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)
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.