Learned Helplessness and Behavioural Change

Some commentators might be surprised how uncritical many Indigenous community residents have been of the NT intervention, especially in the central desert area. There are at least two possible explanations for this. The first is that some Indigenous people are glad something is finally being done, although they may be sceptical about the efficacy of the plan (Langton 2007). Another possibility is that many Indigenous people are more used to having things done to them than being active participants in mainstream society. This second possibility underscores the major strength and weakness of the NT intervention, which involves substantial constraints on Indigenous choices, especially in the area of property rights and access to citizenship rights embodied in welfare.

Learned helplessness is a psychological condition in which a human being has learned to believe that a situation is helpless (Petersen, Maier & Seligman 1995; Seligman 1975). The theory is that depression results from a perceived lack of control over the events in life, which may result from prior exposure to (actually or apparently) uncontrollable negative events.

Not all people become depressed as a result of being in a situation where they appear not to have control, but the intransigence of Indigenous socioeconomic circumstances is such that it would be surprising if many Indigenous people had not learned to feel helpless. Prolonged exposure to dependence on welfare is likely to be one of the major factors underlying community violence and dysfunction (Hunter 2007b).

The top-down approach has many limitations, especially when it is attempting to change people’s behaviour. One of the limitations of military-style interventions is that it perpetuates attitudes of ‘learned helplessness’ that need to be changed if enduring changes are to be achieved. In a sense, some aspects of the intervention will address the learned helplessness arising from the lack of mainstream employment options. However, by bundling together more controversial measures that alienate Indigenous communities and their property rights, it also risks exacerbating the feelings of alienation and helplessness.