What Is Learned Helplessness and Why Does it Happen?

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 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.

The Role of Explanatory Styles

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 events as being inescapable and unavoidable and tend to take personal responsibility for such negative events.

Learned Helplessness in Children

Learned helpless often originates in childhood, and unreliable or unresponsive caregivers can contribute to these feelings. This learned helplessness can begin very early in life. Children raised in institutionalized settings, for example, often exhibit symptoms of helplessness even during infancy.

When children need help but no one comes to their aid, they may be left feeling that nothing they do will change their situation. Repeated experiences that bolster these feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can result in growing into adulthood ultimately feeling that there is nothing one can do to change his or her problems.

Some common symptoms of learned helplessness in children include:

Learned helplessness can also result in anxiety, depression, or both. When kids feel that they've had no control over the past events of their lives, they gain the expectation that future events will be just as uncontrollable. Because they believe that nothing they do will ever change the outcome of an event, kids are often left thinking that they should not even bother trying.

Academic struggles can often lead to feelings of learned helplessness. A child who makes an effort to do well but still does poorly may end up feeling that he has no control over his grades or performance. Since nothing he does seems to make any difference, he will stop trying and his grades will suffer even more. Such problems can also affect other areas of the child's life. His poor performance in school can make him feel that nothing he does is right or useful, so he may lose the motivation to try in other areas of his life as well.

Learned Helplessness in Mental Health

Learned helplessness is thought to contribute to feelings of anxiety and may influence the onset, severity, and persistence of conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). When you experience chronic anxiety, you may eventually give up on finding relief because your anxious feelings seem unavoidable and untreatable. Because of this, people who are experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety or depression may refuse medications or therapy that may help relieve their symptoms.

As people age, learned helplessness can become something of a vicious cycle. When encountering problems such as anxiety or depression, people may feel that nothing can be done to ease these feelings. People then fail to seek out options that may help which then contributes to greater feelings of helplessness and anxiety.

Overcoming Learned Helplessness

So what can people do to overcome learned helplessness? Research suggests that learned helplessness can be successfully decreased, particularly if intervention occurs during early onset. Long-term learned helplessness can also be reduced, although it may require longer-term effort.

Therapy can be effective in reducing symptoms of learned helplessness. In one study, for example, some participants were asked to try to complete an unsolvable task. Those who received a therapeutic intervention after failing at the task were more likely to try again and successfully complete a follow-up task. Those who did not receive an intervention were more likely to experience learned helplessness and give up.

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. The goal of CBT is to help patients identify negative thought patterns that contribute to feelings of learned helplessness and then replace these thoughts with more optimistic and rational thoughts. This process often involves carefully analyzing what you are thinking, actively challenging these ideas, and disputing negative thought patterns.

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.

Not everyone responds to experiences the same way. Some people are more likely to experience learned helplessness in the face of uncontrollable events, often due to biological and psychological factors. Children raised by helpless parents, for example, are also more likely to experience learned helplessness.

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. Further evaluation can lead to an accurate diagnosis and treatment that can help you replace your negative thought patterns with more positive ones. Such treatment may allow you to replace feelings of learned helplessness with a sense of learned optimism instead.

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