PSYCHOLOGICAL ASPECTS OF THE SEARCH ACTIVITY AND LEARNED HELPLESSNESS IN PSYCHOSOMATIC PATIENTS AND HEALTHY TESTEES
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February 28, 2013
Vadim S. Rotenberg, J.S. Korostoleva
Dynamische Psychiatrie/Dynamic Psychiatry, 1990, 120/121: 1-13.
The conception of search activity as the key mechanism of stress resistance and of renunciation of search as the most general prerequisite for a reduction of the body's resistance has received a reliable experimental confirmation (Rotenberg, Arshavsky, 1979; Rotenberg, 1984) and stands in good agreement with clinical observations and the modern conceps of the pathogenesis of psychosomatic disorders (Engel, Schmale, 1968; Ammon, 1982), However, the definition of search activity proposed by V.S. Rotenberg bears a purely conceptual rather than operational character: By search activity is understood activity directed at changing the situation (or the attitude to it) in the absence of a definite forecast of the results of such activity but with a permanent current consideration of these results. This definition limits the framework of the conception of search behavior suggesting that it excludes well-predictable stereotyped behavior, panic, which makes impossible an adequate consideration of the results of the behavior, neurotic anxiety, and depression as a state of renunciation of search. However, such a definition leaves the researcher unequipped with concrete quantitative procedures for the evaluation of the degree of expression of subject's search activity at any moment and in any concrete situation. The very notion of search embraces more concrete forms of overt and covert behavior than makes possible its cohesive operational definition. Therefore the authors have concentrated their efforts on the analysis of the opposite state renunciation of search. Although this state may also have sufficiently diverse manifestations, it is reproducible in a directed experiment, and there is a description of its adequate analogue learned helplessness (Seligman, 1975). But although many publications describe learned helplessness, the specific features of this phenomenon in the case of psychosomatic diseases are not studied at all and the psychological prerequisites for, and the consequences of, learned helplessness in bearers of various individual features are not studied sufficiently well. In the authors' opinion, the phenomenology of a subject's behavior in the process of the development of learned helplessness is also studied inadequately. In the meantime, the solution of these problems may not only further the comprehension of the mechanisms of renunciation of search (consequently, of the opposite state search behavior too), but also ensure the forecasting of human behavior in various situations and help to evaluate the degree of expression of the risk factor of psychosomatic diseases.
Tasks of the Research
1. To bring out the dependence of the speed of formation of the giving-up reaction on the structure of the motivation of achievement, on the specific features of the reaction to frustration and on subjective control over the situation (externality or internality) in various areas of interaction with the environment in healthy testees and psychosomatic patients.
2. To assess the influence of behavior in the course of the development of learned helplessness on the dynamics of the reaction of frustration.
3. To compare the psychological factors behind the character of behavior in a frustrating situation with the structure of night sleep in stress conditions. This task stemmed from the fact that, according to previous investigations (Rotenberg, Arshavsky, 1979; Rotenberg, Alexeyev, 1981.), it is exactly sleep structure and especially the proportion of REM sleep that make it possible to differentiate search behavior and the state of renunciation of search.
The research had two stages. At the first stage the testee was offered a Russian variant of the Rotter questionaire (pertaining to the level of subjective control over the situation), the Heckhausen variant of TAT (a study of the motivation of achievement), and the Rosenzweig frustration test.
On the following day subject faced the Level of Aspirations procedure of F. Hoppe (solving of logical problems of varying difficulty from the Raven matrix). The problems were numbered in the order in which they were offered. The specificity of the procedure in this experiment consisted in the fact that none of the variable solutions presented by the testee was assessed by the experimenter as correct . The authors also introduced an additional stress factor: the testee was allowed less than enough time to solve every problem. This created an inner tension and finally caused learned helplessness. The authors studied the following behavioral characteristics:
1. The start of the formation of the giving-up reaction the
number of the task that provoked the testee's first attempt to
renounce his efforts.
After the testee finally gave up the procedure, he/she was offered
the Rosenzweig test again.
Results and Their Analysis
a) Healthy Testees
All testees were divided into two groups according to how soon they made the first attempts to renounce their efforts. The individuals who did this late (n = 32), compared to the opposite group, showed a significantly more clearly expressed desire to overcome the obstacle (N-P) (33.9 vs. 29.8 respectively, p<0.05) according to the Rosenzweig test at its first offer. They also made fewer attempts to renounce the task (1.0 vs. 3.2, p<0.05) and they underwent significantly more tests before they finally renounced the efforts (37.5 vs. 28.1, p<0.05). These data confirm the assumption that the testees of this group are more resistant to learned helplessness.
At the repeated offer of the Rosenzweig test (after the renunciation of the efforts), this group showed a less clearly expressed intropunitive type of reaction with fixation on self-defence (I = 6.8 vs. 9.2, p<0.005), i.e, in these testees readiness to confess that their failures were their own fault was expressed less clearly than in the testees who showed an earlier giving-up reaction. This is consistent with the data obtained by Seligman showing that learned helplessness develops sooner when the testee takes the blame for his failures. These testees, compared to the members of the opposite group, following the stress showed a less clearly expressed increase of the extrapunitive type of reaction to frustration with fixation on the obstacle (E'). Considering that this type of reaction in the background is also low enough, it can be assumed that the experienced frustration leaves their general behavioral strategy unaffected and that the learned helplessness developed in this particular situation shows not tendency towards generalization. According to the data of the Rotter questionnaire, the testees resistant to negative reinforcement were found to be more external.
The opposite group of testees (n = 45), who displayed an early first renunciation, facing a repetition of the Rosenzweig test, in addition to the more clearly expressed readiness to take the blame for the frustrated situation, showed a relatively higher level of the extrapunitive type of reaction with fixation on the obstacle (E' = 26.5 vs. 21.9, p<0.05). These testees throughout the experiment made more attempts to give up the task, and their final renunciation also came sooner. Apparently, the more clearly expressed growth of the subjective significance of the obstacle in the case of an unavoidable aversive impact prompts an earlier giving-up reaction. At the same time, the testees of this group, in contrast to the testees making their first renunciation later, do not show an increase in the degree of expression of the intropunitive type of reaction with fixation on the obstacle (I') when they face the test again. In an extreme situation these testees make more unsuccessful and half-hearted attempts to drop the efforts but nevertheless they continue to exercise them. A major factor in such unstable behaviour is a tendency towards self-accusation. On the one hand, with every new failure it raises the degree of expression of the negative affect, which induces the testee to drop the efforts. On the other hand, taking the blame for the failure makes the testee continue the efforts out of self-respect. In the final analysis, such an ambivalent attitude to the situation accompanied by unsuccessful attempts to cope with it should lead to a stable renunciation of search.
Thus, the authors have established that the character of reaction to frustration largely determines the development of learned helplessness.
Bearing this in mind, for further analysis, basing themselves on the data of the first Rosenzweig test, the authors set aside a group whose predominant reaction to frustration was fixation on the obstacle (O-D) (n = 19) and compared it with a group whose predominant reaction was self-defence (E-D) (n = 36). .
The former group showed a less clearly expressed motivation to achieve success (HE = 2.63 vs. 4.23, p<0.05) and a lower aggregate motivation of achievement (6.74 vs. 8.67, p<0.05). The testees of this group showed a higher subjective level of the significance of the obstacle (OD = 44.9 vs. 27.7, p<0.05; E' = 21.5 vs. 14.4, p<0.05), a more clearly expressed inclination towards self-accusation (I = 14.4 vs. 10.6, p<0.05), a more clearly expressed internality according to Rotter, and, predictably enough, an earlier first attempt to give up the task (15.04 vs. 17.08, p<0.05). The lower level of the extrapunitive type of reaction with fixation on the overcoming of the obstacle (E = 16.0 vs. 19. 6, p<0.05) combined with the aforementioned fact means that in a frustrating situation the testees of this group are not oriented to the solution of the problem, but are concentrated on the significance and insuperability of the difficulties. At the same time, it should be pointed out that fixation on the obstacle (OD), being more clearly expressed in this group than in the others before the frustration, grows less intensively during the frustration itself. In terms of absolute value this factor was more clearly expressed than in the other groups both before and after the frustration but its dynamics was not so clearly expressed. In combination with an early first renunciation, this may point to these testees' initially great readiness to give up. According to the TAT data in the Heckhausen variant, the testees of this group, compared to the group predominantly oriented to the overcoming of the obstacle (N-P, n = 22), were less inclined to forecast the positive outcome of their current efforts (E = 0.42 vs. 0.85, p<0.05) and strove to achieve their aim (I = 1.05 vs. 1.85, p<0.05). They showed a less clearly expressed desire to solve the frustrating situation unaided/a lower level of the intro-punitive reaction type with fixation on the overcoming of the obstacle (I = 11.2 vs. 16.1, p<0.05) at the first offer of the Rosenzweig test. If one also considers the vaguely expressed motivation of achievement, one can speak about this group as one of high risk with regard to the formation of renunciation of search. This assumption is also confirmed by the fact that, according to the data obtained by V.M. Shakhnarovich and A.M. Goncharenko (1979), a group of testees with a dominant O-D reaction was characterized by a significant REM sleep increase in the night sleep structure and a high positive correlation (0.7) between the degree of expression of the O-D reaction and the REM sleep duration.
The greatest resistance to the development of learned helplessness was shown by a group of individuals whose predominant reaction was the overcoming of the obstacle (N-P). Their first renunciation came later (24.8 vs. 15.0, p<0.05), and they made fewer attempts to drop the efforts (1.9 vs. 3.0, p<0.05). These individuals showed a higher aggregate motivation of achievement (9.62 vs. 6.74, p<0.05) and a predominance of the motive of the achievement of success (4.85 vs. 2.63, p<0.05). They exhibited a more clearly expressed tendency towards the overcoming of the obstacle unaided at the first offer of the Rosenzweig test. They were more inclined to use various means of the achievement of the aim and to form a positive forecast of the results of their efforts. The maximal increase of E' (fixation on the obstacle) after negative reinforcement in comparison to a low initial level of this indicator (23.3 vs. 13.3) in this group points to the unusualness of the renunciation of the efforts for this group. Naturally, invariable negative reinforcement eventually leads to such a renunciation in this group, too, but much later and at the cost of more abrupt changes in the style of behavior. At the same time the relative resistance to the negative stimulation in the group with a dominant self-defence reaction (E-D) is achieved by entirely different psychological mechanisms. These testees strive to reduce the negative influence of the frustrating situation by denying their own blame for it and by laying the blame on surrounding people (E = 21.2 vs. 14.5, p<0.05). However, it is accompanied by a tendency towards an earlier final renunciation of the efforts (27.7 vs. 31.1).
The analysis of the role of the motivational component of behavior has shown that the degree of expression of the achievement of the motive of the avoidance of failure in the structure of motivation may play a serious role in bringing about the reaction of renunciation of the efforts given an invariable negative reinforcement. The low level of pure motivation (the absence of a clear prevalence of one of the motives over the other) against the background of a low aggregate motivation also determines an early giving-up reaction (due to an inner conflict). Thus, the healthy testees show quite different patterns of the types of reaction to frustration and of the ratio of the motives determining resistance or vulnerability to the helplessness learning procedure.
b) Peptic Ulcer Patients
These patients were also divided into two groups. A group which showed an early first renunciation of the efforts (n = 26), compared to the patients who showed its late onset (n = 14), was distinguished for a clearly expressed need to achieve success ( B in TAT = 1.27 vs. 0.58, p<0.05) and, at the same time, for a predominant negative forecast of the results of these efforts (Em in TAT = 0.92 vs. 0.65, p<0.05). The predominance of the negative forecast of the consequences of the efforts should block search behavior, and, combined with the need for success, may cause an unproductive emotional tension. Given an initially low level of tolerance to frustration (OD = 32.5 vs. 25.0, p<0.05), an inclination to attach major significance to the obstacle (E' = 19.3 vs. 14.1,'p<0.05), and a lesser inclination to attribute failures to surrounding people are to deny one's own guilt (E = 13.4 vs. 20.2, p<0.05), the outlined motives forecast ratio may lead to an early renunciation of the efforts (at the 16th test compared to the 28th in the opposite group, p<0.05) and a smaller total number of tests needed for the formation of the giving-up reaction. The patients forming this group, as a rule, referred to a psychological cause of their disease or its exacerbation (a lasting psychological trauma or irreparable vital losses). Compared to the corresponding group of healthy testees, who also made an early first attempt to renounce the efforts, these patients were cha-racterized by a more clearly expressed desire to achieve their aim and readiness to make sufficient requisite efforts, but, at the same time, a more clearly ex-pressed expectation of a failure and a constant awareness of a possible failure. Apparently, this blocks the patients' behavior in a situation that has an indefinite outcome and requires the inclusion of non-stereotyped forms of behavior. The two groups initially had a near-equal low level of tolerance to frustration (E' = 19.3 vs. 17.1; OD = 32.5 vs. 33.3). However, their behavior in a frustrating situation was not identical. The patients showed a giving-up reaction sooner. Possibly, this is due to a more clearly expressed tendency towards self-accusation and a lesser inclination to blame their failures on others, which makes the patients more defenseless. Of major interest is the fact that, in spite of a more clearly expressed giving-up reaction an earlier onset both of the first (3.7 vs. 8.9) and of the last (16.0 vs. 23.7) renunciations and a greater number of attempts to renounce the efforts (4.3 vs. 3.2) at a repeated offer of the Rosenzweig test, the degree of expression of all reactions which point to fixation on the obstacle is lower in the patients than in the healthy individuals (37.6 vs. 45.1, p<0.05). Combined with a sufficiently high initial level of such reactions, this may indicate that the giving-up reaction is used by the patients of this group as a customary form of behavior when encountering difficulties of life. (In contrast to the control group testees, who in everyday life apparently display this reaction less frequently.) Consequently, one can speak of a more stable and generalized renunciation of search in patients. Their inherent desire for success, due to the aforementioned factors (a negative forecast of results and a low level of tolerance to frustration) is not so much realized in activity as changes into an unproductive health-ruining tension.
In the group of patients with a late first renunciation of the efforts this renunciation nevertheless occurs substantially sooner than in the corresponding group of healthy individuals (17.3 vs.31.5 , p<0.05). They also make more attempts to renounce the efforts when frustrated (3.2 vs.1.4, p<0.05). In such cases the healthy testees at the first offer of the Rosenzweig test showed a higher rate of the intropunitve and impunitive types of reaction with fixation on the obstacle (I' = 1.5 vs. 0.4; M = 15.2 vs. 10.5, p<0.05). These data suggest that healthy testees, in contrast to peptic ulcer patients, are more inclined to offset frustration by the protective mechanism of rationalization. This mechanism makes it possible to preserve the ability for action given a lasting negative reinforcement.
After such reinforcement the patients show a much more clearly expressed desire to confess their own blame for the frustrating situation (I = 10.4 vs. 6.8, p<0.05), which may create an ambivalent attitude to this situation (a desire to opt out of the game and the impossibility to do this) and eventually leads to a stable giving-up reaction.
c) Patients with essential hypertension
This group was too small to be divided into two subgroups. The data cited below can be regarded as preliminary. These patients, just as the peptic ulcer patients, made the first attempts to renounce their efforts much sooner than the healthy testees (11.5 vs. 17.6, p<0.05), and the number of such attempts, if none too persistent, throughout the experiment exceeded the corresponding value in the normative group (3.7 vs. 2.5, p<0.05). But, at the same time, the total number of the tests needed to develop the giving-up reaction in them almost equaled the average in the normative group (29.8 vs. 32.0). In the course of frustration they showed a sharp rise in the number of the reactions reflecting a desire to confess their guilt (11.8 vs. 8.0), and the number of the reactions reflecting a desire to overcome the obstacle unaided barely decreased (7.8 vs. 7.2). There was also an increase in the fixation on the obstacle (15.4 vs. 28.7). Combined with a low level of the failure avoidance motive (0.02 vs. 0.33, p<0.05) these data may suggest that the patients with essential hypertension continued the efforts not because they were oriented to a search for ways to overcome the obstacle, but because, due to their attitudes and their requirement structure, they could not afford a socially disapproved action an arbitrary cessation of the efforts even if they realized that it was hopelessly. In these conditions the efforts bear a stereotyped character, and the inability to break it off should only strengthen the unproductive inner tension, which, possibly, eventuates in a rise in the arterial pressure.
Sleep Structure and the Motivational Component of Behavior
At this stage of the research the authors examined 32 healthy testees aged 21 to 47 (26 men and 6 women). The ratios between the anxiety level (according to Spielberger), motivation of achievement, and sleep structure were analyzed by the pair correlation method.
It was established that the increase of the REM sleep proportion was connected with the decrease of the pure motivation parameter, i.e., with a reduction in the difference between the numerical values of the motive of the achievement of success and the motive of the avoidance of failure. The higher is the level of pure motivation*, the clearer is the expression of the achievement strategy in human behavior. A drop of this level reflects the proportion of the relations of rivalry between the aforementioned motives , which may result in a behavioral disorganization and block search activity. This accords well with the aforementioned data showing that a low level of pure motivation determines an early giving-up reaction. Incidentally, in theory, it is exactly a renunciation of search that raises the requirement in the compensatory lengthening of REM sleep.
The increase in the REM sleep proportion is also connected with the growth of the rates of the Expectation of Failure and Failure (Em and M) parameters, i.e., with the predominance of a negative forecast regarding current efforts and fixation on past failures. It is worth recalling that in peptic ulcer patients the early renunciation of the efforts in a frustrating situation was connected with the increase of exactly these parameters. It is known that fixation on negative past experience and the negative forecast of the results of current efforts indicate a predisposition towards learned helplessness.
The high levels of these parameters may provoke unproductive anxiety in the testees, whereas a rise in the personal anxiety level (according to Spielberger), in keeping with the authors' data, is also connected with the lengthening of the REM sleep. The increase of the REM sleep proportion was also connected with an increase of the aggregate motivation of achievement. It should be considered that the dominant motive of the majority of the testee group under study was avoidance of failure and that the aggregate motivation was determined exactly by this motive. This may have brought about a correlation of the aggregate motivation with REM sleep, especially since the motive of avoidance of failure itself has a close positive connection with the REM sleep proportion, on the one hand, and with a high personal anxiety level, on the other. It should be recalled that in healthy testees the predominance of the motive of avoidance of failure in the motivation structure may be an important factor behind the early renunciation of the efforts given an invariable negative reinforcement.
Finally, it is pertinent to observe that healthy testees, according to the data of Shakhnarovich and Goncharenko (1979), show a great significant connection between the REM sleep proportion and the degree of fixation on the obstacle. On the other hand, the increase of such TAT parameters as Expectation of Success (E), Praise (L), and Positive Emotional State (G + ) entails a drop in the REM sleep proportion. At the same time, exactly these indicators determine the adequate behavioral strategy and further the realization of search activity.
Thus, the sleep structure studies confirm the validity of the aforementioned psychological indicators which determine renunciation of search and the early development of learned helplessness fixation on the obstacle, an inclination towards bearing the blame for a frustrating situation, a negative forecast of the results of the efforts, and a conflict of motives or the predominance of the failure avoidance motive in the case of an extremely high or low level of the aggregate motivation of achievement. Various groups of healthy testees and psychosomatic patients may show different combinations of these factors, which determines the difference in the behavioral strategy and, possibly, the difference in the forms of pathology. The most general conclusion, however, is a great inclination towards the development of learned helplessness in psychosomatic patients.
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