Learned Helplessness

by Krishna on August 5, 2011

Anne writes: (added emphasis mine)

I’m glad to help anybody who has a problem, but I’d also like you to listen to what I explain to you and remember it. I can’t remember how often I tried to explain to someone at an old job what the difference between the internet and the intranet was, just to be cut off short each time with something along the lines of “This is too technical for me.” This person was in no way stupid, she just didn’t want to know. She’d rather call me once in a month or so to say that “you need to reboot the internet”. And no attempt to try to explain to her that while I appreciated the confidence she put in me to have the power to reboot the internet, that was nothing I could really do.

Actually, in many areas of life, we are that person. For example, I am that person when it comes to plumbing. I know that it would take me a few minutes of Googling and maybe a visit to Home Depot to fix some problem myself and save a bunch of money. But I play the fool and get a licensed plumber to come in and fix the problem. Why is that? Because I am afraid I will break something and then have to spend more money to resolve the issue. Even though I am paying more money, I am paying for less headache and the confidence that everything will turn out all right.

This relates to need of human beings for closure. When we have a problem, we want to end it. Fix the bleeding as soon as possible. Contrast this with good things. We want them to last as long as possible.

When it comes to technology, one answer, as Anne points out, is to teach people not to “be scared to break something”. The good thing with computers is that there is an Undo button and things go into the Trash Can instead of getting wiped out instantly. You can experiment for a long time and then revert everything. That is a powerful aid to learning. But that is not enough because the people who have problems with technology don’t usually spend much time with computers except to get some work done and when they face some problem, they need it resolved immediately. So we are back to the need for a quick fix. It is just like I don’t spend my spare time learning about pipes, and when I have a problem, it usually demands quick resolution.

It even happens with technology. I often install new software applications or plugins. And when something doesn’t work, I don’t have much patience to dig into the product (even if it is an open source product) to fix the problem. I would rather try something else. Sometimes that is easy if there are many choices out there.

So, ultimately we cannot get away from the learned helplessness people have with technology. We can make some improvements at the margins, for example, spending some time to educate someone while helping them. But to the extent that they are more interested in doing something else, this is the cost that we bear for specializing in what we know.

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