Learned helplessness is a term specifying an organism learning to accept and endure unpleasant stimuli, and unwilling to avoid them, even when it is avoidable. In other words, the organism has learned that it does not have any control over the situation, and that whatever it does – or does not do – will not have any effect on the outcome.
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The concept of “learned helplessness” was investigated by Martin Seligman. The discovery of this concept was accidental and it occurred during a series of studies about negative reinforcement. (Seligman, 1972, p. 407-408)
These studies were conducted on dogs. They are placed in an enclosed box, and the shock would come on and only stop if the dogs jump over a barrier to the other side of which they were currently on. After an interval of time, the shock would come on again and the same thing happened. The experiment sounded easy. However, this study included a group of dogs, which were previously exposed to a shock they could not control. When these dogs are moved to the box for this current study, they discovered the way to turn off the shock very slowly or not at all.
After that, Seligman conducted another study to show that it was the dogs’ uncontrollability was the thing making them helpless. There were three groups and two phases of the experiment. During the first phase, group 1 received the shock they could turn off, while group 2 received the shock they could not turn off.
The intensity of the shock was the same for both groups, while the time was measured by how long group 1 take to turn off the shock, then match the time of each dog in group 1 to each dog in group 2 and left the shock on for that amount of time before turning it off. Group 3 was a control group, so the dogs received no shock at all during this phase.
After that, phase two began. This was the same for all groups: the dogs were put in the box and the shock went on and could be turned off by the dogs if they jumped over the barrier. Group 1 and 3 who received no shock or controllable shocks was able to turn off the shocks quickly. For group 2, the dogs waited passively for the shocks to be turned off by the experimenter.
The experimenter concluded that the dogs in group 2 had received learned helplessness. They learned that nothing they did would affect what was happening to them, so why do anything? Seligman also found out that the same results could be produced in other organisms, including humans. He also discovered that the symptoms of helplessness in dogs are similar to some symptoms of depression in humans.
Learned Helplessness, Health, and Learned Optimism
Learned helplessness theory has been researched and shown to be related to many social problems. As mentioned above, there is a relationship between learned helplessness and depression.
The symptoms are similar: passivity, sadness, anxiety, hostility, etc. Many clinicians have also suggested that depression is not just a single disorder, but rather a group of disorders having assorted symptoms, cause, course, and therapy, and prevention (Abramson, Metalsky & Alloy,1989, p. 359).
Abramson, Metalsky and Alloy also revised the 1978 formulated theory and of helplessness and depression and called it hopelessness theory of depression. You can read more about their research here.
As for the cure of learned helplessness, Seligman defined another theory called “learned optimism”. The idea is to cultivate positive feelings such as joy, happiness, etc. Be sure to read more about that in: Learned Optimism: The Cup Half Full
If you are more interested in this subject, below is a video about learned helplessness and learned optimism by Dr. Lance Luria.
Abramson, L., Metalsky, G., & Alloy, L. (1989). Hopelessness Depression: A Theory-based Subtype Of Depression. Psychological Review, 358-372.
Seligman, M. E. (1972). Learned helplessness. Annual review of medicine,23(1), 407-412.