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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