What Is Learned Helplessness and Why Does it Happen?

Woman experiencing learned helplessness
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When bad things happen, we like to believe that we would do whatever necessary to change the situation. Research on what is known as learned helplessness has shown that when people feel like they have no control over what happens, they tend to simply give up and accept their fate.

What Is Learned Helplessness?

Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape.

Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness will prevent any action.

While the concept is strongly tied to animal psychology and behavior, it can also apply to many situations involving human beings.

When people feel that they have no control over their situation, they may also begin to behave in a helpless manner. This inaction can lead people to overlook opportunities for relief or change.

The Discovery of Learned Helplessness

The concept of learned helplessness was discovered accidentally by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier. They had initially observed helpless behavior in dogs that were classically conditioned to expect an electrical shock after hearing a tone.

Later, the dogs were placed in a shuttlebox that contained two chambers separated by a low barrier.

The floor was electrified on one side, and not on the other. The dogs previously subjected to the classical conditioning made no attempts to escape, even though avoiding the shock simply involved jumping over a small barrier.

To investigate this phenomenon, the researchers then devised another experiment.

  • In group one, the dogs were strapped into harnesses for a period of time and then released.
  • The dogs in the second group were placed in the same harnesses but were subjected to electrical shocks that could be avoided by pressing a panel with their noses.
  • The third group received the same shocks as those in group two, except that those in this group were not able to control the shock. For those dogs in the third group, the shocks seemed to be completely random and outside of their control.

The dogs were then placed in a shuttlebox. Dogs from the first and second group quickly learned that jumping the barrier eliminated the shock. Those from the third group, however, made no attempts to get away from the shocks. Due to their previous experience, they had developed a cognitive expectation that nothing they did would prevent or eliminate the shocks.

Learned Helplessness in People

The impact of learned helplessness has been demonstrated in different animal species, but its effects can also be seen in people.

Consider one often-used example: A child who performs poorly on math tests and assignments will quickly begin to feel that nothing he does will have any effect on his math performance. When later faced with any type of math-related task, he may experience a sense of helplessness.

Learned helplessness has also been associated with several different psychological disorders. Depression, anxiety, phobias, shyness, and loneliness can all be exacerbated by learned helplessness.

For example, a woman who feels shy in social situations may eventually begin to feel that there is nothing she can do to overcome her symptoms. This sense that her symptoms are out of her direct control may lead her to stop trying to engage herself in social situations, thus making her shyness even more pronounced.

Researchers have found, however, that learned helplessness does not always generalize across all settings and situations.

A student who experiences learned helpless with regards to math class will not necessarily experience that same helplessness when faced with performing calculations in the real-world. In other cases, people may experience learned helplessness that generalizes across a wide variety of situations.

So what explains why some people develop learned helplessness and others do not? Why is it specific to some situations but more global in others?

Many researchers believe that attribution or explanatory styles play a role in determining how people are impacted by learned helplessness. This view suggests that an individual's characteristic style of explaining events helps determine whether or not they will develop learned helplessness. A pessimistic explanatory style is associated with a greater likelihood of experiencing learned helplessness. People with this explanatory style tend to view negative as being inescapable and unavoidable and tend to take personal responsibility for such negative events.

So what can people do to overcome learned helplessness? Cognitive-behavioral therapy is form of psychotherapy that can be beneficial in overcoming the thinking and behavioral patterns that contribute to learned helplessness.

A Word From Verywell

Learned helplessness can have a profound impact on mental health and well-being. People who experience learned helplessness are also likely to experience symptoms of depression, elevated stress levels, and less motivation to take care of their physical health.

If you feel that learned helplessness might be having a negative impact on your life and health, consider talking to your doctor about steps you can take to address this type of thinking.

Sources

Chang, EC, Sanna, LJ. Affectivity and psychological adjustment across tow adult generations: Does pessimistic explanatory style still matter?. Personality and Individual Differences. 2007;43:1149–59.

Christensen, AJ, Martin, R, & Smyth, JM. Encyclopedia of Health Psychology. New York: Springer Science & Business Media; 2014.

Hockenbury, DE & Hockenbury, SE. Discovering Psychology. New York: Macmillan; 2011.

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