How learned helplessness develops

Dr. Donna L. Roberts
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Learned helplessness, a concept discovered quite serendipitously, has been credited by some scholars as the impetus which resulted in the displacement of behaviorism by cognitive psychology (Yen, 1998). Through a series of experiments, researchers Maier and Seligman (1976) demonstrated that animals can learn that their behavior will have no effect on an environmental event or condition and thus conclude that an aversive stimulus cannot be escaped or avoided. The learned helplessness studies illustrated clearly that thought processes, and not merely the observable rewards or punishments, were determinants of behavior.

In the original experiments, dogs were subjected to conditions where electric shocks could not be avoided regardless of their behavior. Subsequently, when conditions changed such that the shocks could be avoided the dogs did not adjust their behavior, but rather continued to act based on what they had previously learned – that they were helpless and could not escape the aversive stimuli (Maier and Seligman, 1976). These early experiments were theorized to have profound implications for human behavior, particularly with regard to motivation and the development and perpetuation of depression. Like with the dogs, human beings typically manifest a passive acceptance of what they perceive as uncontrollable aversive conditions. Repeated exposure to failure experiences results in depression, a lack of motivation and a loss of hope. The expectation of failure is learned and generalized so that new experiences are approached with a low level of perceived self-efficacy.

Seligman and his colleagues identified general defining aspects of learned helplessness to include: a subsequent failure to learn to avoid an undesirable, but escapable stimulus after repeated exposure to the stimulus in inescapable circumstances; cognitive and motivational deficits exhibited by a subject repeatedly exposed to inescapable negative stimuli; and the generalized broad expectation that outcomes were independent of effort and thus uncontrollable (Buchwald, Coyne & Cole, 1978).

Furthermore, they categorized the major symptoms of learned helplessness into three specific groups – motivational, cognitive, and emotional – each reflecting a different aspect of the individual’s holistic response to this form of conditioning. The motivational aspect refers to a reduced incentive to try new coping responses. The cognitive aspect manifests in the inability to learn new responses to overcome the prior learning that the aversive situation is uncontrollable and in escapable. The emotional aspect refers to the withdrawing, apathetic tendencies and the subjective feelings of anxiety, fear and hopelessness (Kenyon, 2004; Ormrod, 2004). Taken together, these symptoms represent the pervasive sense of desperation and lack of control that perpetuates depression.
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While Seligman argued that depression is a form of learned helplessness based on an expectation that one cannot control important outcomes in life, he has also written about learned optimism (1990). He argues that optimism and pessimism are rooted in our “explanatory styles” - in the ways we explain good and bad events. Based on large numbers of studies, Seligman described the typical pessimist as someone who attributes failure to factors that are internal, permanent, and global, and conversely, success to factors that are external, temporary, and specific. This explanatory style breeds despair and low self-esteem. In contrast, the typical optimist is someone who makes the opposite attributions.


Buchwald, A.M., Coyne, J.C., and Cole, C.S. (1978). A critical evaluation of the learned helplessness model of depression. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87, 180-193.

Kenyon, P. (2004). Learned helplessness and depression: Cognitive or physiological explanation? University of Plymouth: Department of Psychology

Maier, S. F. & Seligman, M. E. P. (1976). Learned helplessness: Theory and evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 105, 3-46.

Ormrod, J. E. (2004). Human learning (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Seligman, M. (1990). Learned Optimism. New York, NY: Pocket Books.

Yen, D. H. (199). Learned helplessness.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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