Why didn't the dog jump out of the box?

'The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Helplessness to Optimism', by Martin E.P. Seligman (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2018) reviewed by Mark Brown.

Over new year 1997 Martin Seligman, his second wife Mandy and their children rented a villa in Yal Ku, Mexico, owned by The Grateful Dead. The family snorkeled in a bright blue lagoon, ate in psychedelically painted rooms. Seligman was 55, had headed the American Psychological Association, had spent a lifetime in academia. In a state of excitement Seligman invited colleagues to cancel their new year plans and join him. He was a long way from Albany, New York where he grew up and a long way from the common rooms and lecture theatres that had made up his life. 'Join me to invent positive psychology,' he said. And they did. In that idyll, under blue skies, they began the process of creating a set of ideas focused on positive experience, civic fulfilment and positive traits that would permeate into popular culture and government policy. 

A mixture of the history of clinical psychology, slightly grumpy intellectual enquiry and having the final word, The Hope Circuit blurs Seligman’s life with the life of his ideas. Dressed up as autobiography, the book is really Seligman’s journey between two points of personal and intellectual breakthrough. The first is Seligman’s experiments with Steve Maier in the mid-1960s that coined the phrase 'learned helplessness'. Two wooden boxes with an electrified run between them, dogs who had been inescapably shocked prior to a tone sounding failing to jump out of the run when they heard the tone: why? The positive breakthrough at the lagoon the other.

The book loops two main preoccupations: the tension between internal and external validity in experimental psychology and a deeply felt belief that creatures from rats to humans are more than just blank slates. These take Seligman first into clinical practice then into further research asking 'how can we predict who will feel helpless? What is the relationship between optimism, pessimism and cognition?’ The first half of the book is the equivalent of scanning a row of 70s Pelican psychology books, as Marty runs into (and often disagrees with) a who's who of psychology's post-war rock 'n' roll stars – oh hi Hans Eysenck; yo Aaron Beck; hello Albert Bandura, Ulric Neisser. It's a career that often sees him at odds with colleagues. 

The final third of the book is self-justificatory in tone. Seligman's work takes him away from human happiness, instead predicting which insurance salespeople will be most effective and, post-9/11, assisting the US Army and standing accused of assisting the CIA in their psychological torture at Abu Ghraib. An entire chapter is given over to refuting the criticisms and critics of positive psychology. The book ends with Seligman declaring that he is as clever as he ever was, dabbling with sentiment analysis and hanging out with the folks from Google.

The Hope Circuit of the title refers to research carried out into the medial prefrontal cortex dorsal raphe nucleus circuit of the (rat) brain by his old Mate Steve Maier in 2015, which releases serotonin in relation to threat which builds up anxiety and panic, but which stops doing so when higher cortical functions inhibit it. Seligman holds that this proves that rather than beginning with control and learning helplessness, the inverse is true, a vindication showing that learning positive responses and a sense of control can be measured empirically: finally, external and internal validity.

Told over the best part of a lifetime, the final answer to the question ‘Why didn't the dogs escape if they knew what was coming?’ is, for Seligman, ‘because they didn't try to escape because they didn't know a positive, shock free future was possible.’

Mark Brown is Development Director Social Spider CIC / Editor One in Four magazine.

Find more on Martin Seligman in our archive.

Read more about the book.

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