Thursday, February 17, 2011

Animal Behavior 101: Learned Helplessness, Part 1

Over the past couple of months I've been reviewing some fundamentals of animal behavior in Dr. Susan G. Friedman's online class Learning and Living with Parrots (know popularly as LLP). It has been a very pleasant experience chatting it up with all the helpful TA's and reading many of the responses of my fellow clever classmates. But we are here at this blog today to learn about something that the LLP class helped me to find more information on, Learned Helplessness. In the following bit of blogging I'll discuss not only what the learned helplessness phenomena is, but also to tell you how you can and need to avoid using this method. I have seen everyday parrot owners, as well as the well seasoned parrot "expert" unwittingly put their beloved pets into situations that cause the physical and mental stunting that learned helplessness helps to create.  And with that let's learn!

The definition of learned helplessness (hereby denoted as LH) is this: When an organism has learned to not escape unpleasant circumstances, even when escape is possible. And unfortunately this definition comes with a great big asterisk as well, as it carries well known detrimental side-effects to a creature's motivation, cognition, and immune system. An animal learns LH when it is placed into situation(s) where it has no choice of escape from an aversive stimulus. In other words the key to preventing LH is to give your animal the option to tell you "No! I do not want to do that right now."

Here is a terrific example of LH being taught to students.

Now imagine that the peer pressure in this group disappeared, and say the rules changed to "If you get stuck on a question skip it, it doesn't matter how many you get right as this does not measure intelligence." These conditions are now giving the students a moral boost by giving them a choice in the matter! Do you think that under these new conditions they would be able to solve the last anagram? You bet!

The same happens with our pet birds, choice empowers! Let's see a common LH example with out pet birds.

Have you ever had a bird that didn't like to be petted, but you wanted it to like being petted anyway? Has anyone ever told you that a really easy way to have a bird learn to like petting is to wrap it in a towel (so that it doesn't bite you of course) and scratch his head until he learns to like it? This is a great example of LH because the bird has no choice or control over the situation. There is no empowerment and no trust building between the bird and the person. All that's happening is LH, and with LH comes all those lovely little side effects I mentioned earlier: lack of motivation, less cognitive functioning (has been diagnosed as depression), and immune system suppression (more likely to get sick).

So how does learned helplessness fit into this situation with our bird, and in what part does it begin to show itself? If we look back at the situation we see that the bird does not have the simple choice if it would like to be petted or not. Well you might be thinking "But if I give him the choice of wanting to be pet then of course he won't choose to be petted! He hates it!" and that may very well seem to be the case, but as they say there is more than one way to skin a cat, or train a bird in this case. I'll tell you a preferred way of training this behavior without using LH but instead using lots of choice, in the next blog post. But for now let's focus on the side effects of LH.

Now we have a bird that does not have the ability to choose. It is unable get out of the situation and is forced to comply with the human's demands, thus it is helpless to change or avoid the situation. If the encounter happens a few times more you will first see the bird give up more readily -perhaps he will stop trying to get away from the towel- and then later you may indeed see the bird begin to relax while you forcefully pet his head. But those pesky side-effects will crop up as well. So is making an animal do this worth it in the end? Let's go over one of these side-effects to see what we are dealing with.

In an experiment on dogs in 1976 the poor pups where exposed to LH conditions and then tested to see just how well they could learn a new behavior in a similar situation. It was found that a whopping 2/3rds of the dogs in that group did not learn the new behavior. The new behavior, by the way, was to simply flee. These results have remained statistically high well into the 21st cent. through further testing of LH in many more species since the 70's. These dogs where not motivated enough to learn, plain and simple. This experiment shows that a lack of choice in an animal's life retards the animal's learning ability.

Motivation and "Frustration"
Now rats were taught LH and then conditioned to move through a maze to get a reward at the end of the maze. When they ran the trial again without a reward the rats showed "frustrated" or "stubborn" behavior by refusing the leave the maze's reward spot. But the rats that where not treated to LH quickly learned that no reward was there and moved out of the finished maze. Again, the rats that where treated with LH stayed "stubborn" and did not leave the spot where the reward was usually. This shows a lack of ability to learn or "move on" from the situation. Animals treated with LH are much less adaptable to new, troublesome situations.

So we have now learned what Learned Helplessness is, we went over two examples of it, and one of the detrimental side-effects. Next time I'll wrap it up with the other two side effects, give examples, and reveal the LH-free secret to training a bird to like head scratches! Happy learning!

Copyright 2013 Caitlin Bird
The Sequential Psittacine Blog
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