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Learned Helplessness

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                Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon that was discovered by Seligman and others during their experiments with animals. They observed that it is possible for both animals as well as humans to develop helplessness if subjected to seemingly inescapable and negative circumstances. This helplessness would persist even when the circumstances change and the animal or human were able to liberate themselves. This theory has found wide application in psychology. This paper delves into the theory and examines its origin, and its applications.


    Learned helplessness is a psychological, behavioral and cognitive deficit theory that seeks to explain a condition in which humans or animals have preconditioned their minds to believe that they are helpless in specific instances and situations.  The theory was first advanced by Martin P. Seligman.  In his endeavor to discover the relationship between fear and learning, Seligman and his colleagues stumbled on this phenomenon during one of their experiments with animals.  This theory has since been used to explain behavior especially in relation to depression, addiction, low esteem as well as abusive relationships.

    In some of their experiments with dogs Martin E.P. Seligman and other scientists stumbled upon a “strange” phenomenon. They were experimenting with dogs in tests akin to those carried by Pavlov this time they sought to understand if fear had anything to do with learning.  They restrained a dog in a hammock and subjected it to harmless electric shocks after a specific sound.  They sought to discover whether the dog could be conditioned to display signs of fear after the sound. They then put the same dog in a situation where it could escape from the pain with the expectation that it would to so after the sound – a reaction caused by fear.  To their amazement the dog did not take the opportunity and instead stayed there to experience the shocks.  This prompted them do the latter experiment with a dog that had not experienced the inescapable pain from the shocks.  This dog fled immediately after the shock.  The conclusion was that the dog that had been restrained in the hammock had learned that trying to escape from the pains was an effort in futility.  The dog had learned to be helpless.

    The theory of learned helplessness has since been applied in human circumstances to explain behavior.  When a person feels helpless in particular situations or when one feels like they have no control over their circumstances or environment they are likely to be depressed.  The sinking feeling of pessimisms results from perceived lack of control over one’s environment.  After several unpleasant experiences, depressed people had learned that they were helpless in the face of a particular event, had no control and there was nothing they could do to change the situation.

                According to Seligman, learned helplessness is responsible for some way of thinking about different situations that individuals develop.  These ways of thinking are what he referred to as the “explanatory style’ (Peterson, C., et al 1993).  Seligman explained that the major components of explanatory style namely personalization, permanence and pervasiveness determine a person’s reaction or response to different events and circumstances.  As the term suggests, personalization refers to the tendency to attribute negative events to individual’s own shortcomings.  These people blame themselves for all things.  This self-blame is different from situations where one takes responsibility for mistakes.  Permanence on the other hand refers to the tendency to perceive negative circumstances as permanent and irreversible.  The last component of explanatory style associated with learned helplessness is pervasiveness.  Here the tendency is to generalize in all circumstances.  An example of pervasiveness is where somebody might think something like “I am stupid” because “I failed in Arithmetic”.

                With learned helplessness the problem is always the inaccurate interpretation of current negative circumstances.  Like the dog in the original experiment human beings also generalize their learned helplessness and apply it to a new situation (Milkulincer, M. 1994).  Studies have time and again revealed that humans can, and do learn to be helpless in situations that in real sense offer them control (Petersen, C., Maier, S.F., Seligman, M.E.P. 1995).  The concept of learned helplessness has thus been invaluable in explaining behavior especially when people in certain unpleasant circumstances accept their ‘fate’ and remain in that position in spite of their ability to change it.

                According to Stipek 1988, controlling one’s environment is a basic human drive (Stipek, D. E. P. 1988).  Lack of this control or the inability to feel in control impairs learning in similar situations.  Learned helplessness derives from the feeling of lack of control.  In the period of child development, the feeling of lack of control can and does adversely affect learning in children.  Teachers, parents are the main reference points for children.  What they say about any particular child impacts heavily on that children’s mind.  If parents or teachers say something that might imply that a child’s failure is as a result of lack of competence rather than the fact that they did not give them best effort, then this might lead the child to believe that they are not able to reverse the situation thus improving their performance.  This will therefore affect their learning even when the situation is different.

                According to Milkulincer, M. (1994), learned helplessness results from a long training of being locked up in a system.  The said system may be in form of family, culture community, tradition, profession, institution and so forth.  Systems exist to serve different purposes.  However as time goes, systems evolve and gain a life of their own while the original purpose is relegated to the back seat.  The beliefs, taboos and mindsets change to ensure that the system is sustained.  Any independent thought is judged in view of the particular system.  For instance, an individual may say, “wait! That is not true” and the power of the family system may suggest. “you can’t argue with your father! Be quiet.”  The family system therefore becomes a conditioning mechanism and when the message is internalized, it may manifest itself later when the person so reprimanded is faced with a different situation that calls for them to speak but they fail to do so in order to avoid “arguing”.

    Example of Learned Helplessness

                Learned helplessness has found wide application in the study of depression and stress (Donovan, W., et al 1990).  However it has proved invaluable in understanding the onset and sustenance of drug-seeking tendencies as well as malfunctioning families and more specifically abusive relationships in the family settings and in general.

    Depression and Stress:

    Depression is a psychological disorder characterized by persistent low mood and diminished interest in one’s normal activities.  A depressed person is unable to experience joy or pleasure.  Studies have shown a strong correlation between depression and helplessness.  According to Seligman et al, different individuals have different ‘explanatory styles’ include personalization, pervasiveness and permanence.  These individuals are said to have pessimistic attribution style.  They interpret negative happenings as either caused by personal flaw, view them as permanent or generalize them across many different situations.  These individuals are likely to develop a feeling of helplessness in the face of a negative event and are therefore likely to be depressed.

                Damaged families, unemployment broken relationships are some of the events that can seem to exacerbate an individual’s sense of helplessness (Seligman, Martin., 1975).  However, Seligman opines that it is possible to change one’s explanatory style in order to check learned helplessness (Seligman, Martin., 1975).  The 3-ties system of doing this constitutes identifying the negative and inaccurate interpretations, soberly evaluating their accuracy and finally formulating more positive and realistic interpretations.  This is what Seligman called learned optimism.

    Drug dependency:

                Research has shown that the concept of learned helplessness is at the heart of the reason why people start and/or sustain their drug dependency.  Low personal control together with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness are the main contributing factors to the onset of teenage drug use (Thornton, C., et al 2003). Significant percentage of people begin to use drugs so as to numb distressing feelings or to lift up their moods.  The chemical manipulation of ones moods is unfortunately harmful in the long run as one starts depending on the drugs more and more as mood fluctuations increase.  The problem is exposed when one tries to quit. Learned helplessness sets in and presents a myriad of examples and cases of people who tried to quit to no avail.  The individual is then threatened to be overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness even before they begin to make an attempt to liberate themselves. They feel that there is no use trying since their effort will be in futility.  This view might persist despite changed circumstances.  This addict continues to live in bondage and their despair is fuelled by this seemingly inability to change.  The only remedy is to plunge more and more into drugs as the “low moments” increase (Thornton, C., et al 2003).

                Can these people overcome their addiction?  Of-course they can!  A trained counselor will help them reevaluate the situation as they make small steps towards getting rid of this habit.  Encouragement and commitment to quitting will go a long way in enabling them to rid themselves of the habit.

    Abusive relationship

                This is another classic example of learned helplessness.  In most instances where people stay in abusive relationships either as the abusers or the victim, there are underlying emotional deficit such as anger, fear, unfulfilled need and/or earlier experience in abusive environment.  Research has shown that a significant percentage of people who have once lived in abusive relationships are likely to accept later abusive relationships.  In fact the abuser will seem to attract only persons with unstable emotional makeup because this would make the feel in control.  In many abusive relationships, learned helplessness can be used as a coping mechanism.  The victim may learn to remain passive at the hands of the abuser if prolonged abuse has taught them that any effort to escape this circumstance is an effort in futility. When the victim receives a real chance to either escape or seek realness on the situation, they may decline to do so and continue to live in this relationship due to learned helplessness.

                Learned helplessness however can be helpful to school administrators and even prison officers. Students may be free to leave school compounds without being observed but they soon understand the consequence of being caught and so they stay in the compound or in the appropriate place. In the same way prisoners may be engaged in an activity that would allow them to escape.  However past experiences will have taught them that such an attempt would only spell danger and therefore they will not give in to the temptation.  This helps the people in charge of these institutions to control such large groups will ease.

    Effects of learned helplessness

                Learned helplessness can have detrimental effects on the psychological and cognitive development of children as well as adults.  Some form of criticism that suggests lack of competence rather than insufficient effort can hurt a person’s ability to learn in similar situations.

                Secondly learned helplessness is closely associated with feelings of inadequacy and low self esteem.  This in turn creates several social problems such as alcohol dependence and bullying.  The tendency to easily give up can also be a manifestation of this phenomenon.  Challenging situation arise regularly in life and require one to stand up to the challenges and conquer them after which one becomes stronger and more prepared to face other challenges in the future.  However a person who has learned to be helpless is deprived of their ability to face challenges and overcome them.  They therefore squander their chance for personal growth.  Their desire to try something new is not there.

                Lastly these people lack the confidence to solve their problems. It has been said that mastery of one’s environment is the foundation of tomorrow’s emotional stability. Lack of mastery causes anxiety which in turn robs an individual the confidence required to deal with problems.


                The concept of learned helplessness has been invaluable in the understanding of behavior. It has found wide usage in the area of Psychology. Like the animals in the original tests back in the 1960s, human beings can also learn to be helpless in certain circumstances. The helplessness may persist even when the circumstances are different and the individual is presented with an opportunity to escape their unpleasant circumstances. Learned helplessness is a condition that has to be checked from an early age. Despite that no age is immune to this phenomenon; children must be protected from developing learned helplessness because they are still at a period of intense growth and development. Learned helplessness can therefore be especially detrimental to their emotional development with catastrophic effects. Bad experiences may make people to become passive and therefore fail to take action when doing so is the right thing to do. It is therefore imperative that people recognize when they are likely to interpret their circumstances pessimistically in order to take corrective action. Experiences from the past should not be used as the yardstick to determine future outcomes. It is accurate to say that each individual have the ability to change their situation. Perception is the key.


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