Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness is an apathetic attitude stemming from the conviction that one's actions do not have the power to affect one's situation.

The concept of learned helplessness was developed in the 1960s and 1970s by Martin Seligman (b. 1942) at the University of Pennsylvania. He observed animals receiving electric shocks that they had no ability to prevent or avoid, and noted that in subsequent situations they were unable to take action, even when action could mean avoiding or escaping the shocks. Seligman and his colleagues then applied these findings to the action and motivation of people. They deduced that human motivation to respond or make changes in life is undermined by feeling lack of control. Further research has shown that learned helplessness disrupts normal development and learning and can lead to emotional disturbances, especially depression.

Learned helplessness in humans can begin very early in life if infants see no correlation between actions and their outcome, for example, smiling and receiving a smile in return. Infants in institutions or suffering from maternal deprivation or parental neglect are especially at risk for learned helplessness if they do not experience adult responses to their actions. It is also possible for mothers who feel helpless to pass this condition on to their children. Learned helplessness at any age can lead to anxiety or depression. This trait is especially damaging when created early in life; the sense of mastery over one's environment is an important foundation for future emotional development. Learned helplessness can also hamper education; a children who fails repeatedly in school may eventually stop trying, convinced that there is nothing they can do to succeed.

During his study of learned helplessness in humans, Seligman found the problem to be associated with what he termed a person's “explanatory style.” The three major components of explanatory style associated with learned helplessness are permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. Permanence refers to the belief that negative events and/or their causes are permanent, even when evidence, logic, and past experience indicate that they are probably temporary. Pervasiveness describes the tendency to generalize, so that negative features of one situation are extended to others as well. Personalization, the third component of explanatory style, refers to whether someone individuals tend to attribute negative events to their own flaws or to outside circumstances and other people. While it is important to take responsibility for one's mistakes, people who suffer from learned helplessness tend to blame themselves for everything; this tendency is associated with low self-esteem and depression. The other two elements of explanatory style, permanence and pervasiveness, can be used to gauge whether the degree of self-blame over a particular event or situation is realistic or appropriate.

Seligman believed it is possible to change explanatory styles, replacing learned helplessness with learned optimism. To combat or prevent learned helplessness in both adults and children, he has successfully employed techniques similar to those used in cognitive therapy with persons suffering from depression. These include identifying negative interpretations of events, evaluating their accuracy, generating more accurate interpretations, and decatastrophizing (countering the tendency to imagine the worst possible consequences for an event). He has also devised exercises to help children overcome a negative explanatory style tending toward permanent, pervasive, and personalized responses to negative situations. Other methods of promoting learned optimism include teaching children to challenge their own negative thoughts and supporting their problem-solving and social skills.

Seligman suggested that parents can also promote learned optimism by applauding and encouraging mastery of new situations and by allowing their children as much control as possible in daily activities such as dressing and eating. Parents also influence the degree of optimism through their own attitudes toward life and their own explanatory styles, which can be transmitted to very young children.

See also Cognitive therapy ; Conditioning ; Torture .



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In 1967, psychologist Martin Seligman and colleagues were conducting experiments at the University of Pennsylvania to research classical conditioning. These animal experiments led to the inadvertent discovery of what Seligman called Learned Helplessness.

American psychologist Martin Seligman.

American psychologist Martin Seligman.
(©PhotoTake, Inc./PhotoTake.)

The experiments involved exposing dog subjects to inescapable electric shocks. At first the dogs reacted normally to shock, but later were passively accepting and did not attempt to escape. This was in contrast to the predictions of B.F. Skinner's popular behaviorist theory.

First, Seligman divided the dogs into three groups. The first group was a control in which the dogs were put in a harness and then released without being shocked. The other two groups consisted of “yoked pairs” (in which an animal of one group is connected to that of another). The dogs in group two were exposed to an electric shock which they could stop by touching a lever. The dogs in group three were exposed to the shock, but touching the lever did not stop the electricity. The electricity was controlled by the dog in group two, there for it seemed to only stop randomly for the dogs in group three? to these dogs the shocks were perceived as inescapable. Unlike the dogs in groups one and two, the dogs in group three did not recover from the experiment quickly, and developed symptoms similar to those of clinical depression, such as a decreased appetite and lethargy.

In the second part of the experiment, the dogs were placed in a “shuttle box” —an enclosure with a low divider which the dogs were able to jump over. The side of the box in which the dogs were placed had an electrified floor, and the other side did not. The dogs in groups one and two, who had not been given inescapable shocks, jumped the fence easily and avoided shocks in the shuttle box. However the dogs who had been exposed to unavoidable shocks in the first part of the experiment did not even attempt to escape the shocks in the second experiment, even though they could have been avoided. Instead they lay down and passively accepted the shocks. The prior exposure to an unavoidable negative experience (in this case, shocks) led to a retardation of escape and avoidance learning in the future.

Studies of learned helplessness have been replicated in many other species including rats and mice, and even nonmammals such as zebra fish. Seligman's theory has significant implications for human behavior and psychology. The studies were replicated with humans (using loud, distracting noises in place of electric shocks) with similar results. Humans experiencing learned helplessness no longer attempt to get out of a negative situation, because the past has taught them that they are powerless to do so. The theory of learned helplessness is often applied to individuals suffering from clinical depression. Seligman later wrote about this, saying that depression, anxiety and feelings of failure do not emerge out of nowhere but rather are a result of feelings of helplessness that are learned and reinforced.

The unexpected discovery of learned helplessness has been influential in the field of behavioral therapy and in further studies of depression and anxiety. Psychologists may use cognitive behavioral therapy to overcome the feelings and patterns of learned helplessness in depressed patients, and Seligman has written about the use of cognitive techniques to replace learned helplessness feelings with what he calls “learned optimism.”


University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center. “Learned Helplessness Research.” http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/lh.htm (accessed September 9,2015).

Psych Central Network. “Learned Helplessness.” http://allpsych.com/personalitysynopsis/learned_helplessness/ (accessed September 9, 2015).