You’ve likely heard about learned helplessness before. It is a cornerstone of some important theories and ideas in psychology, and even some foundational concepts in positive psychology; however, not only is it important in the field itself, it was a relatively widely understood phenomenon outside of the field as well.
It helps us explain so much behavior that seems odd or counterproductive, and it provides pathways to removing or reducing the impacts of learned helplessness on quality of life.
Learned helplessness was discovered through some of those classic laboratory experiments that you learn about in most Psychology 101 classes, conducted via methods that would likely horrify any reasonable member of an Institutional Review Board today. Although it has been about 50 years since it was first elucidated as a psychological theory, it still looms large in the field.
If you’re interested in learning more about the interesting and important concept of learned helplessness, ways to neutralize or reverse the impact of such helplessness, and the trait on the opposite side of the spectrum—learned optimism—you’ve come to the right place!
What is Learned Helplessness? A Psychological Definition
Learned helplessness is a phenomenon observed in both humans and other animals when they have been conditioned to expect pain, suffering, or discomfort without a way to escape it (Cherry, 2017). Eventually, after enough conditioning, the animal will stop trying to avoid the pain at all—even if there is an opportunity to truly escape it!
When human or other animals come to understand (or believe) that they have no control over what happens to them, they begin to think, feel, and act as if they are helpless. This phenomenon is called learned helplessness because it is not an innate trait; no one is born believing that they have absolutely no control over what happens to them and that it is fruitless to even try to gain control. It is a learned behavior, conditioned through experiences in which the subject either truly has no control over his circumstances or believes that he has no control over his circumstances.
Martin Seligman’s Experiments That Lead to the Theory
The initial experiments that formed the basis for this theory were conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier.
These experiments will be described in detail below. Please note that some readers may find the descriptions upsetting—such experiments were more commonplace in the 1960s and 70s, but would likely meet with a great deal of resistance from activists and the general public today!
Seligman and Maier were working with dogs at the time and testing their responses to electrical shocks. Some dogs received electrical shocks that they could not predict or control, while others did not.
For this experiment, the dogs were placed in a box with two chambers divided by a low barrier. The box was electrified on one side and not on the other (Cherry, 2017).
When the researchers placed dogs in the box and turned on the electrified floor, they noticed a strange thing: some dogs didn’t even attempt to jump over the low barrier to the other side. Further, they realized that the dogs who didn’t attempt to jump the barrier were generally the dogs who had previously been given shocks with no way to escape them, while the dogs who jumped the barrier tended to be those who had not received such treatment.
To further investigate this phenomenon, Seligman and Maier gathered a new batch of dogs and divided them into three groups:
- Dogs in Group One were strapped into harnesses for a period of time and were not administered any shocks.
- Dogs in Group Two were strapped into the same harnesses but were administered electrical shocks that they could avoid by pressing a panel with their noses.
- Dogs in Group Three were placed in the same harnesses and also administered electrical shocks, but were given no way to avoid them.
Once these three groups had completed this first experimental manipulation, all dogs were placed (one at a time) in the box with two chambers. Dogs from Group One and Group Two were quick to figure out that they only needed to jump over the barrier to avoid the shocks, but most of the dogs from Group Three didn’t even attempt to avoid them. Based on their previous experience, these dogs concluded that there was nothing they could do to avoid being shocked (Seligman & Groves, 1970).
Once these results had been confirmed with dogs, Seligman and Maier conducted similar experiments on rats.
Just as they did with the dogs, the researchers split the rats into three groups for training; one received escapable shocks, one received inescapable shocks, and one received no shocks at all. The “escapable shocks” group was able to avoid shocks by pressing a lever in the box, while the “inescapable shocks” group could press the lever, but would still receive shocks (Seligman & Beagley, 1975).
Later, the rats were placed in a box and subjected to electrical shocks. A lever was present within the box that, when pressed, would allow the rats to escape the shocks.
Again, rats who were initially placed in the inescapable shock group generally did not even attempt to escape, while most of those rats in the other two groups succeeded in escaping.
The rats who did not attempt to escape were showing behavior that is classic to learned helplessness: even when presented with a potential option to avoid pain, they do not attempt to take it.
This phenomenon can also be seen in elephants. When a trainer begins the training process with a baby elephant, he will use a rope to tie one of the elephant’s legs to a post. The elephant will struggle for hours, even days, trying to escape the rope, but eventually, it will quiet down and accept its range of motion (Wu, 2009).
When the elephant grows up, it will clearly be strong enough to break the rope, but it won’t even try. Once it has learned that struggle is useless, it will no longer even attempt to break the rope.
Examples of Learned Helplessness in Humans
As noted earlier, learned helplessness is not unique to non-human animals; while such extreme experiments have not been performed on humans (nor should they), the experiments that have been conducted on humans have produced similar outcomes. Although the human response to such situations may be more complex and dependent on several different factors, they are very much in line with the research on dogs, rats, and other animals.
In a 1974 experiment, human participants were split into three groups. One group was subjected to a loud and unpleasant noise but were able to terminate the noise by pressing a button four times. The second group was subjected to the same noise, but their button was not functional. The third group was subjected to no noise at all.
Later, all human participants were subjected to a loud noise and a box with a lever which, when manipulated, would turn off the sound. Just like in the animal experiments, those who had no control over the noise in the first part of the experiment generally did not even try to turn the noise off, while the rest of the subjects generally figured out how to turn the noise off very quickly.
Seligman and colleagues proposed that subjecting participants to situations in which they have no control results in three deficits: motivational, cognitive, and emotional (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978). The cognitive deficit refers to the subject’s idea that his circumstances are uncontrollable. The motivational deficit refers to the subject’s lack of response to potential methods of escaping a negative situation. Finally, the emotional deficit refers to the depressed state that comes about when the subject is in a negative situation that he feels is not under his control.
Based on his research, Seligman made an important connection: the link between learned helplessness and depression.
Learned Helplessness and Depression
To understand the proposed connection between learned helplessness and depression, we need to understand the two types of learned helplessness, as outlined by Seligman and colleagues.
Universal helplessness is a sense of helplessness in which the subject believes nothing can be done about the situation she is in. She believes no one can alleviate the pain or discomfort.
On the other hand, personal helplessness is a much more personal sense of helplessness; the subject may believe others could find a solution or avoid the pain or discomfort, but he believes that he, personally, is not capable of finding a solution (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978).
Both types of helplessness can lead to a state of depression, but the quality of that depression may differ. Those who feel universally helpless will tend to find external reasons for their problems and their lack of ability to solve them, while those who feel personally helpless will tend to find internal reasons.
Those who feel personally helpless are more likely to suffer from low self-esteemsince they believe others could probably solve the problems they feel incapable of solving.
Although the cognitive and motivational deficits are the same for both personally and universally helpless people, personally helpless people tend to have a greater and more impactful emotional deficit.
In addition to this differentiation between types of helplessness, it can vary on two other factors as well: generality (global vs. specific) and stability (chronic vs. transient). When a person suffers from global helplessness, they experience negative impacts in several areas of life rather than just the most relevant area. They are also more likely to experience severe depression than those who have a more specific feeling of helplessness.
Further, those suffering from chronic helplessness (those who have felt helpless over a long period of time) are more likely to feel the effects of depressive symptoms than those who experience transient helplessness (a short-lived and nonrecurrent sense of helplessness).
This model of learned helplessness has important implications for depression; it posits that when (a) highly desired outcomes are believed to be improbable and/or (b) highly aversive outcomes are believed probably, and (c) the individual has no expectation that anything she does will change the outcome, depression results.
However, the depression will vary based on the type of helplessness; the range of depressive symptoms will depend on the generality and stability of the helplessness, and any impact on self-esteem is dependent on how the individual explains or attributes their experience (internally vs. externally).
This proposed framework identifies the cause of at least one type of depression—that which stems from helplessness—and provides the path to a cure for it. The researchers outlined four strategies for treating helplessness-related depression (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978):
- Change the likelihood of the outcome. Alter the environment by increasing the likelihood of desired events and decreasing the likelihood of negative events.
- Reduce the desire for preferred outcomes. This can be done by either reducing the negativity of events that are outside the individual’s control, or by reducing the desirability of events that are extremely unlikely to happen.
- Change the individual’s expectation from uncontrollability to controllability when the desired outcomes are attainable; in other words, help the depressed person realize when outcomes they desire are actually within their control.
- Change unrealistic explanations for failure toward those that are external (not due to some inherent flaw in the depressed person himself), unstable (not chronic), and specific (due to one specific problem rather than a larger pattern of problems); likewise, change unrealistic explanations for success toward those that are internal (due to some inherent strength in the depressed person), stable (chronic), and global (due to an overall competence rather than a specific area of competence).
These strategies will be covered in more detail later.
It’s Most Likely to be Associated With…
Learned helplessness is, unsurprisingly, associated with many negative symptoms, traits, and tendencies, including:
- Age (the older one’s age, the more likely they are to experience change or loss of roles and physical declines) and residing in an institution (Foy & Mitchell, 1990)
- Stress (especially poverty-related stress; Brown, Seyler, Knorr, Garnett, & Laurenceau, 2016)
- Anxiety and worry (specifically about tests for students; Raufelder, Regner, & Wood, 2018)
- Greater negative response to anticipated pain (Strigo, Simmons, Matthews, Craig, & Paulus, 2008)
It’s Most Likely to Promote…
Not only is learned helplessness often associated with other negative conditions, it also seems to cause or contribute to many negative outcomes, including:
- Negative health symptoms as well as concerns and negative emotions about one’s disease (lupus; Nowicka-Sauer, Hajduk, Kujawska-Danecka, Banaszkiewicz, Czuszyńska, Smoleńska, & Siebert, 2017)
- Maladaptive perfectionism (Filippello, Larcan, Sorrenti, Buzzai, Orecchio, & Costa, 2017)
- Turnover intentions (Tayfur, Karapinar, & Camgoz, 2013)
- Burnout (emotional exhaustion and cynicism; Tayfur et al., 2013)
- Even worse depression, anxiety, phobias, shyness, and loneliness in those already suffering (Cherry, 2017)
Learned Helplessness in Education
You will likely hear about learned helplessness in the context of education quite often. This is because there is tons of interest in how early academic failure or low academic self-esteem impact later success, and how the relationship can be influenced to enhance chances of success.
As has been noted, learned helplessness is a vicious cycle in students; those who feel they are unable to succeed are unlikely to put much effort into it, which leads to even less success, leading to even less motivation and effort, and so on (Catapano, n.d.).
This vicious cycle may culminate in virtually no motivation to learn a subject and no competence in that subject; even worse, it could lead to a more generalized sense of helplessness in which the student has no motivation or belief in her ability to learn any subject at school.
The attributions, or reasons, students assign to explain their failure or success is critical in school. If a student believes he failed because the teacher hates him or he’s simply stupid, he is blaming factors that are not within his control and is likely to develop a greater sense of helplessness. If a student believes she failed because she didn’t study hard enough, she is blaming factors that are within her control, which is much less likely to lead to an overall sense of helplessness related to school.
How can learned helplessness in the classroom be avoided? There are a few strategies that can help students keep from learning to be habitually helpless, including:
- Teachers providing praise and encouragement based on the student’s abilities (e.g., “You’re good at math” or “You have a knack for this subject, I can tell”) to help them believe they are good at these tasks or subjects.
- Teachers providing praise and encouragement based on the student’s efforts (e.g., “Your hours of hard work paid off on this test!”) to help them believe their effort will make a difference.
- Working on smart, individual goal setting with students to help them learn that goals can be achieved and outcomes are often within their realm of influence (Catapano, n.d.).
In addition, Edutopia’s Andrew Miller (2015) suggests a few very important strategies for teachers and parents:
- Curate and create learning resources (which include people, books, websites, and community organizations, among other resources) to help students become comfortable with not knowing the answer and with looking for the answer in the right places.
- Use questions “for” learning rather than “about” learning (e.g., use questions that encourage the student to think about their own learning and thought patterns instead of just thinking about what they know).
- Stop giving students the answers; instead, help him or her to learn it at their own pace and through their own methods—they’ll be more likely to remember it this way!
- Allow them to fail; failing and trying again is vital for children, as long as you are there to support them when they fail.
In addition to these strategies, there are some insights about treating or “curing” learned helplessness later on in this piece that can be applied to students.
Learned Helplessness in Relationships and Domestic Violence
Learned helplessness has also been observed often in relationships and victims of domestic violence.
In fact, this phenomenon has helped us find an answer to some of the questions people have for victims who stay with their abusers, such as:
- Why didn’t they tell someone?
- Why didn’t they try to get help?
- Why didn’t they just leave?
It’s hard to explain the impact of abuse on the victim’s behavior. After all, it makes no sense that a victim would seemingly choose to stay with someone who is hurting them when there are many easy ways for them to escape the situation.
However, in cases of domestic violence and abuse, the abuser is often administering a series of “electrical shocks” (i.e., the form of abuse they subject their victim to) to acclimatize the victim to the abuse and teach them that they do not have control over the situation. The abuser maintains complete control of the situation, and the victim learns that they are helpless to do anything about their circumstances.
In such cases, it is easy to see how abuse can lead to learned helplessness, which can subsequently lead to a lack of motivation or effort to escape on the victim’s part. Just as the dogs in Seligman and Maier’s experiments learned early on that no matter what they did, they would be shocked, the victims of domestic violence and abuse learn that no matter what they do, they will always remain powerless and under the abuser’s control.
These perceptions are incredibly hard to shake, often requiring intensive therapy and support to change or eliminate.
Based on learned helplessness, a specific theory was developed for battered spouses/significant others called the theory of cyclic abuse, a cycle which is also known as the Battered Women Syndrome. In this theory, a relationship in which domestic violence has occurred is likely to continue including violence in a predictable and repetitious pattern.
This pattern generally follows this structure:
- Stage One: a period of tension building in which the abuser starts to get angry, communication breaks down, and the victim feels the need to concede and submit to the abuser.
- Stage Two: the acting out period, in which the abuse occurs.
- Stage Three: the honeymoon period, in which the abuser may apologize, show remorse, and/or try to make up for the abuse; the abuser may also promise never to abuse the victim again or, alternatively, blame the victim for provoking the abuse.
- Stage Four: the calm period, in which the abuse stops, the abuser acts like it never happened, and the victim may start to believe the abuse is over and the abuser will change (Rakovec-Felser, 2014)
Viewed from this perspective, it’s not surprising that many victims of domestic violence develop learned helplessness; when the abuse is visited on them in a continuing cycle no matter what they do, they are likely to feel completely helpless to avoid the abuse.
The theory of cyclic abuse posits that not only will abuse victims feel helpless, they will also:
- Re-experience the battering as if it were recurring even when it is not.
- Attempt to avoid the psychological impact of battering by avoiding activities, people, and emotions.
- Experience hyperarousal or hypervigilance.
- Have disrupted interpersonal relationships.
- Experience body image distortion or other somatic concerns.
- Develop sexuality and intimacy issues (Rakovec-Felser, 2014)
Clearly learned helplessness is a serious and urgent concern for victims of domestic violence and other abuse. Luckily, there are some ways to treat learned helplessness (see the section on treatments).
Learned Helplessness: The Book
The book Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control was written by psychologist Christopher Peterson and the original learned helplessness researchers, Steven F. Maier and Martin E. P. Seligman.
It chronicles the studies that prompted the theory of learned helplessness and provides a cogent and comprehensive summary of the research up to that point (1995) on the phenomenon. It outlines the connection between learned helplessness and depression as well as investigating other facets, like the cognitive aspects, biological aspects, and application of the theory to real-world situations.
If you are looking for a deeper dive into this topic, this book will provide you with an informative overview of learned helplessness. You can find it for purchase here.
A Possible Cure—Potential Treatments for Children and Adults
Admittedly, this piece has been quite a downer so far. But cheer up—there are promising treatments to address learned helplessness in humans (and other animals, for that matter).
One potential treatment based on findings from neuroscience is the relationship between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (a part of the frontal lobe that plays a role in the inhibition of emotional responses) and the dorsal raphe nucleus (part of the brainstem associated with serotonin and depression) and learned helplessness (Maier & Seligman, 2016).
This potential treatment may focus on stimulating the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and inhibiting the dorsal raphe nucleus through medication, electrical stimulation, trans-magnetic stimulation, or psychologically through therapy. If the “trans-magnetic stimulation” piece sounded familiar, there’s a good reason for it; recently, researchers have found good evidence for the effectiveness of transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, in the treatment of depression (Mayo Clinic, 2017). Given the link between learned helplessness and depression, it makes sense to think that a treatment for one may be an effective treatment for the other.
Speaking of effective treatments for depression, therapy is also a good choice for many people struggling with learned helplessness. Those who feel helpless can benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional to explore the origins of their helplessness, replace old and harmful beliefs with new and healthy beliefs, and develop a healing sense of compassion for themselves (Thompson, 2010).
Insightful research from psychologist Carol Dweck (the researcher who went on to propose the theory of growth vs. fixed mindset) showed that there is another extremely effective way to alleviate learned helplessness: through failure. In her 1975 study on the subject, participants who experienced extreme reactions to failure were split into two groups: one received intensive training in which they failed tasks and were guided to take responsibility for their failure and attribute it to lack of effort, while the other received intensive training in which they only experienced success. The results showed that those in the success only treatment showed no improvement in their extreme reactions to failure, while the group that failed showed a marked improvement.
This experiment was one of several studies throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s that laid the foundation for a new theory of human behavior related to failure, learned helplessness, and resilience.
Seligman’s Learned Optimism Model
Seligman—the same Seligman who helped discover the learned helplessness phenomenon—later found his attention drawn to what is perhaps the opposite end of the spectrum: optimism.
Although Seligman’s name was synonymous with learned helplessness for many years, he knew he had a lot more to offer the world. His work on the subject led him to wonder what other mindsets and perspectives can be learned and whether we could develop more positive traits in people instead of feelings of helplessness.
Seligman’s research led him to the model of learned optimism. He found that, through resilience training, people can learn to develop a more optimistic perspective. This ability has been observed in children, teachers, members of the military, and more (Seligman, 2011).
It might not be as easy to learn optimism as it is to learn helplessness, but it can be done! If you’re interested in learning more about optimism and how it can be learned, check out Seligman’s book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life at this link. In addition to getting a brief overview of the research on this subject, you will also read about several simple techniques you can apply to develop a more positive and self-compassionate explanatory style.
Relevant Tests, Scales, and Questionnaires
Although many people have included measures of learned helplessness in their studies, it is often an informal measure that is used. However, there are two measures that have been used fairly often and/or recently.
The Learned Helplessness Scale (LHS) was developed by Quinless and Nelson (1988) to capture and calculate a score for learned helplessness. The scale is composed of 20 items rated on a scale from 1 (strongly agree) to 4 (strongly disagree). The minimum score on this measure is 20 and the maximum score is 80, with higher scores indicating a greater degree of learned helplessness.
The Learned Helplessness Questionnaire (LHQ) was created in Sorrenti and colleagues’ 2014 study on learned helplessness and mastery orientation. The LHQ consists of 13 items rated on a scale from 1 (not true) to 5 (absolutely true), for a total possible score between 13 and 65. An example item from this scale is the statement, “When you encounter an obstacle in schoolwork you get discouraged and stop trying. You are easily frustrated.”
If you’re more interested in a scale measuring learned optimism, you can find the Learned Optimism Test, a scale adapted from Seligman’s book, at this link. It includes 48 items with two possible responses; all the survey-taker needs to do is choose which option sounds more like him or her. Once you complete the test, your scores will be automatically populated by clicking the “Calculate” button at the bottom of the screen. Along with the numeric score, you will also see a label or brief explanation of the score (e.g., “moderately pessimistic”, “very optimistic”, “very low self-esteem”). An example item from this scale is worded as follows:
- You and your spouse (boyfriend/girlfriend) have been fighting a great deal.
o I have been feeling cranky and pressured lately.
o He/she has been hostile lately.
If you’d like to use any of these scales for research purposes, please refer to the original scale development article (or book) for more information.
Relevant YouTube Videos
There are a number of great talks on learned helplessness and/or learned optimism for you to peruse.
For example, Martin Seligman’s TED Talk on the “New Era of Positive Psychology” has become a classic, and for good reason. You can watch it here:
There’s also a great video on YouTube from psychologist Lance Luria on the differences between learned helplessness and learned optimism. You’ll learn about the amazing ability of the human brain to train itself, as well as the benefits of meditation, mindfulness, and other ways to link the health of the mind and body.
For an engaging and entertaining look at Seligman’s book Learned Optimism, check out the video below. It’s an animated review of the book that hits all the salient points in under 5 minutes.
Most Interesting Research
Although learned helplessness is about five decades from the initial work establishing the concept, there is still interesting new research coming out on the subject.
For instance, last year researchers discovered that, although learned helplessness has been observed in honey bees, they don’t display the “freezing” behavior that other species do (Dinges, Varnon, Cota, Slykerman, & Abramson, 2017).
In 2016, researchers in Brazil found some evidence that even zebrafish experience learned helplessness (do Nascimento, Walsh-Monteiro, & Gouveia)!
Not even the simple tree shrew is safe from the effects of learned helplessness; research from 2016 confirmed the presence of such behavior in tree shrews who received uncontrollable shocks to the foot (Meng, Shen, Li, Li, & Wang, 2016).
In terms of more broadly applicable research on learned helplessness, many recent experiments are probing the link between learned helplessness and the brain.
An oft-cited study from researchers Kim and colleagues (2016) showed that brain activity in mice displaying non-helpless behavior was generally much higher than that of the helpless mice; however, this pattern was reversed in the part of the brain known as the locus coeruleus, which is involved in physiological responses to stress and panic. This finding is interesting, as it suggests that individuals experiencing learned helplessness are directing their energy toward responding to their own distress, while more resilient individuals keep their energy more normally distributed.
Research on the cellular basis of learned helplessness-related depression has shown that increased activity of the lateral habenula neurons (an area of the brain involved in communications between the forebrain and midbrain structures) in rats is associated with increased learned helplessness behavior (Li, Piriz, Mirrione, Chung, Proulx, Schulz, Henn, & Malinow, 2011). The implications of connecting learned helplessness to activity in specific parts of the brain are potentially huge; these findings could contribute to new and more effective methods for treating and preventing depression.
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