So many bad things beyond your control have happened, you are overwhelmed and have stopped trying to help yourself. Your vitality and zest are gone, you are listless and discouraged, and you believe that nothing you do even matters. You have lost the struggle and learned to become helpless, and you are now passive and complacent even though you could take action to help yourself. Perhaps rethinking how you explain these events to yourself can help you cope better.
Informally, learned helpless can be thought of as:
- Giving up,
- Expectations of future noncontingency—outcomes no longer depend on actions,
- Believing: It won't matter what I do,
- Believing: I have no control over the outcome.
- The belief that your actions are futile.
- Believing you are incompetent.
Learned helplessness was first studied and described as an animal's failure to escape traumatic electric shock. Although learned helplessness was first studied in laboratory animals, here we are discussing the theory as it applies to people. The theory describes what happens when a person comes to believe they have no control over their situation and that whatever they do is futile. As a result, the person will stay passive in the face of an unpleasant, harmful, or damaging situation, even when they actually do have the ability to improve the circumstances. To qualify as learned helplessness, a phenomenon has to meet all three of these conditions:
- The person has to become inappropriately passive, and
- This change has to follow exposure to prolonged uncontrollable events, and
- There is a change in the way the person thinks about their ability to control similar future events.
Uncontrollable events disrupt peoples' subsequent problem solving skills. How people choose to explain the causes of these bad events affect their response in a variety of ways, including motivation, emotion, cognition, and behavior. People tend to define the extent of their helplessness—their lack of control or incompetency—as being pervasive or narrow, short term or long term.
The terms complacency, apathy, discouraged, demoralized, and futility often describe thoughts and behavior that may result from learned helplessness. The opposite of learned helplessness is learned mastery, learned optimism, and hardiness. Control—the ability to change things through voluntary action—is the opposite of helplessness.
Origins and Benefits
Beating your head against the wall wastes time and energy and is potentially harmful. Persistent attempts to control the uncontrollable are futile. Hope has its limits; wishful thinking is not a sufficient strategy. Knowing what we can change and what we cannot and knowing when to give up frees us to pursue productive activities. Remaining passive allows us to conserve energy when the evidence tells us there is simply nothing else for us to do. Adopting a passive stance provides us with the “serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”
There is considerable evidence that the uncontrollable adverse events that characterize learned helplessness cause stress, while similar but controlled adverse events do not. Several neural and neurochemical changes occur in animals exposed to uncontrollable shocks that do not occur when the animal can control the shocks. Levels of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine are reduced in rats subjected to inescapable electric shocks but not in rats exposed to shock that could be avoided or escaped. Rats exposed to inescapable shock show decreased brain levels of Gamma-amino butyric Acid (GABA) while rats exposed to escapable shock do not. The analgesic state—such as the response to morphine where the organism is less responsive to painful stimulus—is induced in rats by uncontrollable, but not controllable shock.
Studies of helplessness in people show changes in biological markers that usually indicate increased arousal, consistent with increased fear or anxiety.
The conclusion is that these uncontrollable adverse events result in considerable stress, however similar controllable events do not. Learning that the stressor is uncontrollable may increase fear, or learning that it is controllable may reduce fear. Control is a form of coping that prevents some forms of stress.
When important things happen people tend to explain what caused the outcome. The way we explain misfortune can be analyzed along two dimensions known as locus and generality. Locus of control refers to the tendency to take personal responsibility for the outcome (internal) or to attribute the outcome to external events (external). It may also be called personalization. Generality refers to considering the outcome as an isolated one-time event or as a permanent and pervasive condition. Generality has the dimensions of time and scope. Causes lasting for only a limited time are called “unstable” and those lasing for a long time are referred to as “stable” or “permanent”. Limited scope is called “specific” and general scope is called “global” or “pervasive”. Consider these four different ways of explaining why you did poorly on a test:
|Specific Time & Scope
||I did not study effectively this time for this test.
||This test was unfair.
|General Time & Scope
||I'm never any good at studying anything.
||Tests are unfair.
Individuals have characteristic explanatory styles they habitually use to explain why things happen. Attributing causes to internal specific factors explains outcomes in terms of behaviors; “I made a mistake this time”. The bad outcome is attributed to a single isolated instance of bad behavior. This is an optimistic explanatory style for bad outcomes because your behavior can be modified to best suit specific events. Attributing causes to internal general factors explains outcomes in terms of character traits. This is pessimistic for bad outcomes because character traits remain largely constant over time. The pessimistic viewpoint says: “The bad outcome occurred because I am a bad person now and always”.
Now consider the possible explanations when something good happens. Here are four different ways of explaining why you made money when a stock you bought increased in value:
|Specific Time & Scope
||I was skillful in choosing this stock this time.
||This company was well run for this period of time.
|General Time & Scope
||I am generally skillful, especially with financial matters.
||The economy is doing well. I got lucky this time.
Here the optimistic person takes full credit when things go well, attributing the good outcome to internal rather than external factors. Attributing the good fortune to your generally good character, rather than specific behavior in this case is especially optimistic. In contrast, the pessimistic person attributes good outcomes to external events, including uncharacteristically good luck.
In summary, the optimist takes broad credit for good outcomes and narrow responsibility for bad outcomes. The pessimist blames himself broadly for bad outcomes and attributes good outcomes to external factors.
A reliable and validated self-report questionnaire, the Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ) can be used to assess an individual's explanatory style. It provides a score that is rated on a scale running from “very optimistic” to “very pessimistic”.
Fortunately attribute training can often teach people reassess their thinking, recognize and correct errors in their thinking, and adopt a more appropriate optimistic explanatory style. This is described below in the section “dispute Pessimistic Explanations”.
Both Views are Important:
Optimism and pessimism describe two extremes of a continuum of viewpoints used for assessing and extending uncertain, ambiguous, or conflicting information and making estimates, forecasts, and decisions. Some situations are best met by optimism, others by pessimism. This table characterizes the differences:
|Takes broad personal credit for good outcomes. Personalizes and adopts an internal locus of control when things go well.
||Attributes good outcomes to external factors or luck. Adopts an external locus of control when things go well.
|Attributes bad outcomes to external factors and rare circumstances, or to narrowly isolated mistakes. Adopts an external locus of control when things go bad.
||Blames himself broadly for bad outcomes. Personalizes and adopts an internal locus of control when things go bad.
|Fuels the aspirations of hope. Sustains the effort and persistence required to overcome obstacles. Inspires others. Allows us to dream and see possibilities. Seeks to advance. Bold.
||Promotes caution, critical thinking, skepticism, and defensive measures. Sustains a keen sense of reality. Highlights problems. Seeks to protect. Timid.
|Expansive; seize the possibilities. Exploration, adventure, discovery. Discounts or dismisses risks. The engine that moves us forward.
||Conservative; protect what we have. Concerned with safety. Highlights and emphasizes risks. The brakes that keep us from crashing.
|Recover quickly from setbacks. Undaunted by defeat.
||Recover slowly, if at all, from setbacks. Wallow in defeat.
|Unlikely to suffer from depression.
||Likely to suffer from depression.
|Unwarranted or excessive optimism can result in unrealistic plans, recklessness, risk taking, egotism, aggrandizing, and avoiding responsibility. It can also result in an unearned or undeserved sense of pride.
||Unwarranted or excessive pessimism can result in inaction, depression, or other inappropriate passive behavior. It can also result in unwarranted fear, anxiety, guilt or shame.
|Optimists landed a man on the moon . . .
|| . . . and also insisted on launching the space shuttle challenger the day it exploded.
Avoid the polarization and false dichotomy of arguing optimism vs. pessimism. Instead choose, realism; the viewpoint that is supported by the best available information, estimation, and judgment.
Explanatory Styles are Learned
Research shows that explanatory style is primarily learned rather than inherited. Children learn how to explain bad things from three main sources. The first source a child uses for learning how to explain adversity is to model how their mothers (or other primary care giver) explains adverse events. If the mother blames herself or the child broadly when bad things happen, the child will notice and learn this pessimistic style. The second source a child uses to learn their own explanatory style are the adults that care for, discipline, teach, and criticize the child. These people include teachers, parents, and other authority figures. When these adults blame the child's character, personality, or self whenever bad things happen, the child quickly learns to blame themselves using personal, permanent, and pervasive explanations for why thing go wrong. The final powerful teacher is tragic life crises. If children experience a crisis, such as a house fire, divorced parents, abuse, or extreme poverty, they notice if these tragedies get resolved after a period of time or if they persist forever. If the crisis gets resolved quickly, then the child learns to believe that adversity is specific, temporary, and can be overcome. If the crisis expands and never ends, the child learns to believe that adversity is permanent and pervasive.
The style children learn for explaining adversity typically persists throughout their adult life. However, we can learn to dispute our pessimistic explanations.
Dispute Pessimistic Explanations
If you tend toward pessimistic explanations for adverse events, you can learn to dispute your own reasoning and adopt more objective, accurate, and optimistic explanations. Recognize that in blaming yourself for a bad outcome you are accepting a fallacy of disproportionate responsibility. Imagine becoming your own defense attorney, reexamining the evidence, challenging assumptions, casting doubt, considering other possibilities, and offering alternative explanations. Here is an example:
You have failed a test and you automatically blame yourself, believing “I am just not any good a studying anything”. As a result you feel ashamed of yourself and you may even feel mildly depressed, discouraged, or overwhelmed. Now it is time to recognize you are not helpless; it is time to dispute your hasty, inaccurate, and pessimistic conclusion. What does the evidence say? Certainly you have passed many difficult tests in your lifetime to get to where you are now. You have passed several tests recently in other subjects, and even did OK in this subject. This evidence clearly disputes your pessimistic belief that you are not any good at studying anything. What additional contributing causes are there? Perhaps you did not get a good night's sleep, you were under unusual stress, you may not have mastered the prerequisites for this subject, you may not have had time to study or get extra help, you may be taking a heavy course load or work load, you may be upset about some recent problem, perhaps you had a fight with your lover, or your car broke down, or the test was not fair, or instructor does not communicate well. With so many factors at work, it is inaccurate to attribute blame entirely to yourself, and it is certainly an overgeneralization fallacy to extrapolate from this one occurrence to a general, pervasive, and persistent conclusion. So a more accurate explanation is that you did poorly on this test for some isolated reason, such as poor preparation for this particular test. This isolated problem can certainly be overcome, and there is no need to feel ashamed or helpless. Put this setback into the past, address any specific issues, and go about studying as you have done successfully so many times before.
Take responsibility only for what you did and what you can change. Choose to forgive yourself. Move forward with your life and return to feeling OK with yourself.
Dr. Albert Ellis describes a technique for disputing pessimistic beliefs that can be recalled using the mnemonic ABCDE:
- Adversity happens and you begin to think about what caused it.
- You form a Belief to explain the failure to yourself. This may be unrealistically negative.
- Your negative beliefs have Consequences, such as feeling shame, becoming depressed, or feeling overwhelmed.
- Dispute these negative beliefs, and create more objective, accurate, and objective beliefs.
- Energize yourself through this optimistic outlook.
There are important relationships between learned helplessness and depression. First, the symptoms are quite similar, including passivity, cognitive deficits, decreased self-esteem, sadness, hostility, anxiety, loss of appetite, reduced aggression, sleep loss, and depletion of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and serotonin. Second, depressed people are more likely to offer internal and general explanations for bad events and tend to make external and specific explanations for good events. Cognitive therapy that provides relief from unipolar depression also results in a more optimistic explanatory style.
Studies show that depressive symptoms are associated with a pessimistic explanatory style.
Relevance to Social Problems
Learned helplessness theory has been studied as a model for a wide range of social problems. Here are examples where research shows it to be an especially good fit.
- Depression can be largely explained by the learned helplessness theory, as described above.
- Academic achievement fits the theory well; optimistic explanatory style predicts better academic achievement than does pessimistic explanatory style. For example, in one study habitual explanations of bad events in terms of internal general causes predicted poor academic performance, even when SAT scores were held constant.
- Asian Americans are sometimes passive when a more active response might improve their circumstances. Research has shown that uncontrollable events leading to cognitive changes precede passive behavior by Asian Americans in some situations.
- Learned helplessness explains some passive behavior by Black Americans. Poverty, discrimination, and ghetto life chronically exposes people to uncontrollable circumstances. Some studies show that Blacks are passive when perseverance would be more beneficial. Interviews with young unemployed blacks determined that 23% have little hope of ever getting a job. These criteria fit the model of learned helplessness, but other factors are also clearly important.
- Burnout describes exhaustion and passive responses within a work environment. It occurs after prolonged uncontrollable events cause the worker to think more narrowly about the options they have for responding. This fits the learned helplessness theory.
- Crowding can lead to reduced perseverance and social withdrawal. The crowding itself is an uncontrollable condition, and leads people to report having little control over events in their life. This fits the model.
- Uncontrollable noise interferes with performance. Studies have shown that uncontrollable noise interferes with problem solving, but the identical noise does not when it is interpreted as controllable. The effects of noise pollution is an example of learned helplessness.
Learned helpless is also pertinent to our health. Several studies show that optimistic explanatory style is linked to good health and pessimistic explanatory style predicts poor health. Mechanisms probably include biological, emotional, behavioral, and interpersonal factors.
Incomplete research also suggests that learned helplessness is an important mechanism contributing to passive behavior in aging, athletic performance, chronic pain, sales, and unemployment.
- “Whether you think you can, or think you can't, you're probably right.” ~ Henry Ford
- “Know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.” ~ Gambler's wisdom
Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control, by Christopher Peterson, Steven F. Maier, Martin E. P. Seligman
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, by Martin E. Seligman
Learned Helplessness Research, a listing of Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman’s books and other publications on the topic of Learned Helplessness