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Learned Helplessness

What Is Learned Helplessness?

Learned helplessness occurs when an individual continuously faces a negative, uncontrollable situation and stops trying to change their circumstances, even when they have the ability to do so.

For example, a smoker may repeatedly try and fail to quit. He may grow frustrated and come to believe that nothing he does will help and therefore stop trying altogether. Discovering the loss of control essentially elicits a passive response to the harmful situation.

The term was coined in 1967 by the American psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier. The pair was conducting research on animal behavior that involved delivering electric shocks to dogs. Dogs who learned that they couldn’t escape the shock stopped trying in subsequent experiments, even when it became possible to avoid the shock by jumping over a barrier. (The researchers later realized they had picked up on a slightly different behavior, learning control, but studies have since confirmed that learned helplessness occurs.)

The phenomenon exists in many animal species as well as in people. For example, Seligman subjected study participants to loud, unpleasant noises, with a lever that would or would not stop the sounds. The group whose lever wouldn’t stop the sound in the first round stopped trying to silence the noise in the second round.

In the real world, learned helplessness can emerge from and contribute to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. During a depressive episode, for instance, someone may believe that nothing will end their suffering, so they stop seeking help completely. The concept may also manifest in educational settings, when children feel they cannot perform well and therefore stop trying to improve. The experience is characterized by three main features: a passive response to trauma, not believing that trauma can be controlled, and stress.

How to Overcome Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness typically manifests as a lack of self-esteem, low motivation and persistence, the conviction of being inept, and failure. It is more common for people who have experienced repeated traumatic events such as childhood neglect and abuse or domestic violence.

People can push back against learned helplessness by practicing independence from a young age and by cultivating resilience, self-worth, and self-compassion. Engaging in activities that restore self-control can also be valuable. For example, an elderly person who feels helpless in the aging process can engage in small exercises that they know they can do to restore a sense of control.

Therapy, and especially cognitive behavioral therapy, is helpful for exploring the origin of helplessness and addressing related behaviors.

Seligman later developed the concept of learned optimism: By explaining events to ourselves in a constructive manner and developing a positive internal dialogue, people can break free from a cycle of helplessness.

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