LEARNED HELPLESSNESS (Social Science)

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 aver-sive 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 noncon-tingent, 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.

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