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Learned helplessness


Learned helplessness

Learned helplessness is behavior typical of an organism (human or animal) that has endured repeated painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it was unable to escape or avoid. After such experience, the organism often fails to learn escape or avoidance in new situations where such behavior would be effective. In other words, the organism seems to have learned that it is helpless in aversive situations, that it has lost control, and so it gives up trying. Such an organism is said to have acquired learned helplessness.[1] [2] Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from such real or perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.[3]


  • Foundation of research and theory 1
    • Early key experiments 1.1
    • Later experiments 1.2
  • Attributional reformulation 2
  • Neurobiological perspective 3
  • Health implications 4
    • Physical health 4.1
    • Depression 4.2
    • Motivation 4.3
    • Social impact 4.4
  • Extensions 5
  • Emergence in interrogation 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Foundation of research and theory

Early key experiments

American psychologist Martin Seligman initiated research on learned helplessness in 1967 at the University of Pennsylvania as an extension of his interest in depression.(4)(5) This research was later expanded in experiments by Seligman and others. One of the first was an experiment by Seligman & Maier. In Part 1 of this study, 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." Dogs in Group 2 were given electric shocks at random times, which the dog could end by pressing a lever. Each dog in Group 3 was paired with a Group 2 dog; whenever a Group 2 dog got a shock, its paired dog in Group 3 got a shock of the same intensity and duration, but its lever did not stop the shock. 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. Thus, for Group 3 dogs, the shock was "inescapable."

In Part 2 of the experiment the same three groups of dogs were tested in a shuttle-box apparatus. All the dogs could escape shocks on one side of the box by jumping over a low partition to the other side. The dogs in Groups 1 and 2 quickly learned this task and escaped the shock. Most of the Group 3 dogs, which had previously learned that nothing they did had any effect on shocks, simply lay down passively and whined when they were shocked. This is a dramatic example of the retardation of learning that typifies learned helplessness, as defined above. [4]

In a second experiment later that year with new groups of dogs, Overmier and Seligman ruled out the possibility that, instead of learned helplessness, the Group 3 dogs failed to avoid in the Part 2 test because they had learned some behavior that interfered with escape. To prevent such interfering behavior, Group 3 dogs were immobilized with a paralyzing drug (Curare), and underwent a procedure similar to that in Part 1 of the Seligman and Maier experiment. When tested as before in Part 2, these Group 3 dogs exhibited helplessness as before. This result seems to rule out the interference hypothesis.

In these experiments there seemed to be only one cure for helplessness. By Seligman's hypothesis, the dogs do not try to escape because they expect that nothing they do will stop the shock. To change this expectation, experimenters physically picked up the dogs and moved their legs, replicating the actions the dogs needed to take to escape from the electrified grid. This had to be done at least 2 times before the dogs would start jumping over the barrier on their own. In contrast, threats, rewards, and observed demonstrations had no effect on the "helpless" Group 3 dogs.[4][5]

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. It was also shown that lack of control over positive stimulation, as well as aversive stimulation, may have similar effects. For example, an experiment by Watson & Ramey (1969), used 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.[6]

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 rarely bothered to do so, yet they had improved performance. Simply being aware of this option was enough to substantially counteract its distracting effect.[7] In 2011, an animal study[8] found that animals with control over stress exhibited changes in the excitability of specific neurons within the prefrontal cortex, and modeled this phenomenon in a conductance-based neural simulation. Animals that lacked control failed to exhibit an increase in excitability and showed signs consistent with learned helplessness and social anxiety.

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.[9] Learned helplessness sometimes remains specific to one situation,[10] but at other times generalizes across situations.[7]

An individual's attributional style or explanatory style is the key to understanding why people respond differently to adverse events.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13] Cognitive behavioral therapy, heavily endorsed by Seligman, can often help people to learn more realistic explanatory styles, and can help ease depression.

Bernard Weiner'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.[14] 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.[12]

Neurobiological perspective

Research has shown that increased 5-HT (serotonin) activity in the dorsal raphe nucleus plays a critical role in learned helplessness (commonly referred to as conditioned defeat). Other key brain regions that are involved with the expression of helpless behavior include the basolateral amygdala, central nucleus of the amygdala and bed nucleus of the stria terminalis.[15]

Additional sources have concluded that activity in medial prefrontal cortex, dorsal hippocampus, septum and hypothalamus were observed during states of helplessness.

In the article, "Exercise, Learned Helplessness, and the Stress-Resistant Brain", Benjamin N. Greenwood and Monika Fleshner mention how exercise and neurobiology relate in the facet that it can prevent anxiety-related disorders such as depression. Greenwood and Fleshner state, "The underlying neurobiological mechanisms of this effect, however, remain unknown. Identifying the mechanisms by which exercise prevents learned helplessness could shed light on the complex neurobiology of depression and anxiety and potentially lead to novel strategies for the prevention of stress-related mood disorders".[16]

In a fast paced world, especially for college students, stress can eventually alter one's mood or emotions. In the abstract, the authors state the following focuses:

  1. how exercise can alter the behavioral consequences of stress and how "learned helplessness" affects animals
  2. the neurocircuitry of learned helplessness and the role of serotonin (or 5-HT)
  3. exercise-associated neural adaptations and neural plasticity that may contribute to the stress-resistant brain,

This article also mentions "laboratory rodents" as prime subjects for wheel running and how the specific animal deals with anxiety and depression. "Treadmill training increases muscle enzymatic capacity".[17] What this wheel running does is relieve stress, but time spent on training may not be as important as how specific or intense the training was. It was proven that wheel running did prevent anxiety and stress-related diseases and/or consequences in Greenwood and Fleshner's study. Again, the focus was to determine if or if not wheel running can prevent the onset of depression and "anxiety-like behaviours" in the laboratory rodents.

Health implications

Regardless of origin, people who perceive events as uncontrollable reliably suffer disruption of emotions, aggressions, physiology, and have difficulties with problem-solving tasks.[18][19] 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,[20] and the less hope they feel about making changes in their lives.[21][22]

Stressor controllability is one factor that contributes to physical health when it comes to learned helplessness. Learned helplessness occurs when an animal or human is exposed to stressors that they cannot control. If these stressors are controlled, the phenomenon of learned helplessness does not occur.[23]


Young adults and middle-aged parents with a pessimistic explanatory style are often more likely to suffer from depression.[24] People with a pessimistic explanatory style tend to be poor at problem-solving and cognitive restructuring, and also tend to demonstrate poor job satisfaction and interpersonal relationships in the workplace.[21][25] 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.[26]

According to Cox et al., Abramson, Devine, and Hollon (2012), learned helplessness is a key factor in depression that is caused by prejudice (i.e., "deprejudice").[27]

Someone facing inescapable prejudice (e.g., abuse) may develop learned helplessness and depression as a result. "Helplessness born in the face of inescapable prejudice matches the helplessness born in the face of inescapable shocks."[28]

Abnormal and cognitive psychologists have looked at the correlation of depression and anxiety with learned helplessness over the years. It has been shown that the symptoms shown with learned helplessness have corresponding symptoms in depression. The symptoms most felt when depressed are the feelings of helplessness and uncontrollability that have been correlated with learned helplessness.[23]


Learned helplessness can also be a motivational problem. Individuals who have failed at tasks in the past conclude erroneously that they are incapable of improving their performance.[29] 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. In turn, the student will give up trying to gain respect or advancement through academic performance.[30]

Social impact

Child abuse 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.[31]

Likewise, the development of a victim mentality in a child or young adult may be due to repetitive bullying and abuse from their peers, and may be a manifestation of learned helplessness - by being repeatedly exposed to uncomfortable or painful situations, the person may believe that there is no use in trying to evade such situations, and will eventually begin to believe that everyone is against them. This usually manifests as Post-traumatic stress and being over-apologetic. Feelings of self-hatred and autophobia may also develop alongside the learned helplessness.

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, when some older people may respond to the deaths of friends and family members, the loss of jobs and income, and the development of age-related health problems by neglecting their medical care needs.[32]

Social problems resulting from learned helplessness may seem unavoidable; however, when induced in experimental settings learned helplessness resolves with the passage of time.[33] Learned helplessness in response to experiences can be prevented or minimized by "immunization" and, when present, may be reversed by therapy. People can be immunized against the perception that events are uncontrollable by increasing their awareness of previous experiences, when they were able to effect a desired outcome.[34] Therapy can instruct people in the fact of contingency[35] and bolster people's self esteem.[36]


Cognitive scientist and usability engineer Donald Norman used learned helplessness to explain why people blame themselves when they have a difficult time using simple objects in their environment.[37]

The US sociologist Harrison White 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.

Emergence in interrogation

In CIA interrogation manuals learned helplessness is characterized as "apathy" which may result from prolonged use of coercive techniques which result in a "debility-dependency-dread" state in the subject, "If the debility-dependency-dread state is unduly prolonged, however, the arrestee may sink into a defensive apathy from which it is hard to arouse him."[38][39]

See also


  1. ^ Carlson, Neil R. (2010). Psychology the science of behavior. Pearson Canada. p. 409.  
  2. ^ Nolen, J.L. "Learned helplessness". Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved January 14, 2014. 
  3. ^ Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.  
  4. ^ a b Seligman, M. E. P. (1972). "Learned helplessness". Annual Review of Medicine 23 (1): 407–412.  
  5. ^ Seligman, M. E. P., 1975 Scientific American
  6. ^ Watson, J. & Ramey, C. Reactions to response-contingent stimulation in early infancy. Revision of paper presented at biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development. Santa Monica. California, March 1969.
  7. ^ a b Hiroto, D.S.; Seligman, M.E.P. (1975). "Generality of learned helplessness in man". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 31: 311–27.  
  8. ^ Varela JA, Wang J, Varnell AL & Donald C. Cooper (2011) Control over stress induces plasticity of individual prefrontal cortical neurons: A conductance-based neural simulation. Available from Nature Precedings doi:10.1038/npre.2011.6267.1
  9. ^ Peterson, C.; Park, C. (1998). "Learned helplessness and explanatory style". In Barone, D. F.; Hersen, M.; VanHasselt, V. B. Advanced Personality. New York: Plenum Press. pp. 287–308.  
  10. ^ Cole, C. S.; Coyne, J. C. (1977). "Situational specificity of laboratory-induced learned helplessness in humans". Journal of Abnormal Psychology 86 (6): 615–623.  
  11. ^ Peterson, C.; Seligman, M.E.P. (1984). "Causal explanations as a risk factor for depression: Theory and evidence". Psychological Review 91: 347–74.  
  12. ^ a b Abramson, L. Y.; Seligman, M. E. P.; Teasdale, J. D. (1978). "Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation". Journal of Abnormal Psychology 87 (1): 49–74.  
  13. ^ Peterson, C.; Maier, S. F.; Seligman, M. E. P. (1995). Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control. New York: Oxford University Press.  
  14. ^ Weiner, B. (1986). An attributional theory of motivation and emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  15. ^ Hammack, Sayamwong; Cooper, Matthew; Lezak, Kimberly. "Overlapping neurobiology of learned helplessness and conditioned defeat: Implications for PTSD and mood disorders". original paper. University of Vermont.  
  16. ^ Greenwood, Benjamin. "Excerise, Learned Helplessness, and the Stress-Resistant Brain" (PDF). original paper. University of Colorado-Boulder and Department of Integrative Physiology.  
  17. ^ idem, p82
  18. ^ Roth, S. (1980). "A revised model of learned helplessness in humans". Journal of Personality 48: 103–33.  
  19. ^ Wortman, C.B. & Brehm, J.W. (1975). Response to uncontrollable outcomes: An integration of reactance theory and the learned helplessness model. In Advances in experimental social psychology, L. Berkowitz, (ed.). Vol. 8. New York: Academic Press.
  20. ^ Sullivan, D.R.; Liu, X; Corwin, D.S. (2012). "Learned Helplessness Among Families and Surrogate Decision-makers of Patients Admitted to Medical, Surgical and Trauma Intensive Care Units". Chest 142 (6): 1440.  
  21. ^ a b Henry, P.C. (2005). "Life stress, explanatory style, hopelessness, and occupational stress". International Journal of Stress Management 12: 241–56.  
  22. ^ Jones, Ishmael (2008, revised 2010). The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture. New York: Encounter Books. ISBN 978-1-59403-223-3.
  23. ^ a b Maier S.F. & Watkins, L.R. (2005). "Stressor controllability and learned helplessness: The roles of the dorsal raphe nucleus, serotonin, and corticotropin-releasing factor." Retrieved from
  24. ^ Chang, E.C.; Sanna, L.J. (2007). "Affectivity and psychological adjustment across tow adult generations: Does pessimistic explanatory style still matter?". Personality and Individual Differences 43: 1149–59.  
  25. ^ Welbourne, J.L.; Eggerth, D.; Hartley, T.A.; Andrew, M.E.; Sanchez, F. (2007). "Coping strategies in the workplace: Relationships with attributional style and job satisfaction". Journal of Vocational Behavior 70: 312–25.  
  26. ^ Bennett, K.K.; Elliott, M. (2005). "Pessimistic explanatory style and Cardiac Health: What is the relation and the mechanism that links them?". Basic and applied social psychology 27: 239–48.  
  27. ^ Cox, William. "Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Depression The Integrated Perspective" (PDF). original paper.  
  28. ^ idem, p433
  29. ^ Stipek, D.E.P. (1988). Motivation to learning. Allyn & Bacon: Boston.
  30. ^ Ramirez, E.; Maldonado, A.; Martos, R. (1992). "Attribution modulate immunization against learned helplessness in humans". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 62: 139–46.  
  31. ^ Donovan, W.L.; Leavitt, L.A.; Walsh, R.O. (1990). "Maternal self-efficacy: Illusory control and its effect on susceptibility to learned helplessness". Child Development 61: 1638–47.  
  32. ^ Rodin, J. (1986). "Aging and health: Effects of the sense of control". Science 233: 1271–6.  
  33. ^ Young, L.D.; Allin, J.M. (1986). "Persistence of learned helplessness in humans". Journal of General Psychology 113: 81–8.  
  34. ^ Altmaier, E.M.; Happ, D.A. (1985). "Coping skills training's immunization effects against learned helplessness". Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 3: 181–9.  
  35. ^ Thornton, J.W.; Powell, G.D. (1974). "Immunization to and alleviation of learned helplessness in man". American Journal of Psychology 87: 351–67.  
  36. ^ Orbach, E.; Hadas, Z. (1982). "The elimination of learned helplessness deficits as a function of induced self-esteem". Journal of Research in Personality 16: 511–23.  
  37. ^  
  38. ^ "KUBARK COUNTERINTELLIGENCE INTERROGATION". CIA. July 1963. pp. Chapter IX. Coercive Counterintelligence Interrogation of Resistant Sources. Archived from the original on 2 August 2014. Retrieved December 11, 2014. If the debility-dependency-dread state is unduly prolonged, however, the arrestee may sink into a defensive apathy from which it is hard to arouse him. 
  39. ^ Benedict Carey (December 10, 2014). "Architects of C.I.A. Interrogation Drew on Psychology to Induce ‘Helplessness’". The New York Times (The Times Company). Retrieved December 11, 2014. 

External links

  • An introductory article on "Learned Helplessness" at
  • An in-depth discussion of "Learned Helplessness" with helpful charts and graphs at University of Plymouth's "Study and Learning Materials On-line"
  • Whitson, Jennifer A.; Galinsky, Adam D. (2008). "Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception". Science 322 (5898): 115–17.  
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