Learned Helplessness – What Is it and How Does it Occur?

Learned helplessness is a learned response that essentially equates to ‘giving up’ and ceasing all attempts to change a situation. It was first demonstrated by a study conducted by psychologist Martin Seligman (1) who demonstrated the phenomenon in dogs. However, it has since been demonstrated in humans and been suggested as a key component leading to clinical depression.

What Is Learned Helplessness?

Much of our understanding of learned helplessness stems from the early research by Seligman. In his famous study, he looked at three groups of dogs. The first group of dogs were placed in harnesses and released after a short period of time.

The second group of dogs were given electric shocks at random times and the dogs were shown that they could end the shocks by pressing a lever.

The third group of dogs were given shocks of the same intensity but their lever did not end the shock. However, unbeknownst to the dogs in group three, their shocks were actually ended by the dogs in the second group.

Following this, the dogs were then subjected to a second set of circumstances. Now, they were shocked in a shuttle box apparatus but could escape the shocks by jumping over a short dividing partition to get to safety on the other side. The dogs in groups 1 and 2 were quickly able to learn that they could jump over the partition and escape the shocks. However, the dogs in group 3 never came to this realization.

The explanation for this given by Seligman, was that the dogs in group 3 had learned that nothing they did could change their circumstances. Thus, even when placed in a different scenario, they had no will to try and escape their fates. All the dogs would do in group 3, was lie down and cry passively during the shocks. This ‘retardation’ of learning skills is what is known as ‘learned helplessness’.

Further studies have demonstrated a similar effect to work in different circumstances and to apply to humans as well as dogs. Of course today, a psychologist would have a very hard time getting permission to conduct such an arguably inhumane study on animals.

What We Can Learn From This

The key thing to take away is that learned helplessness can be generalized across situations. If you have met with failure enough times in your life, then you might eventually stop trying to improve your circumstances in any area of your life!

For example, if you have tried to find work outside of your current job and been repeatedly rejected, it might eventually lead to you giving up on trying to look for work outside. It might also lead to you giving up on trying to look for progression opportunities in your current job. This could mean you stop trying to excel in what you’re doing and might even mean you start making less of an effort in your routine.

We all known people in our lives who seem unwilling to ‘help themselves’. They express that they are unhappy in their current job role and when we ask why they don’t look for work, all they do is shrug their shoulders.

Likewise, we know people who say they want to lose weight but never seem to make any attempt to do so.

More recent theories and research have looked at the roles of cognition and even neurochemistry in learned helplessness and in depression generally. Some studies suggest that increases in serotonin activity in the dorsal raphe nucleus may play a role in learned helplessness.

Happily, similar research has also suggested a single and highly effective treatment for learned helplessness – exercise (2). When given treadmills and running wheel exercises, it was found that rats could avoid learned helplessness.

When life is getting tough, it can try and teach us to just lay down and take it. Instead though, we can make the active decision not to and take action by training and making ourselves both physically and mentally tougher. It’s hard to do but it’s the first rung on a ladder to changing your environment.

As Jackie Chan said:

“Don’t let your circumstances change you, change your circumstances.”



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Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki is a full time writer who spends most of his time in the coffee shops of London. Adam has a BSc in psychology and is an amateur bodybuilder with a couple of competition wins to his name. His other interests are self improvement, general health, transhumanism and brain training. As well as writing for websites and magazines, he also runs his own sites and has published several books and apps on these topics.

Follow Adam on Linkedin: adam-sinicki, twitter: thebioneer, facebook: adam.sinicki and youtube: treehousefrog

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