The term learned helplessness was coined by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier in 1967 to describe the behavior of dogs who, after experiencing inescapable electric shocks behaved as if they were helpless. As with many terms in psychology, learned helplessness is both descriptive and explanatory. Learned helplessness describes a constellation of maladaptive passive behaviors that animals (dogs, rats, cats, fish, mice, and humans) frequently exhibit following exposure to uncontrollable events. Learned helplessness is also a cognitive, expectancy-based explanation; after repeated, inescapable, aversive helplessness, animals expect to be helpless and do not attempt to change the situation—they have learned that their actions are ineffective.
Research on learned helplessness began in the 1960s at Richard L. Solomon’s (1918–1995) psychology lab at the University of Pennsylvania. Graduate students Russell Leaf and J. Bruce Overmier had discovered that after Pavlovian conditioning with unavoidable mild shocks, the lab dogs were useless for any subsequent experiments that required learning how to avoid or escape shock. The majority of the dogs would sit and passively endure the aversive but otherwise physically harmless shock. This phenomenon piqued the interest of graduate students Maier and Seligman, who set out to show that the dogs had learned more than just Pavlovian conditioning. Maier and Seligman suggested that the dogs had learned that when shocked, nothing they did mattered—they had learned that they had no control over their environment. This explanation was unusually “cognitive” given the behaviorist climate of that era.
Most early research on learned helplessness used a three-group, two-phase, experimental design to make sure that uncontrollability was the cause of the helplessness. In the first phase, one group experienced controllable aversive stimuli; for example, they could learn to avoid a shock by jumping across a barrier into a safe area. A second, “no control” group also experienced the aversive stimuli, but had no means by which to escape it. To make sure that subsequent differences in helplessness were not due to differences in the rate or length of exposure to the uncontrollable stimuli, experimenters pair, or yoke, each “no control” animal with a “has control” animal. The “no control” animal only experiences the aversive stimuli when the “has control” animal does. Researchers call this a “yoked control group.” Animals in a third naive control group experience no aversive stimuli at all. In the second phase, the experimenters subject all three groups to aversive stimuli in a new controllable context; in other words, all have equal opportunity to escape.
In Seligman’s studies, usually about two-thirds of the “no-control” dogs display helpless behavior in the new situation. Six percent of the naive control group dogs also displayed helplessness, which Seligman suggests may have been due to prior traumatic experiences. Typically helpless animals show signs of stress, such as lethargy, dejection, and reduced appetite, dominance aggression, sexual appetite, and serotonin levels.
These studies demonstrated that for most animals, uncontrollable aversive experiences have devastating effects on subsequent learning, motivation, and emotion. Seligman reports that therapy for dogs with learned helplessness required dragging them into the safe area a number of times before they began to respond on their own. On a positive note, Seligman and colleagues also found that they could “immunize” dogs against learned helplessness by giving them several trials of escapable shock before exposing them to inescapable shock.
Donald Hiroto and Seligman (1974) subsequently extended this research paradigm to humans, using insoluble discrimination problems rather than shocks. It is important to note that in this transition from animals to humans, stimuli aversiveness was not the only parameter to change; the transition also included a shift from simple taskless stimuli to tasks such as unsolvable discrimination problems or puzzles. This shift has complicated the explanation of learning deficits following failure. Additionally, human susceptibility to learned helplessness varies considerably across individuals and situations. These differences correlate with a variety of characteristics: low mastery behavior, anxiety, depression, need for structure, and ego value of academic performance, to name a few. Nonetheless, the core features of the learned helplessness phenomenon remain: (1) following an uncontrollable situation, people exhibit a variety of learning, motivational, and emotional deficits, including increased vulnerability to depression and anxiety; (2) previous exposure to controllable aversive events immunizes people against learned helplessness; and (3) forced exposure to controllable contingencies reverses learned helplessness.
A significant portion of research on learned helplessness in humans has focused on its relationship with reactive depression. One of the earliest, and perhaps most fertile, explanations of learned helplessness as a cause of depression was Lyn Abramson, Seligman, and John Teasdale’s 1978 reformulation of learned helplessness theory using concepts from Bernard Weiner’s attribution theory. This reformulation recognizes that much of life is uncontrollable, yet not everyone is depressed by it. According to the reformulation of learned helplessness theory, whether depression results from helplessness situations depends on the attributions people make about the causes of the negative event. Depression is more likely if persons attribute negative events to internal causes (“it’s me”), stable causes (“it’s going to last forever”), or global causes (“it’s going to mess up everything I do”). This pessimistic style is evident in a student who attributes her poor math performance to “being a girl” (internal and stable) and assumes that failure in a specific math class will mean the end of her medical school dream (a global attribution). In contrast, a student who attributes failure on an exam to not studying is protected from depression because he or she has attributed it to an internal (“I didn’t study”), unstable (“I can study next time”), and specific (“failing on this test isn’t going to mess up my whole life”) cause. Each of these causal attributions has a different effect on subsequent behavior. Global attributions generalize helplessness across tasks and time, internal attributions imply a sense of failed responsibility, and stable attributions imply that it is not possible to change the parameters of the current situation.
A large body of research has found long-term individual differences in explanatory style and vulnerability to helplessness. Persons who have experienced a significant childhood loss (e.g., the death of a parent) or trauma (e.g., sexual or physical abuse) are more likely to develop pessimistic explanatory styles. Research has also found that parents and children have correlated explanatory styles, and messages from peers, teachers, media, and other community members have an impact on children’s explanatory style. The repercussions of explanatory style is still being studied, for example, the effects of pessimistic explanatory style on negative health outcomes, occupational success, and the quality of social relationships.
The concept of learned helplessness has also been used extensively in educational and social psychology; for example, there is now an impressive body of research on individual differences in persistence following failure on evaluative and learning tasks. Some people’s motivation is unaffected by experiencing failure; rather, they use failure as an additional source of information. Consequently, their performance quickly rebounds when given solvable problems. In contrast, “helpless” people appear to crumble under the experience of failure, or even just difficulty. They may regress to a lower skill level, exhibit negative affect, and conclude that they lack ability. Learned helplessness theory argues that helplessness following failure-feedback is the result of learning that responses and outcomes are noncontingent, which interferes with subsequent learning. Research in achievement motivation has found, however, that helplessness following failure can also be a strategic way to protect self-worth (e.g., “If I don’t try, failing won’t make me look bad”). Achievement motivation researchers call this an ego or performance goal.
A large and productive body of research has explored individual differences in resiliency and helplessness through the lens of achievement goals. Researchers have identified two major goal orientations: mastery or task goals and performance or ego goals. Mastery goals focus on intrinsic reasons for learning, which protects against learned helplessness. Performance goals focus on extrinsic reasons for learning—demonstrating one’s ability and competing with others—which reduces vulnerability to learned helplessness. Recent research has extended these concepts by distinguishing between ego goals that focus on the display of skill (performance approach) and ego goals that focus on avoiding displays of incompetence (performance avoidance).
Finally, from an information-processing perspective, Grzegorz Sedek (1990) has described the phenomenon of learned helplessness as a state of cognitive exhaustion produced by nonproductive problem solving. This perspective reminds us that giving up is also an adaptive response because animal brains have finite energy resources. Helplessness behavior may be an adaptive avoidance of indiscriminant persistence. From this perspective, helplessness is not so much “learned” as it is “triggered.”
There is little disagreement among researchers that helplessness as described by Seligman is a real and fascinating phenomenon; however, there is less consensus about its cause. Presently, separate bodies of research (learning theory, cognitive theory, cognitive behavioral therapy, achievement motivation, and information processing) support the existence of the helplessness phenomenon, but each gives a somewhat different explanation of its cause (i.e., helplessness as learned, helplessness as a cognitive interpretation of events, helplessness as a form of ego protection, and helplessness as an adaptive conservation of resources). Future research should intentionally compare these causes and the perhaps differential conditions under which they occur.
SEE ALSO Attribution; Classical Conditioning; Depression, Psychological; Locus of Control; Motivation; Operant Conditioning; Pavlov, Ivan; Positive Psychology; Psychotherapy; Resiliency; Self-Efficacy; Seligman, Martin; Vulnerability
Abramson, Lyn Y., Martin E. P. Seligman, and John D. Teasdale. 1978. Learned Helplessness in Humans: Critique and Reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 87: 49–74.
Alloy, Lauren B., and Lyn Y. Abramson. 1982. Learned Helplessness, Depression, and the Illusion of Control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 42: 1114–1126.
Buchannan, Gregory McClellan, and Martin E. P. Seligman, eds. 1995. Explanatory Style. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Hiroto, Donald S., and Martin E. Seligman. 1975. Generality of Learned Helplessness in Man. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 31 (2): 311–327.
Maier, Steven F., and Martin E. P. Seligman. 1976. Learned Helplessness: Theory and Evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 105: 3–46.
Sedek, Grzegorz, and Miroslav Kofta. 1990. When Cognitive Exertion Does Not Yield Cognitive Gain: Toward an Informational Explanation of Learned Helplessness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58 (4): 729–743.
Seligman, Martin E. P. 1972. Learned Helplessness. Annual Reviews 23: 407–412.
Seligman, Martin E., and Steven F. Maier. 1967. Failure to Escape Traumatic Shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology 74 (1): 1–9.
Joan M. Martin
Jennie K. Gill
An apathetic attitude stemming from the conviction that one's actions do not have the power to affect one's situation.
The concept of learned helplessness was developed in the 1960s and 1970s by Martin Seligman (1942-) at the University of Pennsylvania. He found that animals receiving electric shocks, which they had no ability to prevent or avoid, were unable to act in subsequent situations where avoidance or escape was possible. Extending the ramifications of these findings to humans, Seligman and his colleagues found that human motivation to initiate responses is also undermined by a lack of control over one's surroundings. Further research has shown that learned helplessness disrupts normal development and learning and leads to emotional disturbances, especially depression .
Learned helplessness in humans can begin very early in life if infants see no correlation between actions and their outcome. Institutionalized infants, as well as those suffering from maternal deprivation or inadequate mothering, are especially at risk for learned helplessness due to the lack of adult responses to their actions. It is also possible for mothers who feel helpless to pass this quality on to their children. Learned helplessness in children, as in adults, can lead to anxiety or depression, and it can be especially damaging very early in life, for the sense of mastery over one's environment is an important foundation for future emotional development . Learned help-lessness can also hamper education: a child who fails repeatedly in school will eventually stop trying, convinced that there is nothing he or she can do to succeed.
In the course of studying learned helplessness in humans, Seligman found that it tends to be associated with certain ways of thinking about events that form what he termed a person's "explanatory style." The three major components of explanatory style associated with learned helplessness are permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. Permanence refers to the belief that negative events and/or their causes are permanent, even when evidence, logic, and past experience indicate that they are probably temporary ("Amy hates me and will never be my friend again" vs. "Amy is angry with me today"; "I'll never be good at math"). Pervasiveness refers to the tendency to generalize so that negative features of one situation are thought to extend to others as well ("I'm stupid" vs. "I failed a math test" or "nobody likes me" vs. "Janet didn't invite me to her party"). Personalization, the third component of explanatory style, refers to whether one tends to attribute negative events to one's own flaws or to outside circumstances or other people. While it is important to take responsibility for one's mistakes, persons suffering from learned helplessness tend to blame themselves for everything, a tendency associated with low self-esteem and depression. The other elements of explanatory style—permanence and pervasiveness—can be used as gauges to assess whether the degree of self-blame over a particular event or situation is realistic and appropriate.
Seligman believes it is possible to change people's explanatory styles to replace learned helplessness with "learned optimism." To combat (or even prevent) learned helplessness in both adults and children, he has successfully used techniques similar to those used in cognitive therapy with persons suffering from depression. These include identifying negative interpretations of events, evaluating their accuracy, generating more accurate interpretations, and decatastrophizing (countering the tendency to imagine the worst possible consequences for an event). He has also devised exercises to help children overcome negative explanatory style (one that tends toward permanent, pervasive, and personalized responses to negative situations). Other resources for promoting learned optimism in children include teaching them to dispute their own negative thoughts and promoting their problem-solving and social skills.
Seligman claims that parents can also promote learned optimism in children who are too young for the types of techniques outlined above by applauding and encouraging their mastery of new situations and letting them have as much control as possible in everyday activities such as dressing and eating. In addition, parents influence the degree of optimism in their youngsters through their own attitudes toward life and their explanatory styles, which can be transmitted even to very young children.
Seligman, Martin. Helplessness: On Development, Depression, and Death. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1975.
—— . Learned Optimism. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1991.
—— . The Optimistic Child. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
The term learned helplessness is used to refer to any behavioral or physiological consequence of exposure to an aversive event that is produced not by the event itself but by the organism's lack of behavioral control over the event. By behavioral control is meant the organism's ability to alter the onset, termination, duration, intensity, or temporal pattern of the event. If the event (e.g., a loud noise, a painful electric shock, an attack by another animal or person) can be altered by some behavioral response, then the organism has some control over the event. If there is nothing that the organism can do to change the event, then the event is uncontrollable.
This concept has been studied using an experimental paradigm called the triadic design. Here one subject, say a rat, is given control over the event, say a mild electric shock, delivered to the rat's tail. The rat is exposed to a number of shocks, and performing some behavioral response, say pushing a lever with its paws, terminates each of the shocks. This rat thus has control over the termination of each shock. A second rat is placed in a similar apparatus, but this rat does not have control. Each shock begins for this rat at the same instant as it does for the rat with control, but for this second rat pushing the lever has no consequence. Each shock terminates whenever the rat with control presses the lever. Thus both rats receive identical shocks, but one has behavioral control and the other does not. A third rat is merely placed in the apparatus and receives no shock. Subsequent behavior and physiological functioning can be examined, and it is possible to determine which changes are caused by the stressor per se (here the animals with and without control would be identical and differ from the non-shocked controls), and which are a function of the controllability of the stressor (here the animals with and without control would differ).
Use of this sort of experimental design has revealed that many of the consequences that are normally thought to be produced by stressors actually are determined by the controllability/uncontrollability of the stressor rather than by mere exposure to the stressor. Three kinds of behavioral changes follow exposure to stressors, but only if they are uncontrollable.
The first type is cognitive changes. A particularly important consequence of exposure to uncontrollable aversive events has come to be called the learned helplessness effect. This refers to the fact that organisms ranging from fish to humans fail to learn to escape and avoid aversive events such as electric shocks, loud noises, and cold water after an initial exposure to aversive events that are uncontrollable (Overmier and Seligman, 1967). A great deal of research has been conducted to determine why this learning deficit occurs, and it has been found that at least part of the reason is cognitive. Uncontrollable aversive events interfere with some of the information-processing steps required to learn relationships between behavior and outcomes (Maier, 1989).
The second type is motivational changes. The motivation to obtain many of the reinforcers that are normally important for that organism is undermined. For example, a rat that is exposed to uncontrollable shock (but not to equal amounts of controllable shock) does not later compete for food, becomes inactive, and shows decreased sexual and maternal behavior.
The third type is emotional changes. Uncontrollable aversive events lead to increases in aspects of emotionality such as fear and anxiety. Physiological indicants of stress such as ulcer formation and blood pressure increases are similarly influenced by the controllability/uncontrollability dimension.
A considerable amount of research has been devoted to uncovering the behavioral and physiological mechanisms that produce these learned helplessness effects. This fact is at least in part attributable to the resemblance between the consequences of uncontrollable stressors in animals and human depression. Indeed, what is now known about the substrates of learned helplessness is remarkably similar to what is thought to underlie human depression (Weiss and Simson, 1986).
Maier, S. F. (1989). Learned helplessness: Event co-variation and cognitive changes. In S. B. Klein and R. R. Mowrer, eds., Contemporary learning theories, pp. 73-109. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Overmier, J. B., and Seligman, M. E. P. (1967). Effects of inescapable shock upon subsequent escape and avoidance behavior. Journal of Comparative Physiology and Psychology 63, 23-33.
Weiss, J. M., and Simson, P. G. (1986). Depression in an animal model: Focus on the locus coeruleus. In R. Porter, G. Bock, and S. Clark, eds., Antidepressants and receptor function, pp. 191-216. New York: Wiley.