Learned helplessness
Learned helplessness, as a technical term in animal psychology and related human psychology, means a condition of a human person or an animal in which it has learned to behave helplessly, even when the opportunity is restored for it to help itself by avoiding an unpleasant or harmful circumstance to which it has been subjected. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression
Clinical depression
Major depressive disorder is a mental disorder characterized by an all-encompassing low mood accompanied by low self-esteem, and by loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyable activities...

 and related mental illness
Mental illness
A mental disorder or mental illness is a psychological or behavioral pattern generally associated with subjective distress or disability that occurs in an individual, and which is not a part of normal development or culture. Such a disorder may consist of a combination of affective, behavioural,...

es may result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.

Seligman and Maier

The American psychologist Martin Seligman
Martin Seligman
Martin E. P. "Marty" Seligman is an American psychologist, educator, and author of self-help books. His theory of "learned helplessness" is widely respected among scientific psychologists....

's foundational experiments and theory of learned helplessness began at University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania
The University of Pennsylvania is a private, Ivy League university located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. Penn is the fourth-oldest institution of higher education in the United States,Penn is the fourth-oldest using the founding dates claimed by each institution...

 in 1967, as an extension of his interest in depression. Quite by accident, Seligman and colleagues discovered that the conditioning
Classical conditioning
Classical conditioning is a form of conditioning that was first demonstrated by Ivan Pavlov...

 of dogs led to outcomes that opposed the predictions of B.F. Skinner's behaviorism
Behaviorism , also called the learning perspective , is a philosophy of psychology based on the proposition that all things that organisms do—including acting, thinking, and feeling—can and should be regarded as behaviors, and that psychological disorders are best treated by altering behavior...

, then a leading psychological theory.

Experiment - Summary

In the learned helplessness experiment an animal is repeatedly hurt by an adverse stimulus which it cannot escape.

Eventually the animal will stop trying to avoid the pain and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation.

Finally, when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness prevents any action.
The only coping mechanism the animal uses is to be stoical and put up with the discomfort, not expending energy getting worked up about the adverse stimulus.

Experiment - Detail

In Part 1 of Seligman and Steve Maier's experiment, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses. Group 1 dogs were simply put in the harnesses for a period of time and later released. Groups 2 and 3 consisted of "yoked pairs." A dog in Group 2 would be intentionally subjected to pain by being given electric shocks, which the dog could end by pressing a lever. A Group 3 dog was wired in parallel with a Group 2 dog, receiving shocks of identical intensity and duration, but his lever didn't stop the electric shocks. To a dog in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was his paired dog in Group 2 that was causing it to stop. For Group 3 dogs, the shock was apparently "inescapable." Group 1 and Group 2 dogs quickly recovered from the experience, but Group 3 dogs learned to be helpless, and exhibited symptoms similar to chronic clinical depression
Clinical depression
Major depressive disorder is a mental disorder characterized by an all-encompassing low mood accompanied by low self-esteem, and by loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyable activities...


In Part 2 of the Seligman and Maier experiment, these three groups of dogs were tested in a shuttle-box apparatus, in which the dogs could escape electric shocks by jumping over a low partition. For the most part, the Group 3 dogs, who had previously learned that nothing they did had any effect on the shocks, simply lay down passively and whined. Even though they could have easily escaped the shocks, the dogs didn't try.

In a second experiment later that year, Overmier and Seligman ruled out the possibility that the Group 3 dogs learned some behavior in Part 1 of the experiment, while they were struggling in the harnesses against the "inescapable shocks," that somehow interfered with what would have been their normal, successful behavior of escaping from the shocks in Part 2. The Group 3 dogs were immobilized with a paralyzing drug (Curare
Curare is a common name for various arrow poisons originating from South America. The three main types of curare are:* tubocurare...

), and underwent a procedure similar to that in Part 1 of the Seligman and Maier experiment. A similar Part 2 in the shuttle-box was also undertaken in this experiment, and the Group 3 dogs exhibited the same "helpless" response.

However, not all of the dogs in Seligman's experiments became helpless. Of the roughly 150 dogs in experiments in the latter half of the 1960s, about one-third did not become helpless, but instead managed to find a way out of the unpleasant situation despite their past experience with it. The corresponding characteristic in humans has been found to correlate highly with optimism
The Oxford English Dictionary defines optimism as having "hopefulness and confidence about the future or successful outcome of something; a tendency to take a favourable or hopeful view." The word is originally derived from the Latin optimum, meaning "best." Being optimistic, in the typical sense...

: an explanatory style
Explanatory style
Explanatory style is a psychological attribute that indicates how people explain to themselves why they experience a particular event, either positive or negative. Psychologists have identified three components in explanatory style:...

 that views the situation as other than personal, pervasive, or permanent. This distinction between people who adapt and those who break down under long-term psychological pressure was also studied in the 1950s in the context of brainwashing.

Later experiments

Other experiments were performed with different animals with similar results. In all cases, the strongest predictor of a depressive response was lack of control over the aversive stimulus. One such later experiment, presented by Watson & Ramey (1969), consisted of two groups of human babies. One group was placed into a crib with a sensory pillow, designed so that the movement of the baby's head could control the rotation of a mobile. The other group had no control over the movement of the mobile and could only enjoy looking at it. Later, both groups of babies were tested in cribs that allowed the babies to control the mobile. Although all the babies now had the power to control the mobile, only the group that had already learned about the sensory pillow attempted to use it.

A similar experiment was done with people who performed mental tasks in the presence of distracting noise. People who could use a switch to turn off the noise had improved performance, even though they rarely bothered to do so. Simply being aware of this option was enough to substantially counteract its distracting effect.

The attributional reformulation

Later research discovered that the original theory of learned helplessness failed to account for people's varying reactions to situations that can cause learned helplessness. Learned helplessness sometimes remains specific to one situation, but at other times generalizes across situations.

An individual's attributional style or explanatory style
Explanatory style
Explanatory style is a psychological attribute that indicates how people explain to themselves why they experience a particular event, either positive or negative. Psychologists have identified three components in explanatory style:...

 was the key to understanding why people responded differently to adverse events. Although a group of people may experience the same or similar negative events, how each person privately interprets or explains the event will affect the likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness and subsequent depression.

People with pessimistic explanatory style—which sees negative events as permanent ("it will never change"), personal ("it's my fault"), and pervasive ("I can't do anything correctly")—are most likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression. Cognitive behavioral therapy, heavily endorsed by Seligman, can often help people to learn more realistic explanatory styles, and can help ease depression.

Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner is a cognitive psychologist who is known for developing a form of attribution theory that explains the emotional and motivational entailments of academic success and failure. Bernard Weiner got interested in the field of attribution after first studying achievement motivation...

's attribution theory (1979, 1985, 1986) concerns the way that people attribute a cause or explanation to an unpleasant event. Attribution theory includes the dimensions of globality/specificity, stability/instability, and internality/externality. A global attribution occurs when the individual believes that the cause of negative events is consistent across different contexts. A specific attribution occurs when the individual believes that the cause of a negative event is unique to a particular situation. A stable attribution occurs when the individual believes the cause to be consistent across time. Unstable attribution occurs when the individual thinks that the cause is specific to one point in time. An external attribution assigns causality to situational or external factors, while an internal attribution assigns causality to factors within the person.

Differences between humans and other animals

There are several aspects of human helplessness that have no counterpart among other animals. One of the most intriguing aspects is "vicarious learning (or modelling)": that people can learn to be helpless through observing another person encountering uncontrollable events. However, studies with animals have shown that many species can learn through observation. Thus, this difference may not exist between humans and nonhumans.

Apart from the shared depression symptoms between human and other animals such as passivity, introjected hostility, weight loss, appetite loss, social and sexual deficits, some of the diagnostic symptoms of learned helplessness—including depressed mood, feelings of worthlessness, and suicidal ideation
Suicidal ideation
Suicidal ideation is a common medical term for thoughts about suicide, which may be as detailed as a formulated plan, without the suicidal act itself. Although most people who undergo suicidal ideation do not commit suicide, some go on to make suicide attempts...

—can be found and observed in human beings but not necessarily in animals.

Health implications

Whatever their origins, people who suffer uncontrollable events reliably see disruption of emotions, aggressions, physiology, and problem-solving tasks. These helpless experiences can associate with passivity, uncontrollability and poor cognition in people, ultimately threatening their physical and mental well-being.

Physical health

Learned helplessness can contribute to poor health when people neglect diet, exercise, and medical treatment, falsely believing they have no power to change. The more people perceive events as uncontrollable and unpredictable, the more stress they experience, and the less hope they feel about making changes in their lives.

Young adults and middle-aged parents with a pessimistic explanatory style are often more likely to suffer from depression. People with a pessimistic explanatory style tend to be poor at problem-solving and cognitive restructuring
Cognitive restructuring
Cognitive restructuring, sometimes used synonymously with Debating, is the process of learning to identify irrational or maladaptive thoughts and challenge their veracity using strategies such as logical disputation....

, and also tend to demonstrate poor job satisfaction and interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Those with a pessimistic explanatory style also tend to have weakened immune systems, and not only have increased vulnerability to minor ailments (e.g., cold, fever) and major illness (e.g., heart attack, cancers), but also have a less effective recovery from health problems.

Psychological health

Learned helplessness can also be a motivation
Motivation is the driving force by which humans achieve their goals. Motivation is said to be intrinsic or extrinsic. The term is generally used for humans but it can also be used to describe the causes for animal behavior as well. This article refers to human motivation...

al problem. Individuals who have failed at tasks in the past conclude erroneously that they are incapable of improving their performance. This might set children behind in academic subjects and dampen their social skills.

Children with learned helplessness typically fail academic subjects, and are less intrinsically motivated than others. They may use learned helplessness as an excuse or a shield to provide self-justification for school failure. Additionally, describing someone as having learned to be helpless can serve as a reason to avoid blaming him or her for the inconveniences experienced. In turn, the student will give up trying to gain respect or advancement through academic performance.

Studies have shown that people will be more motivated to act if there is a possibility of a reward.

Social impact

Child abuse
Child abuse
Child abuse is the physical, sexual, emotional mistreatment, or neglect of a child. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Children And Families define child maltreatment as any act or series of acts of commission or omission by a parent or...

 by neglect can be a manifestation of learned helplessness: when parents believe they are incapable of stopping an infant's crying, they may simply give up trying to do anything for the child.

Another example of learned helplessness in social settings involves loneliness and shyness. Those who are extremely shy, passive, anxious and depressed may learn helplessness to offer stable explanations for unpleasant social experiences. However, Gotlib and Beatty (1985) found that people who cite helplessness in social settings may be viewed poorly by others, resulting in a situation that reinforces the problematic thinking. A third example is aging, with the elderly learning to be helpless and concluding that they have no control over losing their friends and family members, losing their jobs and incomes, getting old, weak and so on.

Social problems resulting from learned helplessness seem unavoidable; however, the effect goes away with the passage of time. Nonetheless, learned helplessness can be minimized by "immunization" and potentially reversed by therapy. People can be immunized against the perception that events are uncontrollable by increasing their awareness of previous positive experiences. Therapy can instruct people in the fact of contingency and bolster people's self esteem.


Cognitive scientist and usability engineer Donald Norman
Donald Norman
Donald Arthur Norman is an academic in the field of cognitive science, design and usability engineering and a co-founder and consultant with the Nielsen Norman Group. He is the author of the book The Design of Everyday Things....

 used learned helplessness to explain why people blame themselves when they have a difficult time using simple objects in their environment.

The American sociologist Harrison White
Harrison White
Harrison Colyar White is the emeritus Giddings Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. White is an influential scholar in the domain of social networks. He is credited with the development of a number of mathematical models of social structure including vacancy chains and blockmodels...

 has suggested in his book Identity and Control that the notion of learned helplessness can be extended beyond psychology into the realm of social action. When a culture or political identity fails to achieve desired goals, perceptions of collective ability suffer.

According to author Jane Mayer
Jane Mayer
Jane Mayer is an American investigative journalist who has been a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine since 1995...

, Seligman gave a talk at the Navy SERE school in San Diego in 2002, which he said was a three-hour talk on helping U.S. soldiers to resist torture
Torture is the act of inflicting severe pain as a means of punishment, revenge, forcing information or a confession, or simply as an act of cruelty. Throughout history, torture has often been used as a method of political re-education, interrogation, punishment, and coercion...

, based on his understanding of learned helplessness.

See also

  • Explanatory style
    Explanatory style
    Explanatory style is a psychological attribute that indicates how people explain to themselves why they experience a particular event, either positive or negative. Psychologists have identified three components in explanatory style:...

  • Fundamental attribution error
    Fundamental attribution error
    In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error describes the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors...

  • Locus of control
    Locus of control
    Locus of control is a theory in personality psychology referring to the extent to which individuals believe that they can control events that affect them. Understanding of the concept was developed by Julian B...

  • Pervasive refusal syndrome
    Pervasive refusal syndrome
    Pervasive refusal syndrome is a rare but serious child psychiatric disorder that was first described by Bryan Lask and colleagues in 1991. As of 2011, it is not included in the standard psychiatric classification systems....

  • Somebody Else's Problem
    Somebody Else's Problem
    Somebody Else's Problem is an effect that causes people to ignore matters that are generally important to a group but may not seem specifically important to the individual. Author Douglas Adams' description of the effect, which he playfully ascribed to a physical "SEP field," has helped to make it...

  • Learned optimism
    Learned optimism
    Learned optimism is the idea in positive psychology that a talent for joy, like any other, can be cultivated. It is contrasted with learned helplessness. Learning optimism is done by consciously challenging any negative self talk.- Overview :...

  • Learned industriousness
    Learned industriousness
    Learned industriousness is a behaviorally rooted theory developed by Robert Eisenberger to explain the differences in general work effort among people of equivalent ability. According to Eisenberger, individuals who are reinforced for exerting high effort on a task are also secondarily reinforced...

External links

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