Monday, June 1, 2009

Shocked Doggies, Learned Helplessness, And Churches

In early 1965, Martin E. P. Seligman and his collegues, while studying the relationship between fear and learning, accidentally discovered an unexpected phenomenon while doing experiments on dogs. Many years earlier Pavlov discovered that if a ringing bell or tone is repeatedly paired with the presentation of food to a dog, the dog salivates. Later, all you have to do is ring the bell and the dog salivates.

In Seligman's experiment, instead of pairing the tone with food, he paired it with a harmless shock, restraining the dog in a hammock during the learning phase. The idea, then, was that after the dog learned this, the dog would feel fear on the presentation of a tone, and would then run away or do some other behavior.

Next, they put the conditioned dog into a shuttlebox, which consists of a low fence dividing the box into two compartments. The dog can easily see over the fence, and jump over if it wishes. So they rang the bell. Surprisingly, nothing happened! (They were expecting the dog to jump over the fence.) Then, they decided to shock the conditioned dog, and again nothing happened. The dog just pathetically laid there! When they put a normal dog into the shuttlebox, who never experienced inescapable shock, the dog, as expected, immediately jumped over the fence to the other side. Apparently, what the conditioned dog learned in the hammock, was that trying to escape from the shocks is futile. This dog learned to be helpless! These observations started a scientific revolution resulting in the displacement of behaviorism by cognitive psychology. What you are thinking, determines your behavior (not only the visible rewards or punishments).

The theory of learned helplessness was then extended to human behavior, providing a new model for explaining depression, anxiety, people staying in abusive situations, etc. It was also applied to systems. I was thinking about this yesterday as I was reflecting on my church. I have a theory that some churches (like mine) have learned (or been taught) that if you don't have a pastor to lead the church then the church is essentially helpless. You can't function without a senior pastor! A pastorless church is like a ship without a rudder. Now I agree that it is nice to have a senior pastor, but is it a necessary condition for a healthy, growing church? I think it is - but only if that is your perception. My personal perception is that team leadership works just as well and since every church has some leadership team, pastorless churches are far from helpless. In fact, I think it's good for a church to be without a senior pastor for awhile - a lot of growth and maturing can happen during those times. Church leadership teams need that kind of a shakeup every so often so that they don't get too lazy and keep on thinking for themselves. The whole idea of a senior pastor who wields ultimate power and authority in a church isn't really Biblical anyway.

Learned helplessness is an acquired sense that you can no longer control your environment—so you quit trying to. Do you believe that you helpless about any areas in your life? How did you learn it? The good news is that you can teach people to "unlearn" their helplessness. We do it in counselling every day.


Leanne said...

just a comment about our church in particular - I think we've had a great year without a senior pastor - I have enjoyed the variety of speakers and it has been a time of growth for me. I think that too often we rely on pastors to encourage us or create growth in our churches where really we need to take responsibility for that ourselves.
With that said, I sure enjoyed this past Sunday :)

Mark said...

Hey Lee. I too think we have done well as a church but I have sensed several times from our leadership team (not everyone but several) that we are in a holding pattern until the next pastor comes in. This is not how it is in all churches! I have heard that compared to some, our denomination is fairly "pastor centered" or "pastor focused" - and this was by people inside and outside of our denomination.

I too enjoyed our pastoral candidate this past Sunday, it will be interesting to see how things work out!

Electric Dog Fences said...

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