Learned helplessness is a state of mind where someone believes that they are unable to act effectively, especially when it comes to avoiding negative outcomes, following their past experiences.
For example, if a student tries hard at school but keeps failing, they can develop learned helplessness 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 is a powerful phenomenon, with serious negative consequences when it comes to domains such as personal growth, mental health, and even physical wellbeing. Furthermore, these consequences are often apparent not only in the short-term, but also long after people have left the environment that caused them to develop learned helplessness in the first place.
Because of this, it’s important to understand this phenomenon, and to know how to deal with it. 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 deal with it effectively.
Examples of learned helplessness
Example of learned helplessness in animals
The earliest examples of learned helplessness in research come from experiments on animals. The two premier papers on the topic, for example, showed how dogs develop learned helplessness in the face of inescapable electric 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 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 learned that they can stop the initial electrocution while in the harness, all managed to quickly figure out that they can jump over the barrier in order to stop the shocks. Similar results were recorded among a third group of dogs, who were placed into the shuttlebox directly, with no prior training in the harness.
- The dogs in the second group, who learned that they can’t stop the initial electrocution while in the harness, 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 end. This was the case even when they were tested days after the original experiment was conducted.
Overall, this experiment shows serves how, after someone experiences an event in which they’re unable to affect the outcome, they can develop learned helplessness and later assume that they’re unable to affect the outcome of other events too.
Note: as you can see, animal experiments on learned helplessness could be cruel, and the theory and methodology behind them formed the foundation of some contentious animal-training methods, and inspired various torture techniques. 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
There are many examples of how learned helplessness can affect people in natural settings. For example:
- Students with learning disabilities often develop learned helplessness, because many of them feel that they are incapable of improving their academic performance.
- Families of hospitalized patients often develop learned helplessness, due to their inability to improve the condition of their loved ones.
- People who suffer from chronic health conditions, such as arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis, often develop learned helplessness, due to their inability to take action that will allow them to cure their condition.
Overall, these examples illustrate how people can develop learned helplessness in their everyday life.
Note that, in such cases, learned helplessness can either be constrained to the domain where it was initially developed, or it can influence other domains of life too. For example, someone who develops learned helplessness when it comes to their studies might be fine otherwise, or they might experience this helplessness when it comes to other domains, such as sports and personal relationships.
Note: evidence on helplessness in humans also exists in experimental settings, such as in experiments that tested people’s response to loud tones. In such experiments, a common response from participants who developed learned helplessness is that “nothing worked, so why try?”.
How learned helplessness is acquired
In a review paper summarizing fifty years of research on the topic, two of the leading researchers in the field—Martin Seligman and Steven Maier—who conducted the premier experiments on the topic, describe, as follows, the mechanisms that were originally assumed to lead to learned helplessness, in the context of animal experiments:
- First, DETECT. Animals DETECT the dimension of controllability and uncontrollability. (This is also referred to sometimes as the dimension of contingency and noncontingency)
- Second, EXPECT. Animals that DETECT uncontrollability EXPECT shock or other events to once again be uncontrollable in new situations, which undermines attempts to escape in those situations.
Essentially, based on this theory, when individuals realize that they cannot control the situation that they’re in, they later expect to be unable to control similar situations too.
However, the researchers suggest that based on the fifty years of evidence that has been accumulated since the initial studies on the topic, and particularly in light of the neuroscientific evidence on the topic, the original theory got the mechanisms of learned helplessness backward. As the researchers state:
“Passivity in response to shock is not learned. It is the default, unlearned response to prolonged aversive events and it is mediated by the serotonergic activity of the dorsal raphe nucleus, which in turn inhibits escape. This passivity can be overcome by learning control, with the activity of the medial prefrontal cortex, which subserves the detection of control leading to the automatic inhibition of the dorsal raphe nucleus. So animals learn that they can control aversive events, but the passive failure to learn to escape is an unlearned reaction to prolonged aversive stimulation.”
Accordingly, they suggest the following mechanism for the acquisition of learned helplessness:
- First: PASSIVITY/ANXIETY. “The intense activation of the dorsal raphe nucleus by shock sensitizes these neurons and this sensitization lasts for a few days and results in poor escape (passivity) and heightened anxiety… The detection of uncontrollability is not necessary nor is it sufficient for passivity. This is caused by prolonged exposure to aversive stimulation per se.”
- Second: DETECT and ACT. “When shock is initially escapable, the presence of control is DETECTed… After detection of control, a separate and distinct population of prelimbic neurons are activated that here we call ACT. These neurons project to the dorsal raphe nucleus and inhibit the 5-HT cells that are activated by aversive stimulation, thus preventing dorsal raphe nucleus activation and thereby preventing sensitization of these cells, eliminating passivity and exaggerated fear. So it is the presence of control, not the absence of control, that is detected…”
- Third: EXPECT. “After the prelimbic-dorsal raphe nucleus ACT circuit is activated, a set of changes that require several hours occurs in this pathway and involves the formation of new proteins related to plasticity. This is now a circuit that EXPECTS control… However, it should be clearly understood that this EXPECTATION may not be a cognitive process or entity as psychologists tend to view them. It is a circuit that provides an expectational function, in the sense that it changes or biases how organisms respond in the future as a consequence of the events that occur in the present.”
In summary, the researchers state that “as the original theory claimed, organisms are sensitive to the dimension of control, and this dimension is critical. However, the part of the dimension that is detected or expected seems now to be the presence of control, not the absence of control“. Crucially, however, they also state the following:
“At the psychological level, there are several other loose ends. As a general statement, neural processes in the prefrontal cortex become narrowed by stress (Arnsten, 2015). Thus, the fact that in an aversive situation the brain seems to detect control as the active ingredient rather than a lack of control, does not mean that the brain cannot detect lack of control in other types of circumstances, such as uncontrollable food or unsolvable cognitive problems, or even loud noise.
That is, the findings that we have reviewed do not imply that the brain does not have circuitry to detect noncontingency between events that include actions and outcomes. Rather, it may be that this processing can occur, but is not deployed in situations that are highly aversive such as the original helplessness experiments. So it is important to distinguish between what the brain does under a given set of conditions, and what the brain is capable of under different conditions. This possibility is in need of further research.”
The complexity of this phenomenon is supported via other research on the topic, such as research showing that learned helplessness can be acquired vicariously, by viewing someone else’s experiences, even if you did not have those experiences yourself.
Overall, the mechanisms behind learned helplessness are the subject of much research.
When focusing on learned helplessness as it’s acquired in the context of the initial experiments on the topic, and particularly on situations where animals were exposed to shock that they cannot control, the original theory was that animals who experience uncontrollable situations detect that uncontrollability, and expect it in future situations.
A newer theory, that is based on the neuroscientific research on the topic, suggests that passivity in response to shock is the default, unlearned behavior, and that animals can learn to overcome it by detecting the response of controllability.
However, this does not necessarily explain how learned helplessness is acquired in all cases, as there can be variability in terms of how it’s acquired by different organisms in different situations. For example, a mouse exposed to shock could develop learned helplessness in a different manner than a student developing learned helplessness as a result of negative feedback in school.
Nevertheless, from a practical perspective, when it comes to understanding why people, including yourself, display learned helplessness, the key factor is generally the inability to control the outcomes of situations that they’re in. Accordingly, individuals who experience situations where they do not have an ability to control outcomes are expected to display more learned helplessness than individuals who experience situations where they do have an ability to control the outcomes.
Objective vs. subjective helplessness
When considering the concept of learned helplessness, it can help to understand the difference between two types of helplessness:
- Objective helplessness. Objective helplessness is a state where someone can do nothing to affect the outcome of a situation.
- Subjective helplessness. Subjective helplessness is a state of mind where someone believes that they can do nothing to affect the outcome of a situation.
Studies on learned helplessness are primarily concerned with situations where individuals who experienced objective helplessness end up developing subjective helplessness, which carries over to other situations where they are not objectively helpless.
The negative impact of learned helplessness
As we saw so far, learned helplessness involves the belief that one is powerless to affect the outcomes of situations that they’re in. This state of mind is highly problematic, and as such, learned helplessness can negatively affect people in various ways. For example:
- 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.
- 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.
- Learned helplessness increases the risk of suffering from various health problems, and increase the likelihood of drug abuse.
- Among patients, the feeling of helplessness has a negative impact on recovery.
In addition, research on the topic found a strong link between learned helplessness and various mental health problems, and especially depression. This is the case both in humans and in animals, where learned helplessness promotes various fearful and anxious behaviors, that are associated with mental disorders.
Notably, as one review paper points out, learned helplessness experiments lead to symptoms—in both humans and animals—that are characteristic of depression, such as:
- Loss of interest.
- Feelings of worthlessness.
- Poor concentration.
- Sleep problems.
- Psychomotor problems.
Note: in terms of the link between depression and learned helplessness, not only does learned helplessness lead to symptoms that are characteristic of depression, but depressed individuals are also generally more likely to display behaviors rooted in learned helplessness.
How to overcome learned helplessness
Above, we saw what learned helplessness is and how people develop it. Next, we will see some techniques that can be used in order to mitigate learned helplessness, and even overcome it entirely in some cases.
Focus on what you can control
As research shows, long-term learned helplessness is about being unable to control the outcome of situations. Accordingly, to overcome learned helplessness, you should identify things that you can control, and focus on them, rather than on what you can’t control.
For example, if you’re a student struggling at school, you generally won’t be able to control things such as what material you need to study and how good your teachers are. What you can control, however, are things such as how much attention you pay in class, how much effort you put into studying, and whether you actively seek help for issues that you encounter, such as difficulty in concentrating.
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
Different people react differently to situations that can promote learned helplessness. For example, 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.
A notable reason why this happens is people’s attributional style (also referred to as explanatory style), which in this case refers primarily to how they interpret adverse events. There are three key patterns of thinking, which are common in people with a pessimistic explanatory style, and which increase the likelihood of developing learned helplessness:
- Negative events are perceived as personal. This means that people perceive negative events as being their fault. To overcome this perception, you should consider the fact that just because you experienced a negative outcome, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you did something wrong.
- Negative events are perceived as pervasive. This means that people assume that negative events that they experience will affect them in many areas of life. To overcome this perception, you should consider the fact that limited negative outcomes will generally have a limited impact, and won’t necessarily influence many aspects of your life.
- Negative events are perceived as permanent. This means that people think that the situation at hand will never get better. To overcome this perception, you should consider the fact that there is almost always a reasonable possibility that the situation will improve over time.
These three patterns of thinking are based on the three domains that are used in order to categorize people’s attributional style. Specifically, these domains include 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 (e.g. “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 (e.g. “it was a difficult situation”).
- Having a global attributional style means that you view negative events as affecting a wide range of areas (e.g. “this is going to ruin everything”), while having a specific attributional style means that you view the effects of negative events as being limited (e.g. “this won’t affect other areas of my life”).
- Having a stable attributional style means that you view negative effects as having long-lasting effects (e.g. “this is never going to get better”), while having an unstable attributional style means that you view negative events as having only temporary effects (e.g. “this will improve over time”).
As such, having a pessimistic outlook means that you generally view negative events with an attribution that is internal, global, and stable, which promotes learned helplessness, and which leads to other issues, such as worse academic performance and worse physical health. Conversely, an optimistic outlook involves viewing negative events with an attribution that is external, specific, and unstable, which can help you cope with those events in a more adaptive manner.
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 properly aware 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 that 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, one way to help yourself avoid, reduce, or overcome learned helplessness is to change the way you view events, so that you do not look at negative outcomes as something personal, pervasive, and permanent, unless there is a good reason to do so. One way to frame a negative event in a relatively positive manner is 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, for example, that 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 some degree, to interpret events using that attributional style.
Use positive reinforcement
Another tool that you can use to deal with learned helplessness is positive reinforcement, which can help you in various ways.
First, receiving positive feedback that improves your self-esteem can help reduce feelings of helplessness. For example, one study showed that after people experienced feelings 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.”).
In addition, retroactively evaluating past 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 negative.
Consider seeking professional help
The methods described in this article might be able to help you reduce or overcome learned helplessness in some cases. However, there are limitations to what you can accomplish yourself, and these techniques won’t be sufficient in all cases.
As such, if you think that you might benefit from help, and especially if you experience learned helplessness that is severe or chronic, consider seeking professional help, who will be able to help you using cognitive behavioral therapy or other relevant types of treatment.
Summary and conclusions
- Learned helplessness is a state of mind where someone believes that they are unable to act effectively, especially when it comes to avoiding negative outcomes, following their past experiences.
- People display learned helplessness in a wide range of contexts; this includes, for example, students who suffer from learning disabilities and people who suffer from chronic health conditions.
- Learned helplessness is inherently problematic in terms of how it affects people’s behavior, and it is also associated with a variety of mental and physical issues, including, most notably, depression, with which it shares many symptoms, such as loss of interest and feelings of worthlessness.
- To avoid, reduce, or overcome learned helplessness, you should identify things that you can control, and focus on them, rather than on what you can’t control.
- To handle learned helplessness, you can also seek positive reinforcement, and change your attributional style to avoid viewing negative outcomes as something personal, pervasive, and permanent, unless there is a good reason to do so; if necessary, you should also consider getting professional help.