The term learned helplessness originates from the research of Martin Seligman and Steve Maier at the University of Pennsylvania in 1967. Seligman and Maier used shock harnesses on dogs in three groups. Group 1 was the control group, who wore harnesses but received no shocks. Groups 2 and 3 both received shocks from their collars and both had levers they could push. In group 2, the lever stopped the shock, but in group 3, the lever didn't do anything--those dog's collars were activated by the levers controlled by group 2 dogs. The group 3 dogs stopped trying to push the levers and developed depressive symptoms. Then, the same dogs were put in another situation where they were the dogs could stop the shocks by jumping over a low partition. About two thirds of the dogs from group 3, did not try to escape the shocks. They had learned from the previous experiment that they were powerless against them.
Learned helplessness is used to explain depression in humans. When people come to believe that their actions have no impact on their environments ("no matter how hard I try, I always end up with the same negative result") or they come to see failure as a result of some intrinsic flaw in them ("I couldn't do it because I can never do anything right"), they lose motivation because they believe that they have no power to influence their lives.
I believe that a culture that has an over-reliance on epidural-managed childbirths promotes learned helplessness in women. My doula friend Judi Hull told me that childbirth education that highly promotes epidural use "take[s] ... women's power away from them." She feels that going through the experience of childbirth unmedicated can be self-esteem building for women. Medically controlled childbirth takes away from women not only control of the process of birth, but also power to overcome the obstacle of birth using their own tools. When women feel that they "can't" do childbirth without medical help, what else might they later feel they "can't" do? If women develop a dependency on anesthesiologists to get them through birth, how does this influence their ability to think for and act for themselves as mothers and women?
In my next post, I will share some more ideas about how learned helplessness can develop and how it functions in maternity care systems.