Many years ago, I lived on the West Coast of America and people felt compelled to tell me about their feelings. It was there that I first heard about the idea of learned helplessness. It's a concept from psychology, apparently, first identified by Martin Seligman in the 60s.
It is when, in studies, an animal repeatedly exposed to an aversive stimulus from which it cannot escape eventually stops trying to avoid it.
Even when opportunities to escape become available, learned helplessness means the animal does not take any action.
That doesn’t sound like a fun set of experiments, does it? Back then, it was just part of the psychobabble background. And it’s apparently now slightly jejune in psychological explanations of depression.
And yet, that little phrase has been bouncing back to the front of my head recently, especially when I went to talk to a popular national broadcasting institution about digital transformation.
We’re so big and complex, they said; it’s so hard, they said. You don’t understand our special problems, our legacy, our circumstances.
Fair enough, I thought, but this smacks of learned helplessness. Maybe you were big and complex once, maybe you have lots of viewers, listeners and users, maybe all this technology stuff was difficult when you last thought hard about changing.
But WhatsApp, a company of maybe 60 people, handled 64 billion messages one day last week. That’s the thing with digital services: they scale differently. Going from some to many is relatively easy. And it gets easier every year.
Digital services scale differently. Going from some to many is relatively easy. And it gets easier every year
Think of another psychological idea: the sunk cost fallacy – the mistake we make when we pour good money after bad or find ourselves in a hole and keep digging.
It’s our tendency to grant disproportionate regard to things we’ve already chosen.
Combine learned helplessness and the sunk cost fallacy, and you get the relationship most large organisations have with technology.
The systems don’t work, but we paid for them, so we’re not getting rid of them; and, anyway, there’s nothing we can do to escape them because our circumstances are so specialised.
This used to be a problem you could devolve to IT – but, as everything a business does becomes part of a digital platform, it’s something everyone has to face. We all need to get comfortable with abandoning the sunk costs of legacy IT systems. We need to reject the learned helplessness and embrace some naïve gumption. Throw it all away and start again – it’s time for a spring clean.
Russell Davies is a creative director at Government Digital Service
This article was first published on