In the early 1970s, researchers at a Pennsylvania university studied how dogs could be conditioned to a state of “learned helplessness.” It sounds complicated but it was simple. In a process now justly considered inhumane, the researchers closed a dog in a metal cage and sent electric shocks into the animal. At first, the dog reacted quickly, frantically running around, trying to get out. The researchers observed that as the shocks continued, it reacted less and less. Finally, the dog reached a point where it hardly moved as it was being shocked. The researchers then opened the door to the cage, offering the animal a clear exit, and continued the shocks. But the dog had reached the state of “learned helplessness.” It lay there, enduring the shocks. Next, the researchers placed an unconditioned dog in the cage with the conditioned animal. When the treatments resumed, the new dog reacted and ran out of the cage. The conditioned dog observed this, got up, and ran out also.
What a great metaphor this is for the Christian missional life!
My first reaction to seeing a group of men prostituting themselves was to ask, “Why don’t they just get a job?” It was only after several years of walking with these men and listening to their stories that I realized that it wasn’t that easy. They were conditioned. If I wanted to help, I would need to get in their cage.One young man who taught me this was Jim.