A Dog’s Life

 

While the cameraman fiddled with his equipment the Professor glanced out of his office window. The leaves were just turning; fall was even later this year. The young reporter exchanged a few words with the cameraman, then glanced at her note pad.

“OK. Dr. Seligman? We’re ready to roll. Perhaps you could start with the background to positive psychology.”

“It’s pretty simple really.” His chair creaked slightly as eased himself back. He enjoyed giving interviews, and prided himself on being a consummate communicator. “It began with my work on learned helplessness.”

“What’s that?” she smiled and nodded encouragingly.

“Well, if you give dogs electric shocks they very quickly learn to take action to avoid them. They get scared; they bark, yelp and jump about until they move to a part of the cage where they don’t receive a shock. But if you first restrain a dog in a hammock so it can’t avoid the shock, it responds initially in the same way. It barks and yelps and jumps around, or at least it tries to. Then it becomes quiet, fearful and withdrawn. If you put it in a cage where it’s not restrained and it can escape the shock, it doesn’t try to escape. In fact after just a couple of shocks it doesn’t even jump about or become agitated. It stands there doing nothing until the shocks stop.”

She frowned. “So how is this relevant to humans?”

“Well learned helplessness is a maladaptive behaviour pattern that models depression in humans. It’s like the dog learnt there’s nothing it can do to escape the shock. It’s helpless. This offers a unique way of understanding depression in humans.”

“How is that? Surely dogs don’t get depressed.”

“Because their behaviour under learned helplessness is very similar to the behaviour of depressed humans. If a dog or a human has learnt that it’s helpless to do anything about conditions of adversity it accepts it has no control, so gives up trying. Just think about how severe depression affects humans, no drive, socially withdrawn, reduced activity and so on, just like our dogs. If people believe they have no control over a difficult situation they give up and get depressed.”

“OK, I follow your argument, Dr. Seligman,” she said, staring at him quizzically, “but wouldn’t it make more sense to change the situation?”

“No. You see the problem is that preventing the dogs escaping the shock changes their view of the situation. It’s as if they come to believe there’s nothing that can be done. Same with depressed people. The problem’s not the situation; it’s how they view the situation. It’s to do with what we call attributional style. Depressed people have faulty attributional styles. When things go wrong they blame themselves rather than looking for external causes.”

She frowned. “I see. So changing the circumstances makes no difference?”

“Correct. What we have to do is change the way the person sees the situation. That in a nutshell is what positive psychology does. If we can get the individual to see that things aren’t really as bad as they think they are, if we can change their attributional style, they start to think more positively in general.” He leant forward, his eyes narrowed. “You know, psychology involves nurturing what’s best in people. It’s not a branch of medicine dealing with illness; it’s much larger. It’s about work and education, insight and love. But at the same time positive psychology relies on what’s best in the scientific method and applies this to the unique problems that human behaviour presents us.”

*

She struggled up the stairs to the second floor, but couldn’t breathe properly because of the pain in her chest. The nurse said there was nothing they could do for fractured ribs, only let time take its course. After she left hospital they put her and the kids in a B&B, then she managed to find a place in a refuge. The day she moved in she should have attended for an interview. She tried to phone them to tell them what was happening but couldn’t get through, so they sanctioned her for six weeks. Then, a few weeks later, she missed another appointment because she had to collect one of her kids from school. She’d been sick and had a fever. “You’re just not motivated” they’d said. “Your attitude’s all wrong. You’re never going to find a job; you’ve no intention of finding one.” So they sanctioned her again, for twelve weeks this time.

She borrowed a couple of hundred quid from Wonga, but she couldn’t repay it on time and the interest went up and up each week, until she owed them over five hundred. She phoned the JobCentre to tell them she couldn’t cope but they wouldn’t listen. Whatever she said made no difference. “You’ve only yourself to blame” they kept telling her until in the end she came to believe it. She believed she was a scrounger who deserved nothing, worthless and useless. She was so desperate she went to the JobCentre three times to ask for help, but was told there was nothing she could do. All she had to live off was the child tax credit. They didn’t tell her she could fill in a hardship form to apply for emergency payments. In the end she managed to get the form, completed it and handed it in, but they rejected it because she’d handed it in too late. She wondered if they misled her deliberately to punish her and make her feel useless.

The G4S guard treated her with contempt, “Dole scum” was the expression he used. “You’re just a waste of fuckin’ space. Go and find a job like me.” God knows she’d tried. She was sick and tired of Universal Jobmatch. Jobmatch! What a stupid word. She wouldn’t have minded if the jobs there were real jobs, but they were mainly temporary, or zero hours contracts. One day she lost her rag. She shouted at her advisor, then bawled her head off. She was fed up with the system, and the way it made her feel utterly helpless. You wouldn’t treat a dog like that, she thought. It was nothing short of torture.

“Don’t you shout at me” said her advisor. “It’s about time you accepted responsibility for your actions. You people are all the same; you think it’s everyone else’s fault you haven’t got a job. Well it’s not, right? You made your own bed so you’ve got to lie in it. No point blaming me, or the government, or anyone else. If you go on like that again I’ll call security and have you thrown out.”

She mumbled an apology

“Anyway, I’m going to send you on a new course. It’s to help you change the way you think,” he said. “I want you to see a therapist who will help you to think more positively and stop you feeling sorry for yourself.”

“But I don’t feel sorry for myself,” she replied. “It’s just that my life’s out of control because of things that went wrong. The last thing I want is to be living off benefits, but how else am I supposed to cope with two small kids and an abusive partner. What I really want is to get back to college and finish my degree, but every way I turn I’m trapped, and there’s no way out.”

*

Dr. Seligman glanced at his watch. They were forty minutes into the interview, and he had a faculty board meeting in twenty minutes. “Look, can we wind this up, only I’ve a meeting to attend at midday?”

She smiled disarmingly. “Sure, but there’s just one other matter I’d like to cover briefly before we finish. It won’t take long.”

“OK, fire away.”

“The recently published Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation tactics states that James Elmer Mitchell, who developed their so-called enhanced interrogation techniques attended a number of meetings at which you spoke. The report indicates that techniques were largely based on the theory of learned helplessness.”

He tried unsuccessfully to stifle a gasp of astonishment. “What is this? You didn’t tell me you wanted us to discuss this. It’s grossly unfair to launch into it when I’m unprepared.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “You agreed to discuss learned helplessness and positive psychology. All I want to do is ask a few questions about learned helplessness that are topical and in the public domain.”

“That’s as may be. But you must understand that I’ve spent most of my life trying to prevent learned helplessness. I’m horrified that good science could be used for such a bad purpose.”

“No one’s accusing you of doing anything wrong, but last December the Senate Intelligence Committee condemned the CIA’s interrogation programme for terrorism suspects following 9/11. The Committee’s chairwoman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, said that CIA officials routinely misled Congress and the White House about the appalling interrogation practices.”

“But you can’t blame me for that. I’m not responsible for the CIA’s actions.”

“Allow me to continue.” She took another peek at her notebook. “Interrogation practices that included sleep deprivation, rectal ‘feeding and hydration’, and of course water-boarding. One CIA officer said that some of the prisoners looked like, and I quote, ‘…a dog that had been kenneled…’ Senator Feinstein described the techniques as a ‘stain on our values’”

“I agree with you, and I’ve made it abundantly clear that I find such practices abhorrent. I condemn them out of hand.”

‘The problem is, Dr. Seligman, is that the so-called scientific basis of these practices is your work on learned helplessness.”

“But I had nothing…”

“Please! It’s reported that two psychologists, James E. Mitchell and Bruce Jesson, were responsible for developing these so-called enhanced interview techniques from 2002 on. This is torture, the sole purpose of which is to eliminate the detainee’s sense of control, and induce helplessness. In other words they were based on a reading of your early research.”

“But I played no role whatsoever in developing these abhorrent practices.”

“That may be so, Dr. Seligman, but in 2002 you gave a lecture on learned helplessness at the San Diego Naval Base.”

‘Yes, that’s true, but that was to show how my research could help US military personnel resist torture and evade successful interrogation.”

“Did you know that Mitchell attended your lecture?”

‘No? There was large audience, mostly military people whom I’d never met before.”

“Then you deny you knew Mitchell.”

“Look, this is a cross-examination. I’m not on trial here. I thought you wanted an interview about learned helplessness and positive psychology.”

“The public has a right to know about how scientific knowledge is used, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes?”

“Then why are you so touchy about your links with Mitchell?”

“Touchy?”

“Do you deny that Mitchell attended an earlier meeting at your house when 9/11 and anti-terrorism had been discussed.”

“No, at least I can’t remember whether or not he was there. Besides, there was no discussion of torture or interviewer techniques at that meeting. Look, I don’t believe in causing suffering unless it has some value that leads to bettering lives, canine or human. In any case, using learned helplessness to get detainees to tell the truth is utterly misguided. Inducing such a state would make it more likely a detainee would tell an interrogator anything they wanted to hear.”

*

She pounded up the stairs two at a time, breathless, clutching the left side of her ribcage. The pain shot through her like a knife with each gasp of air. When she reached the waiting room the receptionist told her to go straight in. The therapist introduced himself, and told her not to worry that she was late. He seemed pleasant enough. He sat her down, gave her a few moments to get her breath back then started to talk about positive psychology, and how it would help her. He was very keen; she was less sure. It was all new to her, and she found it difficult to follow him.

“What’s the matter?” He asked. “Didn’t you get the introductory material I sent out in the post?”

She shook her head. “No, I had to move to a hostel.”

“Never mind. We’ll start with the Wheel of Wellbeing. Let me get the website up. You can look at it yourself at home.”

“I don’t have a computer.”

“There’ll be one in your local library.”

“They closed it down last year.”

“Oh well, not to worry. The Wheel of Well-Being covers six aspects of well-being and positive suggestions for action you can take to feel more positive. These include exercise for body and mind, giving to others, and being connected with people, place and the planet.”

Her mind was elsewhere. How could she find somewhere to live, support the kids, avoid her ex-partner? “Look, I appreciate you’re trying to help me, only my situation is really difficult just now.”

He smiled and shook his head. “That’s when the Wheel can help most of all.”

“What would really help me right now is a safe place for me and the kids, away from all the violence.”

He nodded sympathetically. “I hear what you’re saying, but all that’s going to take time to sort out. This is something you can do in the here and now to help you feel better. All the scientific evidence shows that taking steps to help yourself feel better is far more effective than having other people do things for you.”

“But I don’t want other people to do things for me. All I want is for my ex to stop harassing me and the kids. That’s not too much to ask is it?”

He glanced at his watch. “Time’s pushing on, and I’ll have to finish, so let’s spend what time’s left planning to do just one thing from the Wheel before our next meeting. You can get started right away.”

“What is it?”

“A diary for you to keep, a special diary. It’s called a gratitude diary.”