Learned Helplessness

Learned Helplessness

How Was Learned Helplesness Discovered?

*** Disclaimer: the experiment done involves mild animal cruelty, please refrain from reading if you feel you can't handle it ***

Two psychologists (Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier) had originally observed helpless behaviour in dogs that were trained to expect an electrical shock after hearing a certain tone. Later, the dogs were placed in a shuttle box that contained two chambers separated by a low barrier. The floor was electrified on one side, and not on the other.

The dogs previously subjected to the conditioning made no attempts to escape, even though they only needed to jump over a low barrier to avoiding the shock.

In order to investigate this outcome, the researchers developed another experiment. In the first group, the dogs were strapped into harnesses for a length of time and then released. The dogs in the second group were placed in the same harnesses, but were subjected to electrical shocks that could be stopped by tapping a panel with their noses.

The third group received the same shocks as those in group two, except that those in this group were not able to control the duration of the shock. For these dogs, the shocks seemed completely random and outside of their control.

Later, the dogs were placed in a shuttle box (like in the original experiment). The dogs from the first and second group learned quickly that jumping the barrier eliminated the shock. However, those from the third group made no attempts to get away from the shocks. Due to their prior experience, they had developed a cognitive expectation that nothing they did could avert or remove the shocks.

What Is Learned Helplessness?

Learned helplessness is behavior typical of a person (or animal) that has endured a repeated painful or aversive stimuli which it was unable to escape. After such experience, the person often fails to learn how to escape or avoid the same stimuli in new situations where such behavior would be effective. - Wikipedia

For example if a child is bullied their whole way through primary school and then when they reach high school they begin to be bullied again, they will probably assume that no matter how hard they try they will always be bullied. They will never bother to stand up for themselves and will think that the only way it will stop is if someone else intervenes.

Learned helplessness has also been related to several different psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety, phobias, shyness and loneliness. For example, a woman who feels shy in social situations may begin to feel that there is nothing she can do to overcome it if her shyness persists long enough. The feeling that her symptoms are out of her immediate control may lead her to stop engaging herself in social situations, making her fear of social situations more noticeable.

Overcoming Learned Helplessness

The most important factor, in relation to learned heplessness is control. People need to feel they have some level of control over their lives. When someone feels as though they have no control, the feeling of helplessness comes from this insight and insights are formed as a result. The truth is there’s no such thing as reality, only the way you perceive your outside world.

The good news is that because the state of mind and manners related with learned helplessness are the result of negative and harmful perceptions, they can be changed. Negative thinking can bring harmful results because your thinking dictates who you are, what you do and where you’ll go. Changing perceptions involves changing thinking. Changing from negative to positive thinking isn’t the only thing you must to accomplish. Changing your response to a stimulus, from the one you have already learned, by associating it with a new response must also be accomplished (i.e. challenging the belief that you are helpless).

Like most things, it is a journey you must fully commit to. Good luck :).

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Most Helpful Guy

  • Most of the time I feel learned helplessness especially when it relates to getting a job, my creative interests, and getting a girlfriend. In all those things, I have this feeling that no matter what I do, I'm going to fail because I haven't succeeded yet, and I am afraid that no matter how hard I try, I'll fail because I have no natural talent or that I'm "just not good enough". I feel that the way things have gone in those pursuits are the way things will always go. It's exactly like you said - I feel like I have no control over the outcome.

    Sometimes I can feel more confident and shake the learned helplessness for a while, but I haven't get the confidence to last. What do you recommend?

    • Focus on what's going right. For instance whenever you feel you can't get a girlfriend, focus on when your past relationships have gone well due to something you've done (if you haven't had a girlfriend before you can use the method with girls you've dated before). You can do the same thing with jobs, so that when you feel more comfortable and confident in work in that particular area you can focus on learning what you don't know. Tell yourself that just because you can't do something right now it doesn't mean you can't learn.

      It's essentially learning how to focus on the positive. You can still acknowledge the negative, just learn how to 'override' it with what's going/has gone well for you.

    • And learning from failure.

Most Helpful Girl

  • Thanks for the info! I enjoyed the read


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What Guys Said 3

  • Interesting, thanks for the information.

  • What's alarming is that a lot of recent well meaning trends (safe spaces trigger warnings etc) are really pushing learned helplessness on people.

    • How is adding a trigger warning so that rape victims don't have to relieve their assaults a bad thing?

    • Show All
    • Going back to your original example:
      If your friend was attacked on the street and was afraid of going outside, would forcefully pushing him out of his house be the first or the last step?

    • @Noxifer626 it is not the use of trigger warnings itself that is a problem, but when it is done excessively.

      For example letting people know there will happen fireworks is an okay trigger warning, because people like war vets might have a medical condition (ptsd, for example). Same with stroboscope light warnings on a circus where those are used.

      But when it gets to the point where you almost need to trigger warning opposing opinions, that's when it becomes a problem.

      I hope you got my point

  • It was always reinforced in our minds growing up that our family was all that we had (my mother's family fell apart when she was a kid, making her hold on to us all the tighter). Unfortunately, this translated into being overly-religious, paranoid, overprotective, and controlling. I distinctly remember we could only ride our bicycles in circles in the driveway, and I never once spent the night at a friend's house. My mother would plant my sister and I on the couch as kids and yell at us for hours on end, out of all proportion to whatever offense was committed. Any attempt to stand up for myself was swatted down as "being defensive," and I soon learned to stay quiet and hope for the wave to pass. I felt the only way I could have a life of my own was in secret, and whenever the secrets would come out it led to another beratement session until I'd capitulate on whatever it was that pissed her off. To this day I can't really stand up to her in an argument (even when she's talking out her ass) and have resorted to distance in the interest of self-preservation, but I remain socially isolated to a great degree as I never really excelled at meeting people and forming new relationships.

    Family was all I ever had.

    • Challenge whose ideas. Join a club so you can practice talking to people then you can learn how and you'll have friends too.

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