Seligman, Martin

views updated

Seligman, Martin 1942-


Born in 1942 Martin E. P. Seligman is a noted psychologist whose contributions to psychological science include a better understanding of depression and the stimulation of interest in the positive aspects of personal growth and development. He earned his bachelors degree summa cum laude in philosophy at Princeton University in 1964 and his doctor of philosophy in experimental psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1967.

In his early work Seligman focused on animal models of learned helplessness. Among his discoveries he found that when dogs were subjected to inescapable shocks, they later failed to attempt escape or to avoid such shocks, at least temporarily. His research also demonstrated that the learned helplessness could be reduced with appropriate training. According to Seligman and his fellow researchers, the animals had learned that their attempts at escape behaviors were not rewarded, so those attempts were extinguished.

Subsequently psychologists extended his work with the animal model to include discussion of such behavior in people. Psychologists addressed the question of why people sometimes fail to escape from untenable situations when escape is possible. As psychology, as a discipline, moved from behavioral to cognitive explanations of behavior, researchers focused less on reinforcement contingencies and more on thought processes, such as the expectation with learned helplessness that one could not control ones environment, so action would be futile.

Subsequent to his investigation of learned helplessness and its connections to depression, Seligman began focusing on coping and adaptation, developing the emerging field called positive psychology. This approach has at its heart the idea that people are motivated to thrive; it concerns itself with healthful approaches to life by individuals and by institutions. Positive psychology focuses on understanding (1) positive emotions like contentment with the past and hope for the future; (2) positive individual traits like the capacity for work and love, curiosity, integrity, and self-control; and (3) positive institutions that foster the creation of justice, civility, and tolerance (Positive Psychology Center 2007).

To promote positive psychology Seligman created the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The center is designed to promote research and dissemination of positive psychology. The domain has generated research programs and innovative ideas; at the same time, another of Seligmans goals is to foster societal action that promotes psychological growth within communities. The combination of theoretical, empirical, and applied ideas led in 2006 to the creation of the Journal of Positive Psychology.

Seligman has written many books including Biological Boundaries of Learning (1972), Learned Optimism (1991), The Optimistic Child (1996), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (2002), and Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (2004). Many of his books have been translated into multiple languages.

Seligman has been recognized for his contributions in numerous ways. In 1998 he was elected the president of the American Psychological Association (APA), the largest organization of psychologists in the world. Prior to that he served as president of Division 12 (Clinical Psychology) of the APA. In addition he has been elected fellow of seven APA divisions: General Psychology, Experimental Psychology, Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology, Society of Clinical Psychology, Adult Development and Aging, Health Psychology, and International Psychology. Seligman is also a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, the Behaviour Research and Therapy Society, and the Pennsylvania Psychological Association.

He has received fellow status in nonpsychological organizations as well, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Society of Behavioral Medicine. He has garnered honorary doctorates from Uppsala University in Sweden, Massachusetts College of Professional Psychology, and Complutense University in Madrid.

SEE ALSO American Psychological Association; Behaviorism; Learned Helplessness; Positive Psychology; Psychology; Reinforcement Theories


Positive Psychology Center. 2007.

Seligman, Martin E. P. 1975. Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.

Seligman, Martin E. P. 1991. Learned Optimism. New York: Knopf.

Seligman, Martin E. P. 1994. What You Can Change and What You Cant: The Complete Guide to Successful Self-Improvement: Learning to Accept Who You Are. New York: Knopf.

Seligman, Martin E. P. 2002. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Bernard C. Beins