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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Learned Helplessness of a Nation & Learned Optimism of a Leader

Imran Khan's embodiment of Learned Optimism stands as a transformative force, with our Collective Helplessness potentially being the sole contender to outweigh it.

Nearly 50 years ago, Martin Seligman and Steve Maier experimentally proved that human beings or animals can learn to become helpless when they experience uncontrollable situations and even give up avoiding aversive stimuli. Known as the Theory of Helplessness, this line of scientific inquiry is backed by robust research and has a major impact in explaining a number of psychological phenomena.

The State of Helplessness: Contingency, Cognition, and Behavior

I am afraid that most of our people have plunged into an enduring state of helplessness. The state of Helplessness has three hallmarks, Contingency, Cognition and Behaviour.

Contingency relates to the controllability of the situation. Pakistanis, for more than 75 years, and particularly in the last 15 months, have learned that they have little or no control over numerous domains of their lives.

Cognition relates to attributions, that is, how individuals explain the causes of setbacks, failures and adversities to themselves. It is the word in their hearts and heads. In the theory of Helplessness, most attribute the causes of their adversities to either their bad luck or to forces outside. Given the dire social, economic situation, and massive brain drainage, one can surmise the attributions of most Pakistanis.

Read More: The Islamic Republic of Pakistan: A Nation Betraying Its Name—Lt Gen (Retd) Tariq Khan

Behaviour relates to action or inaction. Believing people cannot control much in their lives and that external forces are responsible for all their adversities will most likely result in inaction. This learned helplessness, cultivated over 75 years, has contributed to the stagnation and challenges faced by the citizens of Pakistan.

The Case of Imran Khan

Fine-tuning his seminal work on Learned Helplessness, Seligman later discovered that not everyone he tried to make helpless succumbed. Seligman and his colleagues demonstrated that individuals who were taught mastery over aversive situations did not become helpless even when they encountered negative situations. Abramson, Seligman and Teasdale proposed that people will attribute helplessness in the face of uncontrollable circumstances to a particular cause. People then determine if the cause will have a permanent, pervasive and widespread impact on their future agency.

Imran Khan seems to be one of those individuals who did not develop Helplessness despite experiencing aversive situations. Let me explain it through the most public situations.

The 1992 World Cup of Cricket. When the chips were done, and Pakistan was almost out of contention for the semi-finals with only one win in the first five matches, most captains would have given up. Khan, like many others, could have explained the causes of this dire situation, such as: “It’s due to me (or I don’t have control over how players perform),” or “This debacle (followed by the 1987 World Cup Semi-final defeat on home turf) will be the lasting legacy of my captaincy and will taint my other accomplishments.” However, Khan resisted.

Perhaps, Khan explained to himself; it is not entirely because of me or because of others; it is, in part, due to circumstances (he missed two five matches due to injury), and another World Cup defeat will not likely tint my other accomplishments. Perhaps not precisely in these words, but having researched resilience and well-being and taught and trained alongside Seligman for the past twenty years, I doubt Khan’s inner dialogue was drastically different. Much like Learned Helplessness, Learned Optimism has three components. Permeance (the adversity will not be permanent), Pervasiveness (adversity will not ruin everything) and Personalization (adversity is not entirely due to me or entirely due to others).

I am not sure, if Imran Khan was familiar with Learned Optimism Theory in 1992. Nonetheless, his subsequent speeches indicate that he knew well how to talk to oneself, when one experiences setbacks. His speech to Oxford Union, delivered in 2013 (Khan, 2013), offers us a glimpse of his mindset. He stated:

“Please remember one [thing], you only lose, when you give up. Remember this, over and over again, you only lose when you give up. If you do not give up, you will win from most incredible positions. The fight is in the mind.  It is not physical; it is in the mind. As long as the mind refuses to accept the defeat, each setback will give you an opportunity to analyze yourself where did I go wrong. It is an opportunity. Remember, crisis is an opportunity, to evaluate yourself, where did I go wrong. Correct that. Pick yourself up. You again move on and you will find you will get stronger each time. Each time you pick yourself up, you come back stronger. This is what the human being is.”


Khan’s Pursuit of Meaning vs Our Collective Helplessness

Imran Khan, I believe, serves as a shining example of Learned Optimism. His learned optimism has undoubtedly played a pivotal role in achieving monumental tasks, such as establishing cancer hospitals where the underprivileged receive free treatment (a privilege not commonly found in the United States), creating a world-class university, and much more. This cultivated optimism, now further enhanced by his religious convictions, allows him to maintain a sense of inner calm even while residing in a small cell with an exposed toilet, damp mattress, and insects crawling around.

Read More: PTI- The Storm That Blew Away

It is also a colossal tragedy of epic proportions that Khan’s Learned Optimism might only be outdone by the collective Learned Helplessness of our nation. Khan is far from perfect, but he is likely our only hope and perhaps last for a very long time.

I am keenly aware that as an expat Pakistani, I cannot fully empathize with my fellow Pakistanis who seem to be chronically trapped in the whirlpool of material needs. But I do know from well-done research that our lasting fulfillment comes when we meet our meaning needs—- the quintessential attribute of a life well lived.

Imran Khan is the only leader who has constantly reminded us of our meaning and purpose. Let us not diminish his voice and his optimism.


Dr. Tayyab Rashid is a clinical psychologist and lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.