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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Pantazi

Learned Helplessness: Are You Really Trapped?

Updated: Sep 29, 2019

Have you ever felt like you have absolutely no control over what happens to you? Like you cannot change a negative situation, it just happens to you, and you believe there is no way to escape or improve it- so it is meaningless to make any such effort at all.

In such a case, what gradually happens is that you give up, you learn to be helpless.

Learned helplessness is the psychological phenomenon in which, when you believe that you have no control over what happens to you, you start to think, feel and act as if you are indeed completely helpless.

It is observed in humans and animals alike when they have been conditioned to believe to expect pain, suffering or discomfort without a way to escape it.

Foundation of the Theory: Martin Seligman and his experiments

Unfortunately, lots of groundbreaking psychology theories and findings were based on animal studies, often quite cruel. This was especially so in the 60’s and 70’s.

Such is the theory of Learned Helplessness that was originally discovered from experiments on dogs, a cornerstone in the understanding of how depression develops, or why people stay in abusive relationships.

*The description below might be upsetting for animal lovers*

Seligman was researching the responses of dogs to electrical shocks depending on the predictability of them. At first, there was a group of dogs was not receiving any shocks, while another group was receiving shocks that they could neither predict or avoid.

Later the dogs were placed in a box with two chambers divided by a low barrier, that could easily be jumped over. The floor of the one chamber was electrified, but not in the second chamber.

Weirdly, while some dogs immediately figured this out and simply jumped to the non-electrified side to avoid the shocks, some dogs made no attempt to jump to the other side that was safe- they just passively received the shocks from the floor.

The researchers realized that these dogs were the ones that had previously received shocks without a way to predict or avoid them.

To further examine this phenomenon, they ran another experiment where the dogs were placed in harnesses and divided in 3 different groups:

  1. Group A was not administered any shocks

  2. Group B was administered electrical shocks that they could learn to avoid by pressing a panel with their snout

  3. Group C was administered shocks unpredictably and with no way to avoid them

After this first experimental manipulation, all dogs were placed in the box with the two chambers, and once again the same phenomenon was observed:

Dogs from Groups A & B could quickly understand that they just had to jump the barrier to the non-electrified chamber to avoid the shocks coming from the floor, but most dogs from Group C didn’t even attempt to avoid them- they just passively received them.

Seligman and his colleagues repeated the learned helplessness experiment on rats too, and observed the same results: the animals that had undergone the unavoidable shocks did not even attempt to avoid pain, even if there was an option to do so.

The same results about learned helplessness have been verified by human studies with different aversive stimuli such as loud unpleasant noises.

Seligman and his colleagues concluded that subjecting individuals in situations they have no control of results in impairments that are:

  • motivational (lack of response to find another way to escape a negative situation)

  • cognitive (idea that their circumstances are out of their control)

  • emotional (depressed state that occurs when we are in a negative situation we believe we cannot control).

Learned Helplessness and Depression

The model of Learned Helplessness for Depression suggests that depression is the result of the combination of the 3 factors below:

  • positive outcomes regarded unlikely

  • negative outcomes regarded likely

  • no expectation of the individual that anything they do can make a difference to change the outcome

The intensity of depression depends on the kind of helplessness present in the person:

  • Universal Helplessness: A problem or situation is so challenging that anyone would have a hard time overcoming it - so the problem exists because of external factors that are beyond our control

  • Personal Helplessness: A problem or situation could easily be solved by others, but the person considers themselves incapable and inadequate in order to take action – so the problem exists because of internal factors

Out of the two kinds of helplessness, the one with greater emotional impact is Personal Helplessness, especially if this is chronic. In such an event, it has pervasive effects on the individual’s self-esteem.

Learned helplessness predicts and exacerbates:

  • not only depression but also:

  • negative health symptoms

  • maladaptive perfectionism

  • burnout

  • anxiety

  • phobias

  • social avoidance

  • more negative mental health conditions

Learned Helplessness is the cognitive foundation for the Victim Mentality, a persistent state of feeling victimized that may be stemming from low self-worth and self-trust, may be perceived as manipulation by others, and most often characterized by the intense focus on what cannot be controlled rather than what can.

The Roots of Learned Helplessness

Learned Helplessness may very well begin in childhood, in families were abuse and neglect was the norm.

For instance, babies whose parents repeatedly ignore their crying might eventually give it up, because they became conditioned that no one will come to their aid anyway.

Alternatively, children that are victims of abuse (physical, emotional or sexual) done by one family member, but the other parent does nothing to protect them from continuing to be hurt (often because they are being abused too), learn to do the same later on in life: to passively endure suffering without attempting to change their situation.

Of course, traumatic events later on in life that are deemed unpredictable, out of our control, and with limited or none perceived solutions present, can also set the ground for a global perception of learned helplessness too.

Learned Helplessness in Education

It is easy to see how learned helplessness can become a vicious circle for students at school:

In simpler words:

A student who thinks he is bad at math and repeatedly sees bad grades at math tests will be ultimately less likely to study harder, which will lead to a worsening of his performance and even less motivation and attempt to improve, something that will further strengthen his belief that he is bad at math.

Helplessness in education can be avoided if there are frequent rewards in the form of encouragement and praise, both on children’s ability (e.g. You’re really good at this!) and most importantly on children’s efforts (e.g. Your studying hard really paid off!)

Learned Helplessness and Abusive Relationships

The role of intermittent reinforcement in abusive relationships has already been established, but learned helplessness plays a pivotal role too.

Victims of abuse learn that bouts of pleasant moments with their partner come unpredictably- something that keeps them hooked and yearning for more (known as breadcrumbing in relationship slang).

The same unpredictability and irregularity applies to negative moments- the equivalent of electrical shocks such as in the relevant learned helplessness experiments:

abuse seems to come irregularly, unpredictably and without a way to avoid for the victim, who subsequently learns that there’s nothing they can really do in order to avoid the explosions.

So they just end up walking on eggshells and trying to constantly please their partner, with the hope to avoid punishment and impact the likelihood of a reward.

The Cycle of Violence, a psychological theory that has been developed to understand and explain abuse, is founded on the model of learned helplessness.

Learned Helplessness and Explanatory Styles

Learned helplessness is closely associated to our explanatory style, also introduced by Martin Seligman:

the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself

why positive and negative events happen to you.

Our explanatory style has to do with the meanings we attribute to situations:

Personalization: Our perception of causality.

A success or failure can either be internal (e.g. attributed to internal, factors) or external.

Permanence: Our perception of time.

A success or failure can either be considered temporary, with consequences that can change, or permanent, with consequences that will be there forever and characterize us as a person.

Pervasiveness: Our perception of space.

A success or failure can either be considered specific - confined only to one area of life (eg. I just failed on this task but overall I’m doing well) or global - touching all areas of one’s life (eg. I failed on this task so I’m a failure)

Our explanatory style to positive and negative situations determines whether we are optimistic or pessimistic:

So if you tend to have a more pessimistic explanatory style, you might be more susceptible to the development of depression and more likely to be characterized by learned helplessness.

Learned Optimism

This all sounds very bleak, doesn’t it?

Well it’s not all dark! If helplessness can be learned, so can its “antidote”, optimism.

Martin Seligman also developed the model of Learned Optimism at the other end of the spectrum (among many other fundamental psychology research and concepts).

Curious about your Optimism score? You can take this test developed by Martin Seligman!

Learned Optimism is generally harder to be conditioned to than learned helplessness, just like any other positive change.

But it can be done, through resilience training and therapy, where individuals are empowered and encouraged to employ more positive and self-compassionate explanatory styles.

If you want to start learning to be more positive and optimistic, do not expect that this can happen overnight. Just keep practicing and insist, that’s how you rewire your brain to think differently.

It is true after all:

If you want to change any aspect of your life, you can try by attempting to change how you think about it.

Often negative beliefs are at the very core of any problem situation in your life.

Let’s see how this can be done!

One way is to try out the Future Self Visualization Exercise.

How would your Future Self react/feel/think? What if you would already have overcome this problem?

Alternatively you can try the ABCDE exercise described below.

Martin Seligman’s ABCDE model for Learned Optimism

Adversity: The challenging situation that you recently faced

  • What/Who/When/Where

  • Stick to the objective facts of what challenged you

e.g. Being rejected after a job interview you really wanted to succeed at

Belief: The thoughts about this situation

  • What kind of thoughts run through your mind about this situation?

  • Note them down uncensored!

e.g. I am just not good enough. I did very poorly at this interview and was too stressed and insecure. It's all about networking, I simply don't know many people. My CV does not look good. I will never land a fulfilling job, I'm a failure.

Consequences: Emotions and Behaviours that came as a result of your beliefs.

  • Be specific

  • List all of the emotions you experienced and as many reactions as you can identify

  • Do the consequences make sense, based on your belief?

  • Are there any other beliefs you should add to the previous column?

e.g. Sadness, depression, despair, whole evening isolated, very low motivation to apply to new jobs, inactivity, apathy

Dispute: Challenge your beliefs.

  • Evidence against: That’s not completely true because… (opposing arguments against your negative belief)

e.g. I have had a fulfilling job in the past and I do have a good network after all. I have succeeded in many things both in my personal and my professional life so far. The job market is very competitive anyway.

  • Alternative: More accurate or balanced alternative about the problem

e.g. Maybe I was a bit too stressed and insecure during the interview indeed, and this showed that I lacked the confidence for this job. I could work on my CV to present myself better through it. Everyone fails sometimes, you simply cannot succeed in everything all the time.

  • Put Some Perspective: See the bigger picture. The most likely outcome is…

e.g. If I focus my energy and attention on my points of improvement and my self-esteem, I can definitely find a job that makes me content. I need to not give up and keep it up. A failure is not the end of the world.

Energy: Effects on your energy after the dispute.

  • What happened to your emotional energy after your disputing your thoughts?

  • Did the way you feel and think change at all, as a result of your disputing your thoughts?

  • Can you see more balanced alternatives and solutions that you couldn’t see before?

e.g. Refreshed emotional energy, more balanced and optimistic perspective, focus on what can go well from now on rather on what didn't go well, motivation to improve and solid steps towards success.

In Conclusion...

Even if your life circumstances have instilled the belief in you that you are helpless towards changing things for the better, don't lose faith and hope.

There are always solutions, there are always alternative perspectives, there are always ways to see a situation differently; as long as you keep a flexible and open mind.

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