My very first class and one of my overall favorites at U.C.L.A. was Psych 10 with Dr. Carlos Grijalva. I hope he's still there, as he was a great teacher, and when I later worked a grad student in his lab, I found him to be a really good person, too.
Anyway, one of my favorite concepts from his Psych 10 class was the idea of learned helplessness. It was demonstrated by a classic experiment where a dog was put in a cage with an electrified panel in the floor. A bell would ring, and a few seconds later, the dog was shocked. The dog quickly learned to fear the bell, knowing the painful shock was following. Initially, at the sound of the bell, the dog would get very upset and howl and race frantically around the cage looking for an escape. But with no way to avoid the shock, the dog, over time, would give up efforts to escape, would quit howling, and would finally just lie there and whimper quietly and accept the shock. Learned helplessness.
The amazing finale to this is that after learned helplessness was integrated in the dog, an easy escape route from the cage was provided, yet the dog made no new effort to escape the shock after the bell sounded. I know what should have happened. That dog should have heard the bell and taken the two steps necessary to get out of the cage and avoid the shock. But I learned what happened instead. The bell rang, the dog quietly whimpered, continued to lay still, and two steps from salvation, got shocked. Again.
My fellow Bruins, we are the dog in this story.
With no disrepect to San Jose State (and doesn't that phrase always mean that some form of disrespect is about to follow?), no matter how closely associated our two schools are, there is one thing that should never be closely associated between us. Not on our field. Not in our home opener. Heck, not anywhere, at any time, on this or any other planet. And that thing is the score of a football game at the end of the third quarter.
Yet there we were, starting the fourth tied at 17.
And what did we do? We did what we have learned to do to lessen the shock of our football program. We tuned out of the thread. We berated our coach. We blamed poor effort and poor discipline and poor attendance and poor schemes. And in the end, we comforted ourselves that we are just U.C.L.A. and that this is simply our culture of mediocrity.
It's learned helplessness. It's written on this football team. It was written on Rick Neuheisel's face. And it's written all over the Bruin fanbase. Some examples after the jump...
Last night, I saw one of our DB's hopping up and down and getting in the opposing players' faces and shoving those opponents in the chest - right after his unit just allowed the vaunted Spartan attack to drive the ball up their ass for 88 yards in 8 minutes and 6 points. I know what should have happened. That player should have spent a few series on the sideline being reminded that that sort of effort really works best before the defense surrenders the TD. I knew what would happen instead. That DB was back in on the next series.
I watched a linebacker, who ran himself out of plays all night long - except for the one time we actually did want him to run past another ball carrier - instead hit the ball carrier in the head, right as that ball carrier was stepping out of bounds about 12 yards short of the first down marker. On 4th down. I know what should have happened. Our linebacker should have spent a few series on the sidelines being reminded that giving up a 15 yard penalty when the QB is 12 yards short of the first down is contrary to the ideals of a good defense. I knew what would happen instead. I saw Neuheisel with one of those confused "Huh?" sort of looks, weakly call the player's name, get no response, and then hang his head and walk up the sideline, while that linebacker continued on in the game.
I watched our offense face a 4th and 2 at the Spartans 38 in the first quarter. Bluebland knows what we should have done. We all know what we should have done. We should have taken pride in our program. We should have said that we're better than our opponents and we will prove it. We should have run the ball down their throats on 4th down. Sadly, we all knew exactly what was going to happen instead. The punt landed a few yards deep in the endzone for a touchback. Somewhere, Karl Dorrell is feeling a bit of vindication.
Against logic, learned helplessness persists in an individual or a group for the same reason that any learned behavior does, by continued reinforcement and reward. From a neurobehavioral stanpoint (hey, I was finally a psychobio major), the physical pain of the shock is more tolerable than the emotional pain of failure and disappointment, plus the physical pain of the shock. The dog who lays there and accepts the shock at least avoids the disappointment of another failed attempt to escape his sorry fate. Shakespeare's feelings on love and loss are not borne out by the dogs in Psych 10. If punting is inevitable, why not just lay back and enjoy it?
Learned helplessness becomes part of one's personality. Part of one's own personal culture.
And there it is. Culture.
We write here all the time about the culture of UCLA. and how mediocrity has become accepted. It explains why such a great collection of talent has produced lots of suspensions and lots of penalties and lots of showboating and lots of embarassment, but has produced so little success. And as much as we blame the players, or Neuheisel, or Guerrero or Block, all of whom are unacceptably tolerant of mediocrity, we must also blame ourselves. The U.C.L.A. culture includes this fanbase, and the acceptance of mediocrity has swallowed us as well.
I watched the game tonight with some young post-Cade McNown 20 somethings who appeared somewhat frustrated by how close this game was. But they sure didn't appear to be absolutely seething and mortified and embarassed inside like I was. Maybe it's because I remember when U.C.L.A. won games in dominating fashion against the scrubs of D-1. Our teams were ranked a lot. We beat *$c a lot. We not only went to Rose Bowls, we won them. A lot. My anger tonight tells me that learned helplessness hasn't completely extinguished all my experiences with successful football just yet. But I do wonder if watching these games is worth it sometimes, and I see little hope for escape, so learned helplessness is making some progress. And those who never had this foundation are much further gone than I.
Who on this team or in this program is unaffected by learned helplessness and can be the one lead us out of this culture of mediocrity and help us get up off the floor and beat the crap out of the bell and get out of the cage for good? Until someone steps up and stops reinforcing and rewarding this culture, and gives us real reason to hope and cheer, we are doomed to a continued existence on the electrified plate. Until someone shakes us from our stupor, kicks us in the butt and screams at us to get up because the escape from this cage is just a few steps away and he will lead us there, we are going to continue to lie down and whimper when the bell sounds.
I always though that someone was Neuheisel. From what I saw tonight, I think learned helplessness is swallowing him and much of his team, too.
Or maybe ther were all just looking ahead to Texas.