The Cage

Translation of a piece by Sofía Balmont, found on

Let’s get out of the cage

Learned defencelessness

We have seen what happens when we give a dog enclosed in a cage a reward every time he behaves as he is supposed to, or if we reward him at fixed intervals or variable ones, or if we never reward him or if we stop his punishment when he does what we want. In every case the dog will learn that his behaviour has a consequence or even a lack of consequence, which he will learn to foresee after a brief period of apprenticeship. And his mental and emotional health will remain within the limits of what is healthy.

But what happens if, regardless of what the dog does, we always punish him? A cage with an electrified floor grille. A dog locked inside. A series of shocks repeated at variable intervals, indefinitely, and nothing the dog does brings an end to the punishment. At first the dog will develop a frenetic activity, doing everything a dog can do within a cage in the hope that luck combined with his efforts will result in the behaviour that frees him from the torture: lifting his front left paw, his right paw, barking, jumping, wagging his tail…

Whatever the hell it is that meets the experimenter-torturer’s fancy so that the shocks end once and for all. But it is all useless. Whatever he does the shocks continue, rhythmically, mercilessly, endlessly. The dog ends up collapsing in a corner and doing nothing. He doesn’t eat. He doesn’t bark. He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t struggle. He puts up with shock after shock undisturbed. He is ill. He suffers from learned defencelessness.

I first listened to this basic lesson of psychology  20 years ago. I had nearly forgotten it.

Are you a good citizen? A good worker? A good parent? A good neighbour? Do you respect the rules? Do you pay your taxes? Are you honest with other people? And with yourself? Do you act according to your conscience? Do you believe in the system? Or perhaps you don’t believe in it? Have you done what they have told you to do since you were a child in order to live quietly and honestly? Have you studied? Have you done exams? Have you done a Master’s? Can  you speak languages? Have you worked hard since you were young? Do you get up every morning and work all day every day in order to contribute something to society? Do you pay your bills if you can still pay them? Did you vote for the right-wing? Did you vote for the left-wing? Do you not vote?…It makes no difference. Do you not have the feeling that, whatever your answers to these questions, it makes no difference?

That maybe they will bring down your salary again and again, or they’ll sack you, or you’ll be left without a home, or you’ll be suffocated with debts, or you will see no future for your children.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a civil servant, a construction worker, self employed, immigrant, from a village, from the city, old, young, man or woman. It doesn’t matter if you put effort into what you do, if you believe in it, if you expect a reward…there will be no reward. Or to put it better: the reward will not come from the person who keeps you locked in a cage with an electrified floor grille. He has decided that now it’s time for indiscriminate shocks and learned defencelessness.

But I’m going to tell you a secret. The cage has a door. All cages have one. Inside the cage the shocks will never end but outside there is clean air, solid ground, fresh food and other mistreated dogs with whom, after gagging and bounding the experimenter-torturer, you can build a world without cages. It is simply a matter of abandoning the corner we have curled up in, plunged in despair, and understanding that the only way out is beyond the bars and the lock.

I heard this basic psychology lesson twenty years ago for the first time. And I had nearly forgotten it..with all its importance.


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