This question came to mind when I was reading the final chapter of Martin Seligman’s latest book, The Hope Circuit.
The book is an autobiography, but in discussing his own life the author provides readers who have little knowledge of psychology, people like me, with a painless way of informing themselves about some major developments in this field over the last century.
Marty Seligman played an important role - as a researcher, author of popular books, and transformational leader - in helping to bring about important changes in his profession. He made major contributions in encouraging the profession to study cognition, recognise evolution, embrace positive psychology, and give greater attention to prospection.
I will focus here on learned helplessness, learned optimism and the hope circuit. Marty, as he is accustomed to being called by just about everyone, made his name as a researcher in the 1960s for his work, with Steve Maier, on learned helplessness. Marty and Steve observed that when dogs were unable to avoid electric shocks by changing their behaviour, they subsequently tended to remain passive when they did have the opportunity to avoid shocks. The dogs appeared to have learned that nothing they did mattered.
Marty saw the potential implications of this research for understanding of mental illness among humans and developed the helplessness theory of depression on that basis. That theory was subsequently reformulated, with assistance from John Teasdale, to take account of the way people think about the causes of their feelings of helplessness. For example, those who see their current problems as likely to last forever and to undermine everything they do are likely to feel helpless long into the future. Pessimism leads to helplessness.
Marty’s popular book, Learned Optimism, published in 1990, integrated research findings on learned helplessness and explanatory style. It advocated disputing pessimistic thoughts as the central skill of learned optimism.
Marty coined the term “hope circuit” in 2015 to describe the MPFC-DRN circuit of brain activity discovered by Steve Maier, who had retrained as a neuroscientist. Marty explains that Steve’s discoveries turned learned helplessness on its head:
“He showed that the arrow of causality that we had postulated was wrong and that it was not helplessness but control and mastery that were learned".
One of the implications of this research is that therapy that “creates end runs” around trauma and helps people to plan a better future is likely to be more helpful than therapy that tries to undo trauma by confronting the past.
What does all this have to do with dysfunctional politics? This passage got me wondering:
"Human history has, until recently, been a tale of woe: warfare, plague, famine, injustice, poverty, ignorance, and violent death. The last half century has witnessed, if not the eradication, a great reduction of these ills. When the world is a vale of tears, it is natural that politics, religion, science, medicine, and the arts should concern themselves with defense and damage. But what happens when the world is no longer a vale of tears?"
My initial reaction to that passage was the same as my reaction to Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now. I agree that massive progress has been made in human flourishing, but I see huge problems ahead for liberal democracy. We are confronted by widespread failure to adhere to the norms of self-reliance and reciprocity that underpin liberal democracy.
I became even more pessimistic when my thoughts turned to Jason Brennan’s book, Against Democracy. In my response to that book I mourned the declining power of the major political parties to shape political agendas in ways that moderate the ill-informed desires of electors. I raised the question of whether many voters would be likely to accept impartial advice on how to vote to achieve their objectives.
It is not obvious that there is anything that anyone can do now to save liberal democracy from political hooliganism.
So, why aren’t I feeling depressed and helpless? The main reason is that a few months ago Max Borders’ book, The Social Singularity, gave me grounds to hope that technological advances will eventually enable citizens to circumvent dysfunctional politics. Rather than moaning endlessly about the decline of liberal democracy, we can look forward in the hope of a better future. There may even be practical things that we can do in cooperation with others to facilitate growth in opportunities for human flourishing.