Learned Helplessness: Cold War Aftermath

Learned Helplessness (LH) is a condition of accepting aversive stimuli in your life as inescapable and unavoidable. This is often observed with animals, as they learn to accept physical abuse from trainers as their everyday life. Behaviorally, this can seen as acceptance that you cannot overcome aversive stimuli in your life (e.g., addiction, domestic violence, poverty), and there is no point in working to change things. More simply stated, you have to accept what you can’t change.

I ran across an interesting article describing a situation where deer along an area that formerly contained an electrified fence during the Cold War, continue to avoid crossing through the area, even though none of the deer alive in the region were alive when the fence was last active. Meaning they could not have learned that this area was aversive from their own personal learning history. Rather, they must have been learned this information from a generational passing of survival skills from other deer. The more I looked into the situation, the more research and articles I found detailing the situation.

Before diving into the behavioral ramifications of this topic, I wanted to give you a few links and summaries to the situation.

Pictures and Illustrations


During the Cold War, an electric fence barrier system between West Germany and Czechoslovakia created a zone deadly to both people and animals. The animals in the area learned to stay away from this area and live their lives avoiding it’s dangers. Twenty years later, the area has since been turned into a conservation area. Studies have begun to exam how often, if at all, particular deer in this area actually cross these borders. This research has been headed by Pavel Sustr. Results indicated that some have crossed an average of once per year, but the animals basically stay on their sides. Mr. Sustr was reported to state that one of the reasons for this is a result of deer having traditional trails, passed on through their generations. This creates a collective knowledge of what their grounds are and where they end, which has traditionally been the erstwhile barrier. Female deer typically stay with their mothers longer than male deer, resulting in more time spent learning the mother’s movements, creating a more strict reliance on the traditional trails.

“Our data showed that the animals behaved very traditionally,”
“The former border was in the minds of the animals. But some of the young animals are searching for new territory. They are more and more deleting the border behavior that was there before.”

Pavel Sustr

Biologist Pavel Sustr was quoted and referenced as saying that this observation was the first time this was seen as a possibility, referring to the border itself playing a role in the separation of animal populations. Especially since the average life expectancy for deer is 15 years and none living now would have encountered the barrier during this lifespans.

Beginning in 1948, Czechoslovakia had 3 parallel electrified fences established that separated the populations of West Germany and the Czech Republic. Despite Cold War era barriers being torn down and deactivated since 1991, wildlife in the area has maintained this separation. Research has been conducted in the Sumava National Park of the Czech Republic, with more than 300 Czech and German deer being equipped with GPS tracking devices. Data has shown that deer continue to maintain this separation.

Following the Cold War, the German Bavarian Forest National Park and Czech Republic Sumava National Park removed barriers to allow wildlife in the area to roam freely and safely. However, behaviors learned by herds of deer have been maintained along the former border areas of Czechoslovakia and West Germany, as the red deer in the area appeared to continue living in separation. GPS devices have been used to track more than 100 of the over 1,800 red deer in the Czech Repbulic side of the Bohemian Forest in Sumava from 20015 to 2011. The team researching this phenomenom is Pavel Sustr of the Czech Republic. They have found that animals are slowly learning to cross the borders, but the trend has been a slow incremental increase, apparently due the deer having a strong behavior of traditional learning from previous generations.

“Deer on the Czech side of the Bohemian Forest wander no farther than where barbed wire used to mark the restricted area along the national border,”

Pavel Sustr

What this all means behaviorally …


Your learning history creates a mindset that becoming more dependent on supports, and less independent overall, is the only way to cope with aversive situations that you have not yet learned to independently handle. As you become more dependent and less independent, you begin to accept that these aversive situations are incapable of being overcome. You accept them as a part of life that will never go away, and as something useless to fight against. After accepting this aspect of life you adjust your behaviors accordingly and begin to live with the new rules in place. You have now generalized the adverse situations in your life as simply being permanent aspects of your life.


This problem that the deer example to us is that this learned helplessness is a generational concern. Adult deer teach baby deer what their life boundaries are, and they accept those boundaries, then teach them to their children. Then, generation after generation continue this teaching, despite that barriers no longer existing, and none of the deer being alive when the barriers did exist.

This, like much of animal behavior, applies to people as well. We teach our children that barriers exist, creating learned boundaries that the children (except for a brave few) never appear to cross. These barriers can be acceptable behaviors, potential career paths, or any number of things. Once these barriers are put in place, future generations have a set limit of what is acceptable and capable of accomplishment.


Some believe proper education is the answer. If the deer had a system in place to teach new concepts and pass along updated information, maybe they would know to venture out into a larger territory. We as people need to ensure proper availability to knowledge that will benefit youth as the mature, which sounds simple. But we need this implemented at the earliest stages of their lives. For example, we teach kids that they can be athletes, doctors, lawyers, etc. What about underwater welders? We teach them about learning to code and become engineers, but what about the prerequisite skills to become a banker, loan officer, even a butcher? We teach college undergrads to go for MBA’s, but not how diverse being an accountant can be. Better question, we tell a generation of children they can be athletes, but do we teach them how to handle the money? Do we teach the children tat get pushed through education system without developing a real education how to establish themselves as a brand/business, decreasing their tax liabilities, and helping create generational wealth instead of riches that get taken and result in bankruptcy? Without the proper education systems in place, we are creating a culture where people feel no matter how much money they make, from their limited options, they will end up in debt and/or bankruptcy.


Parenting is the ultimate source of education, beliefs, fears, limitations, and generally all systems that we focus our lives around. As a child, whatever you parents emphasize will be what you focus on as important knowledge and build your skills around. As a parent, what we emphasize will establish our child’s electric fences. If we tell them they have to go to college instead of vocational school to get an education, they may have a degree but a lot of debt. If we tell them they have to be an athlete to have a future, we set that limit for them. If we tell them they can accomplish “anything but never guide them with possibilities, they won’t have adequate knowledge of their options. Parenting is not just about training to become a socially functioning adult, it’s about helping our children surpass their limitations and learn all their options as best as we can.


The deer show how a community can not only educate but limit an individual’s potential. The deer community slowly learns to venture past it’s historical boundaries, but the majority maintains the limitation norms. Even with adequate education channels and good parenting skills, the community has an affect of our learning and acceptance of our limitations. The old saying “It takes a village” hold true. Our community both increases and decreases our odds in overcoming limitations and refusing to accept helplessness. If we embrace that we must accept crippling debt to be educated, we will all have crippling debt. If we accept that politics cannot be changed by the masses, the masses will never create change. If our community tells us we must accept an inability to escape poverty, violence, corruption, or any other aversive situation, we are doomed to end up like the Red Deer and all others who have developed learned helplessness.


De Graaf, M. (2014, April 23). The deer who don’t know the Cold War is over: Animals still fear crossing Iron Curtain’s electric fences – 25 years after they were switched off. Retrieved from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2611585/Deer-not-cross-old-iron-curtain-boundary-areas-electric-fences-lay-25-years-regime-fell.html

Igualate, I. (2014, May 13). Oh Deer! Wildlife Stuck in the Past, Separated by Cold War. Retrieved from https://www.globalanimal.org/2014/05/13/oh-deer-wildlife-stuck-in-the-past-separated-by-cold-war

Rohwedder, C. (2009, November 4). Deep in the Forest, Bambi Remains the Cold War’s Last Prisoner. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB125729481234926717

Siegphyl. (2014, February 10). Deer in Germany still does not cross former Iron Curtain. Retrieved from https://www.warhistoryonline.com/war-articles/deer-in-germany-still-does-not-cross-former-iron-curtain.html


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