Learned Helplessness Simplified — Understanding and Overcoming the Phenomenon

Photo by Ibrahim Boran on Unsplash

Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon in which a person experiences a sense of powerlessness and a belief that they are unable to control events affecting their life. This can occur after repeated exposure to aversive events which they perceive as uncontrollable, leading them to feel hopeless and passive in future situations. It results in a reduced effort to escape or avoid negative situations, and decreased motivation and ability to take control of their environment.

The concept of learned helplessness was first studied by psychologist Martin Seligman in the 1960s. He conducted experiments on dogs where they were exposed to an unpleasant stimulus that they were unable to escape from, such as electric shocks. Over time, the dogs stopped trying to escape the shocks and became passive, even when presented with an opportunity to escape in the future.

Similarly, learned helplessness can occur in humans as a result of repeated exposure to adverse situations that they believe they have no control over, such as abuse, poverty, or discrimination. This can result in a negative outlook on life, low self-esteem, and a lack of motivation.

Examples of learned helplessness include:

  • A dog that is repeatedly shocked in an electrified cage and then fails to attempt escape even when the shock can be easily avoided. (This was the scenario in the first experiments that discovered this phenomena)
  • A student who consistently receives low grades despite their efforts, and eventually gives up trying to improve.
  • A worker who is frequently criticized by their boss and eventually stops putting in effort or speaking up in meetings.
  • A person who has experienced repeated traumatic events and becomes passive, feeling unable to change their circumstances.
  • A child who is repeatedly scolded for not doing their homework correctly, leading them to believe they are incapable of academic success.
  • An elderly person who is dependent on others for their daily care and begins to feel hopeless about their ability to live independently and stops doing the simple tasks they can easily still manage.

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Donna L Roberts, PhD (Psych Pstuff)

Writer and university professor researching the human condition, generational studies, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology