). Some stimuli are attended to more than others. Learning theory missed the importance of evolution on the brain, for instance, that "tastes herald poisonous stomach illness, but sounds do not. . . . Learning that mirrors the actual causal skein of the world will be favored and selected. Evolution may have prepared us to associate tastes with illness even over a several-hour gap. . . . I joined the battle against he 'blank slate' brand of psychology that ignores natural selection" (95).

But, in the late 60s at Princeton, Seligman was told to watch his back because this wasn't the direction they wanted research to go in, and at Cornell there was an affirmative action scandal when they were instructed to take 40% of black applicants in the bottom 25% of the pool. Thomas Kuhn said that "science was more about fashion than about absolute truth" (99). Who got in to do the research and which research was funded was heavily politicized. Arthur Jensen, a Berkeley professor found lots of evidence that  IQ is heritable, but this was met with hostility, so was left on a back burner (106). Seligman seemed to always be able to call on a buddy in the system to help him to keep working as part of a Psychological Round Table, a secret fraternity of "haughty under-forty male experimental psychologists" who met once a year in New York (106). His privilege went undiscussed.

Theories on Depression and Mental Illness:

Aaron Beck developed a depression inventory to predict who is likely to become depressed. He advanced a theory that depression stems from thoughts of loss. Beck was also pivotal for developing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, found to dramatically improve phobias, addictions, and anxiety disorders, from Albert Ellis's Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, developed in 1955, based on Ellis mixing psychotherapy with his readings on stoicism, but Seligman doesn't mention that lineage.

Seligman said that by 1972, "I believed that large swaths of mental illness were straightforward. Unfortunate Pavlovian conditioning maladaptive instrumental habits, debilitating automatic thoughts, learned helplessness, stunted social skills, malign genetics, and neural imbalance were at play. . . . Often patients just needed a supportive, nonjudgmental listener" (112). Seligman doesn't discuss this, but at the same time, at MIT, Joseph Weizenbaum created a computer psychotherapist he named Eliza. It was just a joke, but, the program,
"responds like Carl Rogers (by just reflecting back whatever we say) in order to parody the hopeless attempts at AI. But people found talking with Eliza helpful - even people that knew how it worked. It makes us happy and secure to have ourselves reflected back at us. The programmers started making systems to do that - intelligence pages - that gather data about people, look for patterns, and predict what they might want to see or hear or buy. It ordered the world and reassured the anxious. And it was highly profitable."
See my summary of Adam Curtis's video for more on that. Seligman's focus was the connection between learned helplessness, from preventing any control over the environment, and depression, which was seen when "depressed people who did not experience inescapable events behaved in the laboratory as if they had, showing passivity in the shuttle box and giving up on cognitive problems" (115). Further to the evolutionary model, he found that, "Unlike ordinary Pavlovian conditioning, taste aversions do not go away. . . . mounting evidence that conditioning was just an expectation . . . But taste aversions crept under the cognitive radar" (115). Similarly, there "do not exist knife phobias or electric outlet phobias . . . we are evolutionarily prepared for them" (116).

His studies looked at how much control is a part of a depressive attitude: rats "with inescapable shock do get the most stomach ulcers. . . . It's good to be the executive and bad to be the slave" (120). This finding reopened the idea that animals are actually thinking that something is happening to them: "Control is both a cognition and a cognition about the future, both forbidden by behaviourism" (121). Control over lighting in cages for mice, and control over decorations in rooms in nursing homes found that we like to have control over our rooms to the point of changing something assigned for the sake of change. The elderly who could not change their environment died at twice the rate as those who were allowed to decide the layout of their rooms (122-4).

This provoked Julian Rotter's studies on locus of control: an external locus means we think our environment shapes our live; an internal locus means it's all attitude. At the same time Albert Bandura coined the term "self-efficacy" which is "the belief that you can bring about the outcomes you desires" (125). According to Seligman, "the expectation Nothing I do matters was not general but somehow set off by trauma" (125). To find out if learned helplessness occurred across good and neutral events as well as bad, they gave food to rats independent of their actions - and the rats later had trouble learning to press a bar for food. It's as if they thought, What's the point? It's similar to Pavlov's discovery fifty years prior.

The dog-shock experiment puzzled him because, when no longer presented with a shock, extinction should occur. But the dogs still had the expectation of a shock and "jumping persisted hundreds of trials later without a shock" (135). Here he developed a curious theory around a "conceptual error in behaviourism": "the future determining the present -- was conflated with . . . guidance by here-and-now cognitions that bear information about possible futures" (137). That the dogs, right now, have the perception that being shocked is one possible future, provokes them to jump to avoid the shock.

A Brief Digression on IQ:

There were more IQ studies in the 70s that were tossed: Cyril Burt studied twins and determined the heritability of IQ, and Hans Eysenck used his research to show the heritability of neuroticism and introversion (140). But I remembered that first name from first year psych courses in research methods because, as it turns out, Burt made up all the participants in his study. It wasn't discovered until after his death when a researcher tried to find them and discovered that none of them existed. Seligman doesn't mention the fraudulent studies but implies it was a scandal because it went against the attitudes of the day: "my own work on prepared learning demonstrate this dogma to be completely untenable. And too much human experience conflicts with it. . . . I suspect that the endeavors--nurturing, fighting, politicking, persuading, commanding, seducing, or stealing--that our parents and their parents were good at, we too will be good at--and for genetic reasons" (140). Then he goes on to argue that divorce is heritable. "A divorcé's identical twin is far more likely to be divorced than his fraternal twin. The inheritance of global personality characteristics --meanness, agreeableness, lust, loyalty, promiscuity--must account for this .. . . Carl Jung, on this view, was not far wrong with is 'archetypes'" (141). Curious.

The Minnesota Adoption Study (1983) found that "Adolescents' IQ test scores were similar to those of their parents and siblings only if they were biologically related," and a Swedish study (2015) of siblings separated by adoption found that "adoption into improved socioeconomic circumstances is associated with a significant advantage in IQ," but maintaining the SES of the adopting family shows little difference. And a more recent study (2016) found that a mother's IQ is the best predictor for intelligence of children. Finally, a paper in Nature (2014) asserts that
"studies have consistently shown that genetic influence on individual differences in intelligence is substantial. . . . the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience. . . . It is also one of the most stable behavioural traits [over time] . . . intelligence is one of the best predictors of key outcomes such as education and occupational status. People with higher intelligence tend to have better mental and physical health and fewer illnesses." 
That being said, I'm not sure why Seligman spends so many words backing the notorious Cyril Burt.

Correlations between Depression and Pessimism

Anyway, back to depression. He says, "I suggested that the belief that nothing you do matters, caused both depression and helplessness" (149). And then John Teasdale "flayed the model . . . Depression usually involves the belief in one's own inadequacy and accompanying low self-esteem, not the belief in a malign world" (150). It's the permanence of the belief that's the problem. Attribution theory began out of Rotter's locus of control theory: "the causal story that a person tells herself to explain an event" (153). After a bad event, we either attribute it internally (I'm to blame) or externally (uncontrollable circumstance). The problem could be seen as temporary (a bad day) or permanent (I'm stupid), and as either specific to the situation (I'm bad at anagrams) or global (I can't solve problems). (154). This offered a reinterpretation of helplessness: "A person who interprets the cause as internal will feel unworthy and lose self-esteem. A person who interprets the cause as permanent will be helpless long into the future. A person who interprets the cause as global will be helpless in entirely different situations. . . . It's me, it's going to last forever, and it's going to undermine everything I do" (154). He concluded that a pessimistic attitude was a primary risk factor for depression.

George Vaillant used Freudian theory to delineate mature defenses (humour, sublimation, altruism) that lead to success from immature defenses (denial and repression) which "seemed to fail later in life" as seen in broken marriages, alcoholism, and underemployment. To Vaillant, coping well with adversity is all about picking the better defense mechanisms (161). Seligman takes from this that it's necessary to study real outcomes affecting people instead of just laboratory analogues. He doesn't get into Vaillant's ideas further (likely because of his Freudian stance), but what I notice here is that humour, sublimation (throwing yourself into art or work), and altruism are all outwardly focused. There seems to be a correlation between depression and an inward focus, or even an inward obsession. But it's tricky to weed out of direction of any possible causation. Does an inward focus cause depression, or does depression cause an inward focus?

Seligman started studying people. He asked them to rate good and bad events along three dimensions of personal, permanent, and pervasive to see if he could predict depression in people. He published the Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ) with Chris Peterson (164), who wrote a manual of "content analysis of verbatim explanations" (CAVE) so researchers could rate the discussions of people as well; he "invented a way to discover the attributional style of people who wouldn't take our questionnaires"--sports heroes, CEOs, etc. His results confirmed his theory, and he developed a parallel test for third- to sixth-grade kids - the Children's Attributional Style questionnaire (CASQ), and he "found that depressed children had the same pessimistic style as depressed adults" (167). The depressive style sees negative events as their fault, permanent and pervasive, but see positive events as beyond their control, short-lived, and contained (169). On the other hand, "Nondepressed people massively inflated how much control they had when they were actually helpless" (174).

Assumptions of Causation:

Although he has open distain for Freud, he still blamed depression on mothers: "people can acquire their explanatory style by listening to their mothers explain the bad events that befall them and then imitating them" (173). And despite his vehement insistence that intelligence and most personality traits are genetic, he doesn't so much as entertain the possibility that people could be born with an inherent pessimistic disposition. Isn't that interesting!!  So, if it's the case that depression is one of few traits (according to Seligman) that is not genetically influences, but is, instead, a disposition that's taught to us, then it can be untaught. And he started making websites and charging money for testing and jumped on board the Positive Psychology craze. He laments that there isn't any financial incentive to create therapies because they can't be patented, unlike drugs, and that the NIMH is all about Big Pharma, but he gives it a shot independently. And now he has an entire university taking up the cause of positive education!

It's clear from studies using Beck's CBT model that changing our negative self-talk can do wonders with anxiety and phobias, but it can only help pull people out of depression about a third of the time. That's not nothing, but it's not everything either. Seligman says, "The key to learning optimism is learning how to recognize and then dispute unrealisitc catastrophic thoughts"(281), which is pretty much exactly the principle behind CBT. Unfortunately, we can't always dispute pessimistic thoughts. That's the stopper for positive psychology: sometimes life actually sucks.

The Development of Positive Psychology:

Seligman gives credit where it's due (apparently too little too late) with Abraham Maslow's first use of the term, but "the humanistic psychologists were furious with me . . . They felt slighted and not properly acknowledged. . .. Their anger was more than partly justified. . . . On the other hand, Abraham Maslow came too early. Scientific psychology did not take him seriously" (268). I'm not convinced Seligman's movement is entirely embraced by psychologists universally either, at least not beyond his New York and Cayman Island high-profile colleagues and backers.

Seligman started studying pessimists compared to optimists. He gave fake low times to the 1988 Olympic swimming team during practice, then let them rest and had them swim again. Swimmers who tested as optimistic swam 1% faster, and the pessimists swam 1% slower (187). Low test scores can have opposing effects on us dependent on our disposition, however it can help a team just to have an optimistic coach. The perception that we have control over a situation, even if it's not accurate, makes it accurate. Something similar was seen in animal trials as well. Rats given a tumour were divided into three groups: the control group, with no shocks, had a 50% death rate; but the rats shocked in a way they couldn't predict or control had a 75% death rate, and those who were shocked but able to escape had a 25% mortality rate. It's better to have some adversity that we can overcome than none at all as it helps us feel a sense of control over negative stimuli (190). We see this in all the "let them fail" pedagogy. He shifts from that to positive thinking: "Freud and Schopenhauer before him told us to forget all about being happy. The best we can ever do in life is to not be miserable . . . The early ethologists--Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen--were both behaviorists at heart, and 'attachment' was their work-around term for the less scientific, subjective state of 'love'" (205).

We survive better if we are looking for the bad, so we can be wary of dangers, and the DSM focused exclusively on disorders such that "The big insurance companies ('managed care') followed the efficacy studies for treatment reimbursement and would not pay up if the therapist did not diagnose a specific disorder and then treat it with the specific 'efficacious' therapy for the allotted number of sessions" (216). Instead he wants it to focus on training people on becoming positive thinkers. It's very clear that there's a correlation between positive thinking and mental health: "positive emotion broadens the cognitive and behavioral repertoire and builds new strengths. . . . Happy people see the wholes more readily than the parts" (238), but it's less clear that this perception can be trained in people who are profoundly depressed. But Seligman forges ahead nonetheless.

He and Chris Peterson decided on six traits to focus on: "wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence" (246). They clearly could have just revisited the Stoics or Aristotle's virtuous means.

Click on the photo to see it better -- not sure why it appears so blurry!

They made a test, Values-in-Action (VIA) Signature Strengths Test, that rates your strengths (warning- you have to pay for a full report at the end). It just ranks them in order of what matters to you most, not how virtuous you are, but you can likely figure that out your own ranking without answering 120 questions. It's not clear what the results mean. They also have an Authentic Happiness website. Seligman explains early on that the book is listed under Self-Help rather than Sociology or Psychology because the publisher says self-help books sell better - but at this point that claim becomes dubious. Check out the website to see if you agree, and maybe check out Chris Hedges's chapter, "The Illusion of Happiness" in his Empire of Illusion. Seligman outlines what's necessary to a happy life, but it's not clear how to get it in an empirically verifiable method.

Unlike the Stoics! They cared much more about living a moral life, and happiness (or, flourishing, to be more precise) was just a natural side effect of that, and they were able to keep their chin up while having their leg broken or on their third attempt at a death sentence. They would have us, every morning, negative visualizing: rehearsing the worst possible events, so when they don't happen, we're so pleased! And if they do happen, we're ready to deal with it with aplomb. I've tried this myself: before hitting the grocery store with two small kids, consider the best plan of action if one pitches a fit, and then you can be that calm mother caring for a difficult child. Figure out what's in your control (pretty much just your attitude) and what's not (everything else), and avoid trying to desire control over things you can't change. Every day, practice imagining losing things you care about, starting small, with a cup, then larger and larger until you're at people you love, then you'll be ready for the eventuality that you really will lose them.
"No prospect of hardship comes to me new or unexpected I anticipated it all and have rehearsed it in the privacy of my mind....And so a wise person gets used to future misfortunes, and what other people make bearable by long suffering he makes bearable by prolonged thinking" (Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, 76).
One exception in Seligman's positive psychology theory that actually has some statistical bearing is the development of gratitude. Oliver Burkeman, in his excellent book The Antidote, studies the claims made by positive psychologists and finds that a few minutes a day of contemplation of all you have that is good in this world can actually decrease levels of depression. Seligman looks at the fact that "externalities (e.g. weather, money, health, marriage, religion) totaled together, account for no more than 15 percent of the variance in life satisfaction" (267), and that, while IQ is hereditary, "self-discipline is twice as good a predictor of high grades as IQ" (267). But to what extent can self-discipline be learned? 

Applications in Education:

He laments that educators care more about discipline, numeracy, hard work, science, literacy, and conformity than about how to build engagement, optimism, and positive emotions in the schools. I'm not convinced that this is entirely the case. We make sure the curriculum is covered, but we also work really hard to get students involved and interested in the material, to present it in an enthusiastic manner with lots of encouragement, and to keep connected with students through ongoing discussions online and in the hallways. We don't have a course in positive emotions because we teach them as a matter of course. He advocates for training in, specifically, "mindfulness, empathy, self-awareness, coping, communication, interpersonal relationships, creative thinking, critical thinking, decision making, problem solving" (291). I've been working on crafting my ideal version of education based on a gap analysis I've been exploring with my grade 12s over the past few years guided by the question: "What should you know before you leave high school?" I've got about half of Seligman's topics on my list! I'd argue that coping with adversity, clear and rational communication, critical thinking, basic social science methods, and how to interpret the validity of claims is vital to overtly teach these days. Mindfulness? Not so much.

Then he adds one more theory alluded to here and there throughout. Prospection is the process of "envisioning future scenarios about our lives" (332). I do this whenever I'm about to do something difficult like build a studio or bike 140 km in a go. I run the entire thing in my head looking for any problems I might encounter and imagining how I'd solve them. Nicholas Carr wrote about this, that we have neural circuits that form pathways in our brain, and imagining doing something creates a pathway similar to actually doing it to the point that imagining walking in the woods can improve test scores as much as actually walking in the woods. But Seligman takes it a bit further. He looked at how Twitter word clouds from different countries could be used to predict the rate of death of the country (345). He thinks, instead of focusing on people's past when we look at depression, that "discovering what the person expect, intends, and desires in the future is usually a better starting-off point" (353) because we're not created by our past but "drawn into the future." That's a radical idea! This fits with recent studies that find the best predictor of student success isn't home life or SES or prior academic success, but a connection between school and a future endeavour: "In terms of ways of improving attendance, the strongest evidence appears to be around providing clear pathways from education to next steps such as higher education or employment and providing a high-quality curriculum and teaching experience."

So that's something to think about!

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