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What Is Learned Helplessness and Why Does it Happen?

By Charlotte Nickerson, published April 24, 2022

Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon in which a person learns that he or she cannot avoid bad things happening in the future. This causes him or her to stop trying to prevent them. Learned helplessness is often associated with depression.

Key Takeaways
  • Learned Helplessness is a phenomenon that occurs when a series of negative outcomes or stressors causes someone to believe that the outcomes of life are out of one's control.
  • If a person learns that their behaviour makes no difference to their aversive environment, they may stop trying to escape from aversive stimuli even when escape is possible.
  • Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier first identified learned helplessness as a phenomenon in the 1960s. These psychologists conducted experiments on dogs, finding that, when exposed to repeated shocks that they could not control, the animals refrained from taking action when they could prevent the shocks.
  • Learned helplessness has notably been linked to and used as an explanation for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in humans, but not without criticism.
  • There are a number of ways to overcome learned helplessness. One mentioned by Seligman himself is learned hopefulness.

Learned Helplessness Definition

The Discovery of Learned Helplessness

Learned Helplessness is a phenomenon where repeated exposure to uncontrollable stressors results in people failing to use any methods to control their response to those stressors that are at their disposal in the future.

Essentially, those experiencing learned helplessness are said to learn that they lack behavioral control over the events in their environment which, in turn, undermines their motivation to make changes or attempt to alter situations.

The first people to describe learned helplessness were the American psychologists Steven F. Maier and Martin E. P. Seligman.

Martin Seligman conducted a series of classic experiments in the 1960s (Seligman & Maier, 1967) in which some dogs were placed in a chamber where they received electric shocks from which they could not escape (the non-escape condition).

Learned Helplessness Experiment

The dogs in the escape group could escape the shocks by pressing a panel with their nose.

In the second phase, the animals were placed in shuttle boxed divided by a barrier in the middle that the dogs could jump in order to escape the shocks. Only the dogs that had learned to escape in the previous phase tried to jump. The other dogs did not.

When the dogs in the 'non-escape' condition were given the opportunity to escape the shocks by jumping across a partition, most failed to even try; they seemed to just give up and passively accept any shocks the experimenters chose to administer.

In comparison, dogs who were previously allowed to escape the shocks tended to jump the partition and escape the pain.

Seligman described a syndrome with three main features to describe this behavior (1967):

  1. A motivational deficit characterized by a failure to respond when challenged with further aversive events;

  2. An associative deficit characterized by impairment of learning from successful coping;

  3. An emotional deficit characterized by apparent under reactivity to painful events.

Despite this purported underactivity to the stressors, later researchers found, through analyzing cortisol levels in the blood, that the animals were in fact very stressed (Ackerman, 2022).

Learned Helplessness and Mental Health

In the 1970s, Seligman extended the concept of learned helplessness from nonhuman animal research to clinical depression in humans and proposed a learned helplessness theory to explain how people become vulnerable to depression.

According to this theory, people who are repeatedly exposed to stressful situations beyond their control develop an inability to make decisions or engage effectively in purposeful behavior.

Subsequently, researchers have noticed that this learned helplessness theory is similar to posttraumatic stress disorder (Ackerman, 2022).

The Role of Explanatory styles in Learned Helplessness

Although the initial learned helplessness theory was considered to be an important breakthrough in its time, it soon came to be accepted that the theory needed further development to be applicable to humans, who are more complex than other animals, as it relates to their cognitive processes. 

Seligman and colleagues later reformulated the original learned helplessness model of depression (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978). In their reformulation, they emphasized attributions (i.e., a mental explanation for why something occurred) that lead to the perception that one lacks control over negative outcomes are important in fostering a sense of learned helplessness.

The explanatory style model of learned helplessness seeks to identify patterns in individual reactions to positive and negative events and occurrences in their lives.

The logic of the model is that, when an individual finds themselves in a situation where something has either gone right or wrong, they will ask why.

The answers that that person tends to give when asking themselves that kind of question will dictate whether that person defaults to an optimistic or pessimistic explanatory style (Healy, 2017).

For example, say that a negative event occurs. If someone thinks of the cause of that event as stable, or long-lasting — as opposed to temporary — that view could encourage chronic helplessness.

If that person thinks that the cause of the negative event will impact other areas of their life — as opposed to strictly relating to the issue at hand — then the person experiencing the issue may be vulnerable to widespread helplessness.

Finally, if someone decides that they are at fault for what has happened, otherwise known as ascribing an internal as opposed to external cause for the event, then that can have negative implications for self-esteem (Healy, 2017). 

Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson (1967) stressed in their writing on explanatory styles that one's explanatory style will tend to follow a pattern. That means that someone will tend to respond to positive and negative events in consistent, habitual ways.

This can be very advantageous to someone's well-being if they happen to default to an optimistic explanatory style, but very problematic for those who tend toward pessimism.

In fact, learned helplessness and a pessimistic explanatory style are each linked with the development of depression in individuals (Healy, 2017).

The Optimistic vs. Pessimistic Explanatory Style

The markers of an optimistic explanatory style stand in direct contrast to those signaling their pessimistic counterpart.

For example, while the pessimistic style can view negative circumstances as something that will inevitably persist, and positive occurrences as temporary, the optimistic style tends to view negative circumstances as temporary and expects positive occurrences to persist.

Additionally, while the negative explanatory style tends toward self-blame for outcomes that go awry and credit external factors when things go right, the positive style leads to individuals crediting themselves when things go right and identifying external factors as key when things go wrong (Healy, 2017).

Nonetheless, there is an element of moderation required in considering the extent to which an optimistic explanatory style is the most beneficial one for overcoming learned helplessness.

For example, always defaulting to blaming others or circumstances when things go wrong and always attributing successes as exclusively one's doing can, while meeting the criteria for the optimistic explanatory style, constitute a problem in of itself (Healy, 2017).

Overcoming Learned Helplessness

Ultimately, Learned helplessness provides an explanation for human behaviors that may otherwise seem odd or counterproductive, and understanding learned helplessness provides pathways to removing or reducing its negative impacts (Ackerman, 2022). 

While learned helplessness can be difficult to overcome, there are treatments based in modern sciences that have the potential to address this phenomena in both animals and humans (Ackerman, 2022).

One potential treatment for learned helplessness is based on neuroscience research that relates the ventromedial prefrontal cortex to the dorsal raphe nucleus.

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that plays a role in the inhibition of emotional responses, while the dorsal raphe nucleus is a part of the brainstem that is associated with serotonin and consequently depression (Maier & Seligman, 2016).

This treatment focuses on stimulating the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and inhibiting the dorsal raphe nucleus through medication, electrical stimulation, or trans-magnetic stimulation. Alternatively, these regions can be treated psychologically through therapy (Ackerman, 2022).

Oftentimes, therapists treat learned helplessness by exploring the origins of that hopelessness, replacing old and harmful beliefs with newer, healthier ones, and through developing a healing sense of compassion (Thompson, 2010).

Recent research from the psychologist Carol Dweck shows that there is another extremely effective way to alleviate learned helplessness through failure.

Dweck (1975) conducted a study where participants were split into two groups: one received intensive training where they failed tasks and were instructed to take responsibility for their failure and attribute it to a lack of effort, while the other group received intensive training where they only experienced success. 

The results of Dweck's (1975) study showed that those in the success-only group showed no improvement in their extreme reactions to failure, while the group that failed showed marked improvement (Ackerman, 2022).

Learned Hopefulness

Seligman himself believed that a more positive attributional style can be taught in order to overcome learned helplessness. Psychologists call this attributional style learned hopefulness.

Learned hopefulness suggests that empowering experiences - ones that provide opportunities to learn skills and develop a sense of control - can help individuals limit the debilitating and learned helplessness effects of barriers in their everyday lives (Zimmerman, 1990). 

Criticisms of Learned Helplessness

Seligman's original (1967) learned helplessness theory, as well as the reformulations of others, have received a number of criticisms. 

Psychologists believe that there is more to depression than learned helplessness. While the symptoms of learned helplessness may mirror those of depression, there is an array of complex neurological and psychological factors underlying the condition. Indeed, depression may not necessarily arise from repeat failure.

For example, a student may become depressed after repeatedly blaming themselves for chronic school stress and poor exam results.

Additionally, those in learned helplessness experiments have often described their task as a skill task, despite acting as if they were chance tasks.

That is to say, people participating in these learned helplessness experiments, while seemingly behaving as if they have no control over the outcome, have been known to say verbally that they still believe that their effort can influence its outcomes (Ackerman, 2022). 


Learned Helplessness in Education

Learned helplessness is a common subject of interest in the field of education. In particular, educators are interested in how early academic failure or low academic self-esteem can impact later success, and how the relationship can be influenced to enhance chances of success (Firmin, Hwang, Copella, & Clark, 2004).

Learned helplessness in students creates a cycle where those who feel they are unable to succeed are unlikely to put effort into schoolwork. This, in turn, decreases their chances of success, leading to even less motivation and effort.

This cycle can culminate in a student having almost no motivation to learn a subject and no competence.

It can even lead to a more generalized sense of helplessness in which the student has no belief in their ability and no motivation to learn any subject at school (Firmin, Hwang, Copella, & Clark, 2004).

Educators have developed a few strategies that can help prevent students from learning to be habitually helpless, such as:

  • providing praise and encouragement based on the student's abilities to help them believe they are good at these subjects,

  • providing praise and encouragement based on a student's efforts 

  • working on individual goal-setting with students to help them learn that goals can be achieved and that outcomes can be in their control (Firmin, Hwang, Copella, & Clark, 2004).

Learned Helplessness in Relationships 

Learned helplessness is also of interest for researchers focused on domestic violence, as it's often observed in relationships involving abuse. The phenomenon of learned helplessness has helped researchers answer questions such as why those who are abused do not tell others, try to get help, or leave the relationships (Ackerman, 2022).

Often, in abusive relationships, abusers subject their victims to repeated abuse to acclimatize the victims to the abuse and teach them that they do not have control over the situation.

The abusers, as a result, maintain complete control, and the victims learn that they are helpless about their circumstances (Ackerman, 2022). Often these perceptions are very difficult to get rid of, often requiring intensive therapy and support (Ackerman, 2022).

Studies of Learned Helplessness in Humans

Although experiments that are as extreme as Seligman's have not been performed on humans — and would not pass ethically — experiments performed on humans have produced similar outcomes.

In one study of learned helplessness in humans, participants were split into three groups. one group was subjected to a loud and unpleasant noise, but was able to end the noise by pressing a button four times, while the second group was subjected to the same noise, but the button was not functional. 

Everyone was then given a box with a lever which, when manipulated, would turn off the sound. As in the animal experiments, those who had no control over the noise in the first part tended to not even try to turn the noise off, while the other participants did (Seligman, 1967; Ackerman, 2022). 

Learned hopefulness at volunteer organizations

One example of an environment where individuals can learn hopefulness is at voluntary organizations. Someone working at an after school center, tutoring young children in mathematics and Seligman's may be encouraged to see how their presence leads to students directly developing a better grasp of school material.

This may have run-off effects in other areas of the participant's life. Zimmerman (1990) conducted a study of how empowered individuals felt after volunteering consistently in such environments, as measured by cognitive, personality, and motivational measures of perceived control.

He found that those who volunteered felt more in control of their own lives, and were more likely to attribute their successes to their own actions (Zimmerman, 1990).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2022, April 24). What Is Learned Helplessness and Why Does it Happen?. Simply Psychology.


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How to reference this article:

Prera, A (2021, May 26). Cultivation theory. Simply Psychology.

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