Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon where a person or animal, usually through experiencing past negative events, believes that they are unable to control their environment and change the outcome for the better. As a result, they stop trying to change the negative consequence and act helplessly.
The concept of learned helplessness originated in the 1960s with researchers Martin Seligman and Steven Maier. They were conducting experiments on animal behavior in dogs. They found that when a dog was shocked in a cage with no means of escape they eventually stopped trying to get out of the cage and accepted their fate. This occurred even when there was a way to escape later in the experiment. They termed the dogs’ behavior “learned helplessness”.
Examples of Learned Helplessness
In human beings, learned helplessness appears to work similarly to animals. In 1974, Hiroto conducted a comparable (but more humane) experiment on adults. Instead of a shock, the participants were subjected to loud noise, with one group repeatedly unable to escape it. Those people that had learned that they could not shut off the noise never tried to turn it off, even when they were eventually able to do so.
Learned helplessness is often seen in cases of abuse and neglect. People who are subject to trauma often feel powerless to do anything about their circumstances and learn to accept their inability to change the outcome. For example, a child being abused by a parent may experience a sense of learned helplessness because they do not possess the power to change their parent’s behavior and do not know how to obtain help.
Learned helplessness does not always occur as the result of trauma, however. It can occur from repeated negative events that occur as part of daily life. For example, a child that has a learning disability or intellectual deficit may have difficulty getting good grades. No matter how hard they try, they are unable to improve their academic performance. After a while, they may stop making an effort because they feel it does them no good. Their lack of effort contributes to continued poor performance and reinforces their feelings of helplessness.
Interestingly, learned helplessness does not necessarily have to be the consequence of a series of events. It can also be due to a lack of self-efficacy brought on by depression. Individuals experiencing depression often have a negative and self-defeating point-of-view. They tend to interpret their situation negatively even if the evidence does not support their perspective. Their negativity may contribute to a poor consequence and they begin to believe that they are unable to produce a positive outcome This vicious cycle creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Symptoms of Learned Helplessness
Learned helplessness is often associated with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the case of depression and anxiety, it can be difficult to know which occurred first. The following are additional symptoms related to learned helplessness:
It makes sense that people who exhibit learned helplessness will also possess low self-esteem. When you feel like you have no control over your outcomes you are likely to feel powerless and poorly about your abilities. How can you feel good about yourself when you feel like you can’t be successful? Further, people with learned helplessness don’t expect much positive from life. This overarching negativity contributes to poor self-image and depressive feelings.
Negative Attributional Style
Attributional style refers to how you explain to yourself the reasons for your success and failure. People who experience learned helplessness have a negative attributional style: success is attributed to luck and external factors while failure is attributed to an individual’s lack of ability. Therefore, they only give themselves credit when something bad happens. It is as if they feel they have a black cloud following them around.
Lack Of Effort
For someone with learned helplessness, effort does not produce the desired outcome. As a result, these people tend to be passive, unmotivated, and don’t ask for assistance. Procrastination is often exhibited because they would rather put off the negative consequence. Individuals with learned helplessness frequently exhibit a fear of failure, where they just don’t want to try in the first place because they believe it will produce a negative result.
Low Frustration Tolerance
Perseverance is a hallmark of success. When you have learned that your efforts are not rewarded, you do not develop the perseverance to stick with difficult tasks. You cannot develop effective frustration tolerance when you don’t try to overcome your difficulties. People with learned helplessness would rather give up than persevere for no perceived gain.
Treatment Of Learned Helplessness
It is not easy to overcome learned helplessness, especially in cases of long-term trauma. With effort and assistance, however, it can be treated effectively using the following options:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Learned helplessness depends on the perpetuation of unrealistic negative thoughts. CBT works on helping people think in more realistic ways, reducing distorted cognitions that help to continue patterns of learned helplessness. Additionally, CBT is effective in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety that may be associated with learned helplessness.
Optimism is a belief in something good happening. It is the opposite of learned helplessness. Learned optimism is an offshoot of CBT. It posits that you can change your pessimistic attributional style so you can develop more optimistic explanations for your successes and failures. Through resilience training, you will begin to recognize that your efforts can lead to success.
In 1975, psychologist Carol Dweck conducted a research study where she retrained how children perceived failure. Instead of attributing failure to permanent internal characteristics, such as ability, she trained them to accept responsibility for their actions and ascribe the failure to lack of effort. This gave the children a sense of control over the outcome and increased their performance level on future tasks. The retraining allowed them to emphasize “insufficient motivation” as the reason for their failure. Unlike permanent internal traits, motivation was something the children understood they had the power to change for the better.
The spectre of learned helplessness is defeated if you prove to yourself that you can accomplish your goals. By setting small achievable goals, you begin to unlearn a perceived inability to succeed. After some success, you can make more difficult goals and create realistic expectations for meeting them.
Medication And Brain Stimulation
There is evidence that the brain’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex-dorsal raphe nucleus pathway is implicated in learned helplessness. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is thought to inhibit emotional responses in the brain while the dorsal raphe nucleus is associated with serotonin, a neurotransmitter critical in depression. It is hypothesized that stimulating the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and inhibiting the dorsal raphe nucleus can help reduce learned helplessness. Anti-depressant medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), that increase serotonin in the brain, are thought to aid in learned helplessness, much as they help with depression. Additionally, electrical or trans-magnetic stimulation may stimulate the parts of the brain responsible for helpless behavior.
Learned Helplessness Can Be Overcome
Behavioral psychology posits that what is learned can be unlearned. This is also true with learned helplessness. Although it is may require perseverance, treatment can help one overcome helpless behavior related to negative events, traumatic experiences, and depression.
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), Psychology | St. Johns University
Master of Arts (M.A.), Social Psychology | American University
Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), English; Psychology | Washington University in St. Louis
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