Spontaneous tonic immobility is common during rape, but it doesn’t discourage many rapists. The problem is that tonic immobility was designed by Nature to deal with animal predators (e.g., big cats and bears), not human ones. Human predators usually don’t lose interest if their human prey suddenly passes out or ‘looks dead.’
As we saw in my previous post, experimenters don’t lose interest when the rat or dog becomes immobile. In fact, as we saw with Richter, the experimenter may become curious and repeat the experiment again and again with other animals. Tonic immobility has a long research history. It used to be called “animal hypnosis” (Ratner, 1967). Under that appelation, you can find many published accounts that date back to the 1800s. Under whatever label, this has phenomenon fascinated researchers. They have conducted study after study on different species (including psychology students!). Similarly, its close ‘cousin,’ learned helplessness, has fascinated experimenters since Richter’s mid-50s experiments.
Why Don’t We Hear More About Learned Helplessness?
Learned helplessness and tonic immobility have occasionally been invoked to explain the behavior of victims of human violence. For example, “Why don’t battered wives leave their abusers?” Or, “Why don’t women fight their rapists?” Or, “Why don’t child abuse victims tell someone?” By and large, these explanations have not ‘caught on.’
Domestic violence counselors, rape counselors, and therapists who treat abuse victims know that these questions are bad news because — whether based in ignorance of abusive dynamics or driven by misogynistic prejudice — these questions blame the victim. These counselors and therapists have an understanding of these dynamics, which can easily be described as “learned helplessness,” but this conceptualization has never become part of mainstream thinking and writing.
Why? Probably for several reasons. Perhaps most importantly, frontline workers have ‘bigger fish to fry.’ They are busy providing direct clinical care and fending off societal resistance to the realities of domestic violence, rape, and child abuse. Oddly enough, one of the big reasons that learned helplessness and tonic immobility have not ‘caught on’ has to do with style. One of psychology’s dirty little secrets is that trends in research are substantially governed by what is ‘in style.’ A blunter way to say this is that psychological research is often swept along by fads.
Learned helplessness was ‘in style’ in the late 60s and 70s, but not now. Tonic immobility has probably never been much ‘in style’ — certainly not today. As Gordon Gallup once said, ‘when discussed at all, [tonic immobility] often is referred to as a behavioral aberration of little interest’ (Woodruff, 1977, p. 161).
Finally, there is a technical reason why learned helplessness has not been applied much to human victims of repeated violence. A great deal of research indicates that learned helplessness in rats “dissipates” rapidly. Lab research shows it to be a short-term phenomenon that dissipates in 48 to 96 hours (e.g., Maier, 2001).
Anyway… Enough about that for now. We’ll return to the issue of dissipation in later posts. Meanwhile, let’s get back to tonic immobility.
What Happens During Tonic Immobility When the Predator is Human?
This question has two sides, one of which we’ve already discussed: (1) How do human predators react to their prey if they become tonically immobile? (Answer: Human predators are seldom dissuaded from their predatory intent); and (2) What goes on ‘inside’ the tonically-immobile human prey (both during tonic immobility and afterwards)?
The first important step toward understanding what happens during human tonic immobility came in 1979. Suarez and Gallup (1979) pointed out that tonic immobility was a common occurrence during rape. Tonic immobility during rape, they noted, was quite similar to the tonic immobility of animals:
“In most instances…practically all of the salient elements associated with the onset of tonic immobility in animals are also present during rape, including fear, contact, and restraint… For victims who report being paralyzed, the state has a rapid onset and abrupt termination. It is also accompanied by an inability to vocalize or call out. Loss of consciousness does not occur, as evidenced by a victim’s ability later to relate the sequence of events that occurred during the attack. Some victims even report feeling ‘freezing cold’…which may parallel the characteristic decrease in body temperature of immobile animals. Additionally,.many rape victims relate that they felt completely numb or insensitive to pain during the ordeal…” (Suarez & Gallup, 1979, p. 317, emphasis added)
This was a wonderful start. Unfortunately, this important article has largely languished in obscurity. True, it has been cited from time to time, but mostly in passing. The first effort to investigate tonic immobility during rape did not occur until 14 years later (Galliano, Noble, Travis & Puechl, 1993). This study produced some very important findings.
First, 37% of rape victims reported that they became completely paralyzed during the rape; 23% reported being partially immobilized. Second, careful analysis revealed that the occurrence of tonic immobility was unrelated to ‘the usual suspects’:
— previous exposure to violence during childhood
— whether the rapist had a weapon
— number of injuries sustained
— whether the rapist was a stranger or an acquaintance
Third, tonic immobility had significant consequences for the rape victim. Compared to those who did not experience tonic immobility, paralyzed survivors (a) had a stronger belief that they could have stopped the rape if they had resisted; (b) had a stronger belief that if they had resisted, other people would be more likely to believe that they had been raped; and (c) less often sought immediate help after the assault.
These results have a variety of serious implications. I will focus on just one of them. Tonic immobility is our phylogenetic inheritance from our animal ancestors. It is designed to aid biological survival during an encounter with a predator. Whenever a prey animal succeeds in not being eaten, its tonic immobility is a huge victory. It won! It survived!
But, as I keep emphasizing, tonic immobility in humans is often of little help (unless the predator in question is a big cat or a bear). When the predator is a rapist, the tonically-immobilized rape survivor does not feel victorious. Anything but. That is why Olivia Benson on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is always having to tell her rape victims, “You did the right thing. You survived!” — often receiving a vaguely hopeful, but mostly dubious look in return.
So, enough for today. More about rape and tonic immobility next time. Notice that we’re still walking the trail of our animal defenses. We haven’t reached clinical dissociation yet. And think about how difficult it will be to disentangle tonic immobility from clinical dissociation when we focus on what happens during childhood sexual abuse. Perhaps some of our ‘insider’ experts can find a way to talk about some of this. They have much to teach us.