Do you fish? Whether you’re a pro at impaling worms on hooks or a pro at coercing others to do that dirty work for you, you’ve probably heard of the Northern Pike – a carnivorous fish common in many parts of the world.
The pike is a great hunter. The fish is able to suspend itself, nearly motionless, until a likely morsel swims a little too close. Then it whips itself around, snatching up and devouring the unsuspecting delicacy. It’s not pretty and it’s a bit ruthless. Nemo it’s not.
That’s why I’m still a little puzzled that I can’t seem to get the Pike Experiment video out of my mind. It troubles me yet. The pike experiment goes like this:
There’s a pike in a tank of water along with a dozen doomed minnows. Sure enough, the pike darts and snaps and gorges. Poof, the minnows are nowhere to be found and the pike is pretty satisfied. Enter these two exceptionally perky researchers who proceed to lower a glass barrier into the tank and slip in another dozen minnows. Like any self-respecting pike, this fish is thinking “lunch,” and goes after them with gusto. Except he smacks his nose against the glass and comes up empty-handed (so to speak). Again. And again. Finally, the pike sinks to the bottom of the tank, suspends himself in the water and stops trying. That’s when these researchers (and really, they’re so happy they’re scary) remove the glass barrier, freeing the minnows to swim wherever they like. And where they like includes all around the motionless pike, right in front of his nose, even bumping into his head. And the pike? He just sits there and never again tries to eat a minnow. And he starves.
Known as the Pike Syndrome, it’s a great, albeit depressing, example of learned helplessness. The pike has learned that he can’t catch minnows – even though he once chowed down at will in that same environment. Even when the situation that caused him to be unsuccessful was removed and the minnows actually brushed up against him, he continued to believe he couldn’t catch them. That learned helplessness eventually caused him to starve himself, despite the fact that food was clearly within his grasp “the way it used to be.”
So this bothers me. A lot. I might even expect nightmares. Mostly because they cheerfully let the pike starve himself, although I’m not talking about just the eerie joy and excitement of these researchers. It’s simply a chilling reminder that we’re all capable of falling victim to learned helplessness.
Think about it. Ever tried diet after diet without success? Failed, perhaps, at giving up cigarettes? Voted in elections only to see nothing change? What we often glean from those failures is that we have no control. We can’t do it. And so, like the pike, we stop trying, even when there are new, proven methods or some barrier to our success is removed. We simply believe that we can’t. We have learned to be helpless.
Students who never learned good study skills and who haven’t ever been given the chance to develop them start to give up on succeeding in school and often resign themselves to low or failing grades. “I’m just a mediocre student.”
In our offices, we watch coworkers try again and again to secure a new job or a promotion. After the 10th attempt, they sink down, suspend themselves at the bottom of the tank, and stop trying. For some of us, simply watching that happen fosters the perspective that “no one can get better jobs here.” So we don’t risk butting our noses against that glass barrier. Before we’ve even tried, we quit.
The thing is, unlike that starving pike, we have the power to change our perspectives, challenge the accuracy of our beliefs, and question our views. It’s not necessarily easy. Sometimes it takes an outsider to help – like a coach – who will push and prod and challenge. If we’re lucky something inside of us nudges at our unconscious until we move, and try, and change our views.
So the next time you think you can’t … you never were good at … or you just know you’ll fail because you always have before … think again. Don’t sink down like the pike. You’ll starve.
You can watch the video here.