Learned helplessness is an acquired state of mind, where someone believes, based on past experience, that they are unable to affect the outcome of situations that they’re in, regardless of any action they might take. This state of mind is acquired when someone repeatedly receives negative feedback, that they are entirely unable to prevent.
For example, a student who tries hard at school but keeps failing might develop a sense of learned helpless, and decide to give up on their studies, because they feel that they will never be able to succeed, regardless of how much effort they put in.
Learned helplessness can have a powerful psychological impact on people, and it is generally detrimental to people’s mental health, emotional wellbeing, and personal growth, both in the short-term as well as long after they’ve left the environment that caused them to acquire it in the first place.
Because of this, it’s important to understand this phenomenon, and to know how it can be dealt with. As such, in the following article you will learn more about learned helplessness, understand how and why people acquire it, and see what you can do in order to overcome it.
Examples of learned helplessness
Example of learned helplessness in animals
Many of the earlier examples of learned helplessness come from experiments on animals. The two premier papers on the topic, for example, showed how dogs acquire learned helplessness in the face of inescapable traumatic shock.
In one of these studies, psychologists placed individual dogs inside a rubber harness. At random intervals, the dogs received an electric shock to their hind legs. One group of dogs could stop the shocks by pressing their heads against a nearby panel, while the other group could do nothing to stop the shocks, and had to wait in pain until the shocks stopped on their own.
Later, these two groups of dogs were placed inside a shuttle box, which is essentially a cage composed of two compartments, that are partially separated by a low barrier. Once the lights in the box went off, the floor of the cage became electrified, and discharged a consistent and painful electric shock upon contact. If the dog reacted to this shock by jumping over the low barrier into the other compartment, then the shock immediately stopped.
The two groups of dogs reacted differently to this painful mechanism:
- The dogs in the first group, who were taught that they can stop the initial electrocution in the harness by being proactive and pressing a panel, all managed to quickly figure out that they can jump over the barrier in order to stop the shocks.
- The dogs in the second group, who were taught that they can’t stop the initial electrocution in the harness no matter what they do, did not attempt, for the most part, to escape the shocks that they experienced in the shuttle box. Instead, the majority of them simply lay passively on the floor, waiting for the pain to stop. This was the case even when they were tested days after the original experiment was conducted.
Overall, this experiment shows how teaching someone that they cannot avoid an adverse outcome in one area can condition them to believe that they cannot avoid a similar outcome in other areas, even when that is not the case.
Specifically, the dogs who were taught that they cannot escape the electric shocks while in the harness continued to believe that they are unable to escape similar shocks after being placed in a different environment. Accordingly, most of them never attempted to escape this undeserving punishment, even though they were completely free to do so.
Note: as you can see, the animal experiments on learned helplessness were cruel, and the theory and methodology behind them formed the foundation of some contentious animal-training methods, and inspired various torture techniques, including those used by the US in post-9/11 interrogations. These experiments are mentioned here because they are crucial to our understanding of learned helplessness, and because to hide them would be to deny that they ever happened.
Examples of learned helplessness in humans
- Families of patients who are hospitalized often acquire a feeling of learned helplessness over time, due to their inability to improve the condition of their loved ones.
- Students with learning disabilities often acquire learned helplessness, because many of them feel that they are unable to improve their academic performance.
- People who suffer from chronic health conditions often develop a feeling of helplessness, due to their inability to take action which improves their condition on a significant scale. This is the case for people suffering from anything from arthritis, to lupus, to multiple sclerosis, as well as from many other chronic conditions.
Overall, these examples illustrate how people can acquire learned helplessness in their everyday life, when they consistently experience negative feedback in a certain domain, regardless of their attempts to achieve a positive outcome.
How learned helplessness is acquired
There are two main beliefs that a person must develop in order to acquire learned helplessness:
- First, the person experiencing learned helplessness must believe that a certain type of event that they experience will consistently have a negative outcome.
- Second, the person experiencing learned helplessness must believe that there is nothing that they can do in order to successfully change the expected negative outcome of that event.
Note that helplessness can sometimes be learned vicariously, by viewing someone else’s experiences. That is, if you see someone experiencing the conditions that generally promote learned helplessness, it’s possible for you to acquire learned helplessness in the same domain, even if you’ve never experienced the negative outcome that they did firsthand.
The negative impact of learned helplessness
As we saw so far, learned helplessness affects people in a negative way, because it makes them feel that they can’t do anything to improve their situation. This is an inherently problematic state of mind, because it prevents people from trying to do things that will benefit them.
As such, the negative impact of learned helplessness is apparent in many areas:
- Learned helplessness inhibits the implementation of active coping strategies, and causes people to react to adverse situations using maladaptive behaviors, such as procrastination, denial, or avoidance.
- Chronic learned helplessness increases the risk of suffering from various health problems.
- Acquiring learned helplessness increases the likelihood of drug abuse.
- Among patients, the feeling of helplessness has a negative impact on recovery.
- Among students, the feeling of helplessness is associated with the tendency to procrastinate more, get worse grades, feel more dissatisfied, and have lower self-esteem.
Based on this, it’s not surprising that research on the topic found a strong link between learned helplessness and various mental health problems, and especially depression. This is also the case in animals, where learned helplessness promotes various fearful and anxious behaviors, that are associated with mental disorders.
How to overcome learned helplessness
So far, we saw the mechanisms that promote the acquisition of learned helplessness. Next, we will see two techniques that can be used in order to mitigate learned helplessness, and even overcome it entirely.
Change your attributional style
“The difference between people whose learned helplessness disappears swiftly and people who suffer their symptoms for two weeks or more is usually simple: Members of the latter group have a pessimistic explanatory style, and a pessimistic explanatory style changes learned helplessness from brief and local to long-lasting and general. Learned helplessness becomes full-blown depression when the person who fails is a pessimist. In optimists, a failure produces only brief demoralization.”
— From “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life“, by renowned psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman
Research shows that in some cases, learned helplessness remains specific to the situation in which it was acquired, while in other cases, it generalizes across situations. This can be explained by understanding how a person’s attributional style (which is sometimes also referred to as an explanatory style), affects the way in which they react to events that could promote learned helplessness.
Essentially, how you interpret adverse events determines the likelihood that you will acquire learned helplessness in reaction to them. There are three key patterns of thinking, which are common in people with a pessimistic explanatory style, that increase the likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness:
- Negative events are viewed as personal. This means that you perceive negative events as always being your fault. To overcome this perception, you must consider the fact that just because you experienced a negative outcome, it doesn’t mean that you did something wrong.
- Negative events are viewed as pervasive. This means that you generalize the outcome of each negative event that you experience, in a way that leads you to believe that it will negatively affect many areas of your life. To overcome this perception, you must consider the fact that a single negative event doesn’t necessarily influence all aspects of your life.
- Negative events are viewed as permanent. This means that you think that the situation at hand will never get better. To overcome this perception, you must consider the fact that even a series of negative outcomes doesn’t mean that things will always be bad; rather, there is almost always the possibility that the situation will improve in the future.
These patterns of thinking can be described based on three key factors that are used in order to categorize people’s attributional style. Specifically, these factors are internality/externality, globality/specificity, and stability/instability, and they all determine how people perceive various events in their life:
- Having an internal attributional style means that you view yourself as the main cause of negative events (“it was all my fault”), while having an external attributional style means that you view the causes of negative events as being related primarily to the circumstances (“it was a problematic situation”).
- Having a global attributional style means that you view negative events as affecting a wide range of areas (“this is going to ruin everything”), while having a specific attributional style means that you view the effects of negative events as being limited (“this won’t affect other areas of my life”).
- Having a stable attributional style means that you view negative effects as having a long-lasting effect (“this is never going to get better”), while having an unstable attributional style means that you view negative events as having a temporary effect (“this was just a one-time thing”).
As such, having a pessimistic outlook means that you generally view negative events with an internal, global, and stable attribution, which promotes learned helplessness, and leads to various issues, such as worse academic performance and worse physical health. Conversely, an optimistic outlook involves viewing negative events with an external, specific, and unstable attribution, that can help you cope which adverse events in a positive way.
Accordingly, in order to avoid acquiring learned helplessness, you want to change the way in which you view your successes and failures in life. Specifically, you should strive to frame your failures as external, specific, and unstable, and to frame your successes as internal, general, and stable.
However, when implementing this reframing technique, it’s important to stay realistic, and cognizant of the situation. For example, if a certain negative outcome was truly your fault, you generally shouldn’t try to externalize it, since doing so can prevent you from learning from your mistakes.
Furthermore, it’s likely that you will experience some negative events which will have a significant, long-lasting effect on various areas of your life. Modifying your attributional style isn’t about ignoring these cases. Rather, it’s about developing a realistic viewpoint in situations where you tend to be overly pessimistic, since this unnecessary pessimism has a negative impact on your wellbeing and personal development.
Overall, the best way to frame a negative event in a positive way can be summarized in the following statement:
I understand that bad things can happen to me sometimes. However, it’s not necessarily because of something that I did wrong, and even if it is, I can learn from the experience, so that I can do the right thing in the future. Furthermore, a few negative events don’t necessarily mean that everything in my life is going wrong, and it also doesn’t mean that things won’t get better in the future.
Note: people’s attributional styles are best captured using a spectrum, rather than a dichotomous description. This means that, for example, people don’t usually have a 100% global attributional style or a 100% specific attributional style, because people don’t usually believe that every minor negative event that they experience is going to affect all areas of their life, or that every major negative event that they experience isn’t going to have any notable effect on them at all.
Rather, people generally tend to lean toward one side of the spectrum, meaning that they are predisposed, to a certain degree, to interpret events using that attributional style. How likely a person is to interpret a certain event using a certain attributional style depends both on their overall tendency to use that attributional style, as well as on the nature of that specific event.
Use positive reinforcement
In addition to changing your attributional style, you can also use positive reinforcement in order to cope with adverse situations that promote learned helplessness.
First of all, receiving positive feedback which improves your self-esteem can help reduce feelings of helplessness. For example, one study showed that after subjects experienced the feeling of helplessness due to an inability to help another person, they managed to cope with the situation better if they heard someone else describe them in a positive way.
This worked even though the description was relatively generic, and simply listed various positive characteristics (i.e. “this person is interested in people and is ready to help them when needed. He is able to express concern and respect for others. He is also sensitive, thoughtful, and flexible enough to establish good rapport with others.”).
A direct retroactive evaluation of the negative events can also help you cope with situations where you experienced helplessness. This involves looking back at past events, and evaluating them in a way that provides you with positive reinforcement.
For example, you can frame your past actions in a positive way, by highlighting the fact that the choices that you made were logical given the information that you had at the time. Alternatively, you can frame the outcome of the event itself in a positive way, by emphasizing the fact that you learned how to do things better based on that experience, even if the experience itself was a negative one.
Overall, the use of positive reinforcement can help you cope with learned helplessness, and reduce the likelihood that you will acquire it in the first place. However, for best results, you should also make sure to try and change your attributional style, in order to take advantage of all the tools at your disposal.
Final words on overcoming learned helplessness
The two methods which are described above (changing your attributional style and using positive reinforcement), can both help you reduce or overcome learned helplessness in some cases. However, there are limitations to what you can accomplish yourself, even if you understand these techniques well.
As such, in some cases, and especially if you experience learned helplessness that is severe or chronic, you can benefit from meeting with a professional psychologist, who can help you implement these techniques as part of cognitive behavioral therapy, or some other form of treatment.
Summary and conclusions
- Learned helplessness is an acquired state of mind, where someone believes, based on past experience, that they are unable to affect the outcome of situations that they’re in, regardless of any action they might take.
- Essentially, when someone acquires learned helplessness, they develop the expectation that a certain event is going to have a negative outcome, and that there is nothing that they can do in order to change it.
- Learned helplessness can be acquired naturally in a wide range of situations, including suffering from a chronic health condition or being a student with a learning disability. Furthermore, this mindset is associated with various issues, including health problems, mental disorders, and the use of maladaptive coping strategies such as procrastination and avoidance.
- It’s possible to reduce the risk of acquiring learned helplessness and to mitigate its impact by modifying your attributional style. This means that, as long as it’s realistic to do so, you should view negative events as occurring due to external reasons, and as having a limited, short-term effect on other areas of your life.
- Another way to mitigate the negative impact of learned helplessness is through the use of positive reinforcement. This can either involve receiving general, positive feedback about yourself and your actions, or it can involve reflectively thinking about adverse events, and framing your actions or the outcomes of the events in a more positive light.
If you found this article interesting, and want to learn more on the topic, you can read one of the premier books on the topic: “Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control“.