What Is Learned Helplessness?

Symptoms of learned helplessness in children

Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee 

Learned helplessness occurs when a person who has experienced repeated challenges comes to believe they have no control over their situation. They then give up trying to make changes and accept their fate.

In animals, 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.

For example, poor performance at work or at school, even after putting in a lot of effort, can lead to feelings of learned helpless. People may be left feeling that no matter what they do or how hard they work, nothing will make a difference.

This article discusses the signs of learned helplessness and the research that led to the term being coined. It also explores what causes this type of behavior and strategies that can help people overcome it.

Symptoms of Learned Helplessness

Everyone can struggle at times, especially when coping with adversity and setbacks. Learned helplessness is characterized by more lasting symptoms such as:

  • Avoiding decisions
  • Bad attitude
  • Giving up quickly
  • Inability to tolerate frustration
  • Lack of effort
  • Low motivation
  • Passive behavior
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Procrastination
  • Refusing to try

Learned helplessness is not a mental health condition, but it can sometimes be a sign of a mental disorder such as depression or anxiety.

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.
  • In group two, the dogs were placed in the same harnesses but were subjected to electrical shocks that could be avoided by pressing a panel with their noses.
  • In group three, the dogs 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. However, those from the third group made no attempts to get away from the shocks.

In Seligman and Maier's experiments, the dog's who were unable to escape the shocks developed learned helplessness. Due to their previous experience, they had developed a cognitive expectation that nothing they did would prevent or eliminate the shocks.

Causes of Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness is frequently the result of experiencing stress or trauma. People may feel that they have little to no control over the situation. Because of the lack of control, people may feel helpless and unmotivated to take action.

Common causes that can lead to learned helplessness include:

  • Abuse
  • Childhood neglect
  • Difficult 
  • Domestic violence
  • Natural disasters
  • Trauma

Overparenting can also contribute to the development of learned helplessness in children. When children are not allowed to try things independently, they may develop a poor sense of personal agency. Instead of trying, they believe that they are unable to do things and do not put forth any effort.

The three elements of learned helplessness are contingency, cognition, and behavior. Contingency refers to the belief that there is a relationship between events and behaviors, cognition refers to how people think about these relationships, and behavior refers to the actions they take as a result of observing the relationship between actions and events.

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?

Attribution or explanatory styles may also 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.

Impact of Learned Helplessness

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 they do will have any effect on their math performance. When later faced with any type of math-related task, they might feel hopeless and unable to do the work.

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, feeling shy in social situations can cause people to feel that there is nothing they can do to overcome their symptoms. Because symptoms feel out of control, people may stop trying to engage themselves in social situations, thus making their 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 helplessness 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.

Learned Helplessness in Children

Learned helplessness 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:

  • Failure to ask for help
  • Frustration
  • Giving up
  • Lack of effort
  • Low self-esteem
  • Passivity
  • Poor motivation
  • Procrastination

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 also potentially lead to feelings of learned helplessness. A child who makes an effort to do well but still does poorly may end up feeling that they have no control over their grades or performance.

Since nothing they do seems to make any difference, they will stop trying and their grades may suffer even more. Such problems can also affect other areas of the child's life. Their poor performance in school can make them feel that nothing they do is right or useful, so they may lose the motivation to try in other areas of their life as well.

Learned Helplessness and Mental Health

Learned helplessness may also 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? Learned helplessness can often be successfully decreased, particularly if intervention occurs during the early stages. Long-term learned helplessness can also be reduced, although it may require longer-term effort. Strategies that can help include:

Psychotherapy

Therapy can be effective in reducing symptoms of learned helplessness. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a 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.

Self-Care Strategies

One animal study suggested that exercise may help reduce symptoms of learned helplessness. Other self-care strategies, such as getting enough sleep, managing stress levels, and eating a healthy diet, can also help people foster a greater sense of control over their life.

Social Support

Getting social support and encouragement from others may also be helpful. When you feel helpless in the face of a challenge, supportive people can help you feel more motivated and encouraged to keep trying. With time and continued practice, you can eventually acquire successful experiences that help you feel more in control.

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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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.