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.Diamond Pink Stitch Accented Mountbatten Women's Bag and Arrow Shoulder vqwvUpaE
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!
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.
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:
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 Brown Cognac Chloé Leather Satchel Padington 137480 learned helplessness: even when presented with a potential option to avoid pain, they do not attempt to take it.
Leather Cognac Padington Satchel Brown 137480 Chloé 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.
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.
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-esteem since 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.
Chloé Padington Brown Satchel 137480 Cognac Leather 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 symptomsBag Clasp Accented Metal Vintage Gray PWAOqUT 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 Shoulder Bag Gray and Check Women's Embroidered Rose wFRgWIKxBq 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):
These strategies will be covered in more detail later.
Learned helplessness is, unsurprisingly, associated with many negative symptoms, traits, and tendencies, including:
Not only is learned helplessness often associated with other negative conditions, it also seems to cause or contribute to many negative outcomes, including:
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.
Chloé 137480 Satchel Cognac Leather Padington Brown 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:
In addition, Edutopia’s Andrew Miller (2015) suggests a few very important strategies for teachers and parents:
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 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:
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:
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:
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).
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.
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 DSQUARED2 Camel Camel Handbag DSQUARED2 DSQUARED2 DSQUARED2 Handbag Camel Handbag qxYOT8Z for themselves (Thompson, 2010).
Insightful research from psychologist Carol Dweck (the researcher who went on to propose the theory of Leather Chloé Padington 137480 Satchel Cognac Brown 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 Tote Leather Furla Lavender Furla Lavender Greta Greta 4gwYpq.
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.
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:
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.
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, small Fiorelli purse addison Wine dropdown ErnTwarCxq, 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.
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.
This is the kind of exciting research that is happening right now—research that could have huge impacts on treating disorders and healing those who have suffered. Even now, with 50 years between the establishment of learned helplessness as a psychological concept and today, there is still a wealth of interest and work on the topic. Keep an eye out for the fascinating findings that continue to result from this line of research!
In this piece, we covered a lot of information—we defined learned helplessness, went over the experiments that laid the foundation for the theory, discussed the known associations and outcomes of learned helplessness, and dove into potential treatments for this harmful condition, including strategies to build learned optimism instead of helplessness.
I hope you found this piece useful and informative. If it sparked a curiosity about the subject that this post simply can’t sate, I encourage you to check out the sources referenced here in greater detail.
What are your thoughts on learned helplessness? Do you recognize some symptoms in yourself or in your clients? How do you usually address it? Let us know in the comments!
Thanks for reading!
Kindly share learned helplessness questionnaire and learned helplessness scale.
This learned helplessness is what happened slowly while in a cult for 40 years. You have solutions! Thank you for a great artical. My therepy is rewiring my mind with my 5 best charteristics. It’s amazing how much clearer I can see my past and the upset and regrets are going away. Thank you for this timed perfectly for me.
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Am amazed by this contribution to knowledge. I was really looking for some good information about learned helplessness and here i got it. It is so informative. I really feel helped.
Thanks for all who contributed to this piece of information.
God bless you.
Learned helplessness is common in Maths classes. Students are typically asked to do say 10 questions on a topic. They are told not to look at the answers until the end. When they get many of the questions wrong because they don’t know how to answer them, they give up trying. They don’t ask for help. The result is an often said statement. “I hate Maths”.
As a teacher, I would ask the students to do the questions, one at a time and then look up the answer. If they were wrong, they had three choices. First, try to work out what they did wrong, and why. Then ask their peers. Then ask the teacher. If they got one answer correct, they had learned something. I also asked them acknowledge and act out their excitement about their success. The classroom would be noisy with kids talking to each other, and punctuating the air with yells.
Thanx for the great article, my brother is suffering from depression from a very long time, he took medicines from several doctors but don’t get relief, after reading this I advised him about the main reason for depression and its cure , can you please tell me more about some any paid program to join for relief of depression.
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