Learned Helplessness

Like many newer office buildings, Capitol Hill’s Hart Senate Office Building has automatic doors that make access for handicapped people much easier. They are activated by a pressing large blue button, which causes the glass double-doors to swing outward.

On several occasions recently, I have noted able-bodied Senate staff taking advantage of this convenience. Though they could open the doors themselves and enter more quickly, they press the button and pause a moment as the doors slowly open.

There is a lesson here for policymakers (including those Senate staff): Offered help, people of all abilities will accept it, whether they need it or not. Over time, their abilities to help themselves may atrophy.

So it goes with economic and social policies. A few years ago when Social Security reform was a hot topic, my father (who still wants to be a trucker when he grows up) observed casually that the truckers he talks to wouldn’t know what to do if they were responsible for their own retirement. The complexities of investing are too much for them.

I believe the contrary, that given responsibility for their retirement security, truckers would swarm over the problem and figure it out. The CB radios of the nation would crackle with investment advice. Like most cohorts, this group is fully capable of handling savings and investment. And just as able-bodied Senate staff can get through doorways more quickly on their own, truckers in aggregate would have more retirement security and more comfortable retirements. But they’ve been offered enough help (indeed - mandated to accept it) that they’ve ceded the field.

Assistive devices for the handicapped are a good thing, but I rue the day when able-bodied Americans come to expect automatic doors and regard it as an imposition or impossibility to reach forward, grasp a handle, and pull. Something to think about the next time you’re standing on an escalator because the stairs make you winded.