Views & Reviews Drug Tales and Other Stories

Old dogs and new tricks

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 31 March 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c1730
  1. Ike Iheanacho, editor, Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin
  1. iiheanacho{at}

    Among the obvious privileges of medical training is the exposure it affords to information and ideas that would otherwise be difficult to corral under a single heading. Inevitably this knowledge is patchy and disjointed, and too much of it has to be crammed—more to satisfy examiners than to aid patients. But these downsides are greatly outweighed by the genuinely fascinating aspects.

    It would, for example, require a peculiarly closed mind not to be intrigued by the concept of learnt helplessness, a staple feature of any decent psychology course for medical students. This phenomenon is well illustrated by the cruel experiments that first revealed it. Dogs subjected repeatedly to electric shocks that couldn’t be predicted or avoided eventually made no attempt to evade these aversive stimuli even when, later, the means to do so were clearly available. The thinking goes that they learnt to behave helplessly, having perceived that they could exert no control over the circumstances relating to the noxious outcome.

    Democratic politicians, though they probably wouldn’t admit it, would love to engender learnt helplessness among their electorates. For sure, they can’t (yet) use population-wide electric shock treatment to such an end. But skilled deployment of threats of future unpleasantness is a practical alternative.

    Take the UK today. With the economy in intensive care and a general election just weeks away, you’re never far from the next discussion about balancing the national budget through drastic cuts in spending, tax rises, or both. The need for such remedies is unquestionable—it is simply the clear eyes of common sense meeting the stony face of reality.

    But many politicians of all stripes seem to want us to go far beyond this acknowledgment. They seek not just to emphasise that the situation is dire but also to suggest catastrophe should voters be foolish enough not to opt for their prescribed tough (but mysteriously undefined) solutions. The resulting general air of gloom, pierced by intermittently alarming noises, can only encourage the susceptible to tolerate—meekly, passively, and without question—whatever is proposed.

    Such moves towards mass learnt helplessness would be disastrous, through diluting scrutiny and challenge of specific plans to slash spending (on things like health, education, or defence) that are ill conceived and geared more to short termist imperatives of the electoral cycle than the country’s welfare.

    If this prospect is worrying, then another lesson from man’s best friend offers some consolation. A sizeable minority of the animals in the original experiments did not develop learnt helplessness: old dogs don’t necessarily fall for new tricks.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c1730

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