Learned Helplessness

A common theme in Kidnappings, Human Trafficking, or even among Prisoners of War is the way in which the captors control their captives. In many cases, these events start with an extremely violent episode. This episode may be prolonged and include psychological abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. This extreme event is designed to dehumanize the victim, and take away the belief that the victim can make their own choices or take any action on their own behalf. The psychological term for this phenomena is Learned Helplessness. I will not go into the controversial 1970’s experiment done on dogs associated with this theory, but it is an interesting study. The bottom line is that Learned Helplessness is the reason why victims of Kidnapping, Human Trafficking, POWs or victims of abuse have such a difficult time when they come home.

The difference between a Victim and a Survivor is when the Victim realizes that they make choices on their own behalf. Captors such as Pimps and Kidnappers generally follow a pattern known as the “Cycle of Violence”. The cycle consists of the Tension Building Phase, Acute Abuse Episode, and the Honeymoon Phase. The Tension Building Phase generally begins with the victim beginning to step out of line or that the captor believes the victim is going to step out of line. The Acute Abuse Episode may be physical, emotional, sexual, or a combination of the three. The abuser will use the threat of these episodes, and the things that trigger them, as their means of control. The Honeymoon Phase is generally a period following the abusive episode where the captor gives positive feedback, gifts, friendship, and a sense of security to the victim. The Honeymoon Phase causes the captive to bond with the captor, and in many cases, to identify with them. The Honeymoon Phase can quickly change if the captor feels like they are about to lose control of the victim.

      The cycle of abuse becomes the one predictable constant in the victim’s life, and inevitably becomes the devil that they know. Learned Helplessness is the reason why captors, abusers, and anyone who uses threat of force to control others are successful. It is also why people end back up in abusive situations after they escape.

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