The average length of time that a rat can tread water before giving up and drowning is 15 minutes, or so Johns Hopkins researcher Curt Paul Richter found in the 1950s. But if the rat gets rescued just before drowning, dried off and given a rest, the next time around he survives for 60 hours.

I know, it’s a horrible experiment, and it makes me tear up to think anybody every conducted it in the first place. But what does this tell us about the psychology of hope, and how it relates to resiliency?

Learned Helplessness

The message those rats got was that, no matter how bleak the situation may look, rescue may come at any moment. But is it possible to learn the opposite message, and despair?

According to happiness researcher Martin Seligman, the answer is yes. In 1967, Seligman conducted a study which separated dogs into three groups: those who received no shocks, those who, when they received shocks, could press a lever in order to make the shocks stop, and those who had no control over the shocks whatsoever. Then these same groups of dogs were placed in a setup in which the shocks still came (for all three groups now), but the walls that confined them were low enough that they could jump over them, thus escaping the shocks. What Seligman found was that dogs in groups one and two (those who had previously received no shocks, or who had received them but been able to turn off the shocks when they came) jumped over the wall easily. But those who had been in the third group with no control over the shocks in the first part of the experiment did not even try to escape the shocks in the second. They just lay there and whimpered, though they could have been free all the time.

Learned helplessness is a condition in which a creature, human or animal, endures inescapable pain in one situation, and comes away having “learned” that pain is therefore always inescapable.

What Is Hope?

According to Seligman, an optimist is a person who hopes. Practically speaking, this means she consistently interprets negative events as the result of temporary and specific causes, rather than permanent and universal causes. (An example: “I failed the exam because I didn’t study hard enough, but I know how to study and I can go to office hours and do better next time,” versus “I failed the exam because I’m stupid, I’ll always be stupid, and I’m going to fail in life.”)

In other words, implicit in the idea of hope in the face of adversity is the idea that a similar situation next time might result in a different and better outcome.

Author Brené Brown agrees: she says in The Gifts of Imperfection, “Hope is not an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process. …hope happens when we have the ability to set realistic goals (I know where I want to go). We are able to figure out how to achieve those goals, including the ability to stay flexible and develop alternative routes (I know how to get there, I’m persistent, and I can tolerate disappointment and try again). We believe in ourselves (I can do this!)” (p. 65).

From a biblical standpoint, hope is the precursor to faith: faith is the evidence of things hoped for (Hebrews 11:1), and God is the God of hope (Romans 15:13). I unpacked this topic in my podcast on Romans 15:13, and you can listen to it here: 

The Upshot

Dr. Seligman’s experiment teaches us that, if we believe we are helpless to overcome adversity, we will remain in it, even if escape is clearly within our grasp. We won’t take the steps to free ourselves, because we’ve learned that it’s hopeless anyway.

But hope, the belief that there can be a better tomorrow, turns into perseverance, just like it did for the rats.

Be like the rats.