When Animal Defenses Encounter A Human Predator: Part I

Tonic immobility is the ‘last chance’ biological reflex that is triggered when an animal is caught by a predator. Today’s post focuses on a rarely noted fact about tonic immobility — it has 4 possible outcomes, not two: (1) death (the predator eats the animal); (2) survival (the animal escapes and recovers); (3) biological survival, but physical/psychological defeat (e.g., physical assault, rape); and (4) captivity (which may include repeated incidents of #3). Note that #3 and #4 only happen when the predator is human.

Human Predators Are Different From Animal Predators

Humans have some important differences from other animals. As noted above, human predators may inflict two very different kinds of defeat: (1) biological death, and (2) instrumental or sadistic use of the person or animal (e.g., rape, captivity, torture) to serve the needs of the predator.

Yes, some animals settle their fights for dominance when one animal surrenders and bares its vulnerable throat to the other. Occasionally, some human fights are settled in this way, but this is rare. Unlike other animals, humans wield an instrumental cruelty (and, sometimes, frank sadism) that has no true counterpart in the rest of the animal kingdom.

The closest parallel that I can find to human cruelty is a cat ‘toying with’ a mouse — which, I think, is actually a very different phenomenon. When a cat ‘toys with’ a mouse, it’s actually an interaction between the mouse’s animal defense of freezing (which causes the cat to stop attacking) and the mouse’s animal defense of flight (which is a powerful ‘releaser’ of hunting/pouncing in the cat). The cat may seem to be toying with the mouse, but there is a hidden instinctual orderliness in what is happening (which involves neither cruelty nor sadism).

Uncontrollable, Inescapable Pain

What happens when a human (or any other animal) is subjected to uncontrollable, inescapable pain? Inescapable pain occurs in single-incident rape, recurrent child abuse, recurrent rape during incarceration, torture, and so on. And, of course, inescapable pain may occur in a psychology lab when experimenters inflict uncontrollable/inescapable shock on dogs or rats. These psychology experiments are our core topic for today.

Learned helplessness was discovered serendipidously in the animal learning laboratory of Richard Solomon at the University of Pennsylvania in 1964 when his graduate students exposed a dog to repeated trials of inescapable shock.

Learned helplessness is best described by comparing the behavior of dogs who have never been shocked with the behavior of dogs who had recently been subjected to repeated trials of inescapable shock:

When placed in a shuttle box [a box that is divided by a shoulder-high barrier that the dog can jump over], an experimentally naive dog, at the onset of the first electric shock, runs frantically about until it accidentally scrambles over the barrier and escapes the shock. On the next trial, the dog, running frantically, crosses the barrier more quickly than on the preceding trial; within a few trials it becomes very efficient at escaping, and soon learns to avoid shock altogether. After about 50 trials the dog becomes nonchalant and stands in front of the barrier; at the onset of the signal for shock it leaps gracefully across and never gets shocked again. (Seligman, 1975, p. 22)

A dog that had first been given inescapable shock showed a strikingly different pattern. This dog’s first reactions to shock in the shuttle box were much the same as those of the naive dog; it ran around frantically for about 30 seconds. But then it stopped moving; to our surprise it lay down and whined quietly. After one minute of this, we turned the shock off; the dog had failed to cross the barrier and had not escaped from the shock. On the next trial, the dog did it again; at first it struggled a bit, and then, after a few seconds, it seemed to give up and to accept the shock passively. On all succeeding trials, the dog failed to escape. This is the paradigmatic learned-helplessness finding. (Seligman, 1975, p. 22, emphasis added)

Eventually, the experimenters removed the barrier from the shuttle box — in vain. The dog continued to lie there, passively enduring (accepting?) the continuing electric current. It took repeated trials where the experimenter physically dragged the dog to the other side of the box before the dog began to escape the shock on its own.

When these experiments were reported in 1967, they evoked an amazing amount of interest and controversy. The controversy was not about shocking the dogs, but about the theoretical meaning of the phenomenon of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness challenged the prevailing S-R models of learning. The proponents of these S-R models were subsequently defeated in the ensuing debate and learned helplessness became part of the “cognitive revolution” in psychology [The cognitive revolution supplanted the barren S-R models of learning and functioning that had dominated academic psychology for half a century] (for a detailed historical account, see Peterson, Maier & Seligman, 1993).

Inescapable shock research continues to the present day. Although I am not a PETA person, I think it bears mentioning (again) that other species do not deliberately inflict uncontrollable, inescapable pain. Only humans do this — in the psych lab, in abusive families, in prisons, and in the extreme sadism of sexual psychopaths. Deliberate cruelty and the instrumental use of others is the sole province of homo sapiens.

Curiously, the experts (Peterson et al., 1993) have applied learned helplessness to depression, physical health, growing up Black in America, and a variety of other problems, but they have largely avoided applying it to child abuse. In fact, they prefer to study the minor forms of learned helplessness. They worry that if learned helplessness is applied to severely traumatic situations that the model could be lost to the rest of psychology:

While there are instances of general helplessness, they seem most likely to occur in highly unusual situations, like the aftermath of concentration camp internment or a natural disaster. We would not wish to reserve “learned helplessness” only for these instances of generalized passivity. (Peterson et al., 1993, p. 147)

Concluding Comment:

We have been studying the animal defenses in order to distinguish their phenomena from the phenomena of clinical dissociation. We have now arrived at the concept of learned helplessness. When tonic immobility fails to stop a predator’s attack, learned helplessness is one of the possible outcomes.  Evolution ‘created’ tonic immobility to deal with animal predators. I want to emphasize today that human predators are a much later phylogenetic development than tonic immobility and the other animal defenses. This phylogenetic circumstance has a crucial consequence: tonic immobility –the ‘last chance’ animal defense — is of little or no help when the predator is human.

By the way, we are still creeping up on clinical dissociation, but we haven’t gotten there yet. Next time, we will examine in detail what happens when tonic immobility encounters the predator that it was never designed to handle — humans.

Thoughts? Reactions?

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7 Responses to When Animal Defenses Encounter A Human Predator: Part I

  1. Mollie Vincent says:

    I find it interesting that we humans can justify, in the name of research, cruelty to a defenceless animal. In the name of understanding??? As the writer of this article says, we are the only species who chose to inflict harm on another being. Who are we kidding about being an advanced species!!

  2. Sam Ruck says:

    The neat thing about DID, imo, is that it has literally allowed me to “time travel” back into my wife’s psyche when she was a child via the insiders and undo the “learned helplessness” and all the other emotional hardwiring done under the pall of trauma so that she is being given a second chance at a happy childhood. It’s pretty profound the kind of healing that is taking place.


  3. Scrappy says:

    Fragments of several situations flashed through my mind while reading this post. It takes considerable patience and re-writing pieces of experience contributed by different insiders to splice together a cohesive narrative out of the raw material churned out by various parts. But writing this kind of material is much safer for me than talking, even to my therapist. I sometimes wonder if others have found this too. Anyway, I’m concerned that some of the situations that come to mind may be too volatile to post here even with trigger warnings. I’ve put this one together hoping it may further discussion but please note —


    My mother had punishment rules that never made any sense to me no matter how hard I tried. For example, if I did something wrong (quite rare) she would beat me with a thick leather strop she used for sharpening her kitchen knives, accompanied by all sorts of yelling and screaming about what a horrible child I was. She would NOT hit my younger brother if I was the one who incurred her wrath. However, if my younger brother did something wrong (quite common) she would hit him a couple of times with the strop and then hit me many more times because as far as she was concerned it was MY responsibility to make sure he stayed out of trouble. He learned to play this against me early and often by threatening to get me beat if I didn’t do whatever he wanted.

    Anyway, when I was 4 and my brother was 2, my mother sent me out to the back yard to play by myself because she was talking to some friends. Brother was taking a nap when I went outside. I stayed out there quietly and obediently, making sure not to make any noise or cause any trouble, for what seemed like a long, long time. I knew not to complain about the mosquitos or the sun, or being hungry or thirsty, or anything else. I played with pebbles and pieces of clover, pretending they were my friends, and made sure not to bother anyone. I was determined to be as good as a girl could be and wait until I was called back into the house.

    It was starting to get dark when I saw two police cars pull up in front of the house. A few minutes later my mother came to the back yard, VERY angry, yelling at me to come up front. She then proceeded to scream at me in front of the police for not keeping an eye on my brother, told me he almost got killed because “I” had let him wander off to the store all alone and the police had to bring him home for us. I was totally confused – and scared to death.

    It really stood out in my mind that the policeman interrupted her saying it was HER job to watch her toddler, not her baby daughter’s. That just made her angrier. She insisted to everyone that it was MY fault, told the cops it wouldn’t happen again, and got rid of them ASAP. After they left she dragged me into the bedroom by my hair and beat me with that heavy leather strop in a total rage.

    At first I screamed and cried, but she kept ordering me to STOP crying and I finally did just… stop. I knew from other times not to try to get away or protect myself, but this went beyond that. I couldn’t even express the pain and fear. I can still hear and feel the blows, her ranting, and how I just went limp. Not exactly numb, unfortunately, but everything inside of me just seemed to stop, and I really didn’t care anymore. Eventually she stopped hitting me, picked me up and shook me until I thought my head was going to pop off, threw me upside down and backwards into a wall, and left.

    After that when she beat me I just went limp – didn’t cry or struggle at all. It wasn’t an actual decision to do that as far as I can recall; it’s just how I naturally reacted. That went on for about 2 years. Then one day she beat me more and more, screaming at me for NOT crying. (???) She accused me of thinking I was so tough that she couldn’t make me cry and promised to beat me until she “broke” me. So I cried for her, although even at the time I recognized that I was acting, crying on command, while inside I was still distant and dead feeling. THAT was a decision – not an independent decision but following an order at least.

    In retrospect, it shows that I *could* muster the control to move and react if it seemed in my best interests, at least 2 years later. I don’t think I could have moved if I’d tried, in the situation when I was four. I know I didn’t move for a long time after she threw me against the wall. And she can still trigger that kind of terror in me to this day, which is one of the reasons why I have nothing to do with her anymore.

    So, if that’s indicative of learned helplessness, I’d have to say there’s a certain basic logic to it, at least initially. You *are* helpless at first. I swear it changes your entire way of thinking about yourself and your situation. And it’s kind of infuriating later, when you are in situations where you *could* have escaped if you’d just tried, but you could NOT see that. It doesn’t help when people imply that you’re STUPID because you didn’t try to escape. I’ve had to deal with plenty of that later in life, including from parts of myself. It’s really interesting to take a new look at it from the perspective of the research on learned helplessness. I want to learn more.

  4. Holly Gray says:

    Hi Paul,

    This whole piece is illuminating and makes sense to me until we get here:

    “While there are instances of general helplessness, they seem most likely to occur in highly unusual situations, like the aftermath of concentration camp internment or a natural disaster. We would not wish to reserve “learned helplessness” only for these instances of generalized passivity. (Peterson et al., 1993, p. 147)”

    What do they mean by that? I don’t see how anyone could avoid recognizing learned helplessness in human beings who have been repeatedly, severely traumatized. Do they genuinely not recognize it as a factor for people like that or is it that it’s too hot a subject? I don’t really understand the quoted explanation for why experts haven’t applied learned helplessness to child abuse that much.

    This was a very interesting and, like I said, illuminating read. Thank you for posting it.


  5. Peregrine says:

    Actually, I have to disagree that only humans are capable of inflicting #s 3 and 4 in your first paragraph.

    A recent example is of an elephant that likes to hold lizards captive for days and swing them around:

    Bottlenose dolphin males are also well-documented in herding and restricting the movements of females who resist the males mating with them until they are too tired to resist. This can continue over an extended period of time while the female comes into estrus. And certainly there are many other species where forced copulation is a frequent and well-documented behavior. E.g. watch the mallard ducks at your local park closely next spring and you will observe this.

    Even your example of “cat and mouse” has examples in the animal kingdom where an adult animal will catch a prey animal without killing it and present it to their young to “play” with for a while–teaching them how to interact with prey. E.g. lions and/or cheetas, I believe. The purpose is to teach the young predator to hunt, but I doubt the prey appreciates the lesson.

    We are hardly the only species to inflict non-lethal, inescapable pain on other individuals.

    • Hello Peregrine,

      Thanks for contributing to this discussion. You bring knowledge about animals that is new to me. I wonder how your information can be best integrated with our discussion about animal defenses. Two partial thoughts come to mind. First, I would imagine that the lizard (which the newspaper account described as being ‘confused’ by its several days of being swung about and played with) may also have been confused by the depth and length of its likely parasympathetic shut-down. Second, I am struck by your mention of elephants and dolphins; they are among the very few animals that show empathy similar to that of humans. The lions and cheetahs who teach their cubs how to hunt a prey animal makes sense.

      Still, those thoughts feel a bit feeble in light of what I am now learning. After googling and reading some items about coercive sex in animals, it is clear to me that your brief account of coercive sex in animals is quite accurate. Here, for the rest of us, is the url for the portion of a Wikipedia article on nonhuman animal sex which discusses coercive sex: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_sexual_behaviour#Coercive_sex

      • Peregrine says:

        I’m glad there was food for thought in my post. My doctoral work was in the evolution of animal behavior, although I’ve been out of the field for so long I’m not up on the current lit and have forgotten a lot of details. But I was once current on the topic of forced copulation in ducks.

        Did the lizard even experience what we think of as “confusion”? Their brains are not as complex as ours. That’s the tricky part about studying these sorts of questions. In my former field, you have to be extremelly careful to not ascribe human emotions, motivations, and interpretations–you’d lose the objectivity required by the scientific method. So that’s why “forced copulation” is generally referred to in those terms and not as “rape.” I’m not sure that researchers who focus on forced copulation would even talk in terms of “coercion”, because that word, like rape, has human connotations that may not even apply to animals. But when such things hit the news cycle, or in everyday conversation, people are (understandably) less precise and conservative. Conversely, I’d never want to see human rape justified on the grounds that’s it’s just another mating strategy, like what you see in ducks.

        Anyway, I hope I’m not coming across as pedantic. I stumbled into your blog a few weeks ago because I was recently diagnosed with C-PTSD and was trying to get a handle on it from the perspective of researchers. So I have the most rudimentary grasp of your field, but it did strike me in all of my readings that it would be interesting to both fields if there was some cross-fostering of research and understanding. Potentially quite difficult to get at many questions, though, in animal models, because of ethical/logistical considerations.

        So how to incorporate my former field into your current discussion? I wish I had that kind of knowledge to offer. But I figured I’d at least share some info on where to start looking, if it interests you and others. I’m not following closely here–for my own healing purposes, I feel it’s best to not get too wrapped up in the theoretical end of things (though the scientist in me finds them fascinating). But I do appreciate your blog and your field. Things have come a *long* way since I last tried to get help, and I finally feel like I’m on the right track with a therapist who is coming at things from the right angle. And some of the reasearch I’ve read resonates with my own subjective experience of myself, which is both reassuring and encouraging. So thank you to those of you who do the work you do. It is much appreciated!

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