Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness is a technical term that refers to the condition of a human or animal that has learned to behave helplessly, failing to respond even though there are opportunities for it to help itself by avoiding unpleasant circumstances or by gaining positive rewards. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation. Organisms which have been ineffective and less sensitive in determining the consequences of their behavior are defined as having acquired learned helplessness. American psychologist Martin Seligman’s foundational experiments and theory of learned helplessness began at the University of Pennsylvania in 1967, as an extension of his interest in depression. Quite by accident, Seligman and colleagues discovered that the conditioning of dogs led to outcomes that opposed the predictions of B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism, then a leading psychological theory.

In the learned helplessness experiment an animal is repeatedly hurt by an adverse stimulus which it cannot escape. Eventually the animal will stop trying to avoid the pain and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Finally, when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness prevents any action. The only coping mechanism the animal uses is to be stoical and put up with the discomfort, not expending energy getting worked up about the adverse stimulus.

In Part 1 of Seligman and Steve Maier’s experiment, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses. Group 1 dogs were simply put in the harnesses for a period of time and later released. Groups 2 and 3 consisted of ‘yoked pairs.’ A dog in Group 2 would be intentionally subjected to pain by being given electric shocks, which the dog could end by pressing a lever. A Group 3 dog was wired in series with a Group 2 dog, receiving shocks of identical intensity and duration, but his lever didn’t stop the electric shocks. To a dog in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was his paired dog in Group 2 that was causing it to stop. For Group 3 dogs, the shock was apparently ‘inescapable.’ Group 1 and Group 2 dogs quickly recovered from the experience, but Group 3 dogs learned to be helpless, and exhibited symptoms similar to chronic clinical depression. In Part 2 of experiment, these three groups of dogs were tested in a shuttle-box apparatus, in which the dogs could escape electric shocks by jumping over a low partition. For the most part, the Group 3 dogs, who had previously learned that nothing they did had any effect on the shocks, simply laid down passively and whined. Even though they could have easily escaped the shocks, the dogs didn’t try.

In a second experiment later that year, Overmier and Seligman ruled out the possibility that the Group 3 dogs learned some behavior in Part 1 of the experiment, while they were struggling in the harnesses against the ‘inescapable shocks,’ that somehow interfered with what would have been their normal, successful behavior of escaping from the shocks in Part 2. The Group 3 dogs were immobilized with a paralyzing drug, and underwent a procedure similar to that in Part 1 of the Seligman and Maier experiment. A similar Part 2 in the shuttle-box was also undertaken in this experiment, and the Group 3 dogs exhibited the same ‘helpless’ response. However, not all of the dogs in Seligman’s experiments became helpless. Of the roughly 150 dogs in experiments in the latter half of the 1960s, about one-third did not become helpless, but instead managed to find a way out of the unpleasant situation despite their past experience with it. The corresponding characteristic in humans has been found to correlate highly with optimism: an explanatory style that views the situation as other than personal, pervasive, or permanent. This distinction between people who adapt and those who break down under long-term psychological pressure was also studied in the 1950s in the context of brainwashing.

Other experiments were performed with different animals with similar results. In all cases, the strongest predictor of a depressive response was lack of control over the aversive stimulus. One such later experiment, presented by Watson & Ramey (1969), consisted of two groups of human babies. One group was placed into a crib with a sensory pillow, designed so that the movement of the baby’s head could control the rotation of a mobile. The other group had no control over the movement of the mobile and could only enjoy looking at it. Later, both groups of babies were tested in cribs that allowed the babies to control the mobile. Although all the babies now had the power to control the mobile, only the group that had already learned about the sensory pillow attempted to use it. A similar experiment was done with people who performed mental tasks in the presence of distracting noise. People who could use a switch to turn off the noise had improved performance, even though they rarely bothered to do so. Simply being aware of this option was enough to substantially counteract its distracting effect.

In 2011, an animal study found that animals with control over stress exhibited changes in the excitability of specific neurons within the prefrontal cortex (a brain region which helps plan complex cognitive behaviors, personality expression, and decision making), and modeled this phenomenon in a conductance-based neural simulation. Animals that lacked control failed to exhibit an increase in excitability and showed signs consistent with learned helplessness and social anxiety.

Later research discovered that the original theory of learned helplessness failed to account for people’s varying reactions to situations thatcan cause learned helplessness. Learned helplessness sometimes remains specific to one situation, but at other times generalizes across situations. An individual’s attributional style or explanatory style is the key to understanding why people respond differently to adverse events. Although a group of people may experience the same or similar negative events, how each person privately interprets or explains the event will affect the likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness and subsequent depression. People with pessimistic explanatory style—which sees negative events as permanent (‘it will never change’), personal (‘it’s my fault’), and pervasive (‘I can’t do anything correctly’)—are most likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression. Cognitive behavioral therapy, heavily endorsed by Seligman, can often help people to learn more realistic explanatory styles, and can help ease depression.

Bernard Weiner’s attribution theory concerns the way that people attribute a cause or explanation to an unpleasant event. Attribution theory includes the dimensions of globality/specificity, stability/instability, and internality/externality. A global attribution occurs when the individual believes that the cause of negative events is consistent across different contexts. A specific attribution occurs when the individual believes that the cause of a negative event is unique to a particular situation. A stable attribution occurs when the individual believes the cause to be consistent across time. Unstable attribution occurs when the individual thinks that the cause is specific to one point in time. An external attribution assigns causality to situational or external factors, while an internal attribution assigns causality to factors within the person.

There are several aspects of human helplessness that have no counterpart among animals. One of the most intriguing aspects is ‘vicarious learning (or modelling)': that people can learn to be helpless through observing another person encountering uncontrollable events. Apart from the shared depression symptoms between human and other animals such as passivity, introjected hostility, weight loss, appetite loss, social and sexual deficits, some of the diagnostic symptoms of learned helplessness—including depressed mood, feelings of worthlessness, and suicidal ideation—can be found and observed in human beings but not necessarily in other animals. In non-human animal models, control over stress conveys resilience to future uncontrolled stressors and induces changes in the function of specific neurons within the prefrontal cortex.

Regardless of origin, people who see uncontrollable events reliably suffer disruption of emotions, aggressions, physiology, and problem-solving tasks. These helpless experiences can associate with passivity, uncontrollability and poor cognition in people, ultimately threatening their physical and mental well-being. Learned helplessness can contribute to poor health when people neglect diet, exercise, and medical treatment, falsely believing they have no power to change. The more people perceive events as uncontrollable and unpredictable, the more stress they experience, and the less hope they feel about making changes in their lives.

Young adults and middle-aged parents with a pessimistic explanatory style are often more likely to suffer from depression. People with a pessimistic explanatory style tend to be poor at problem-solving and cognitive restructuring, and also tend to demonstrate poor job satisfaction and interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Those with a pessimistic explanatory style also tend to have weakened immune systems, and not only have increased vulnerability to minor ailments (e.g., cold, fever) and major illness (e.g., heart attack, cancers), but also have a less effective recovery from health problems. Learned helplessness is a key factor in depression that is caused by prejudice (i.e., ‘deprejudice’). Someone facing inescapable prejudice (e.g., abuse) may develop learned helplessness and depression as a result. ‘Helplessness born in the face of ines- capable prejudice matches the helplessness born in the face of inescapable shocks.’

Learned helplessness can also be a motivational problem. Individuals who have failed at tasks in the past conclude erroneously that they are incapable of improving their performance. This might set children behind in academic subjects and dampen their social skills. Children with learned helplessness typically fail academic subjects, and are less intrinsically motivated than others. They may use learned helplessness as an excuse or a shield to provide self-justification for school failure. Additionally, describing someone as having learned to be helpless can serve as a reason to avoid blaming him or her for the inconveniences experienced. In turn, the student will give up trying to gain respect or advancement through academic performance.

Child abuse by neglect can be a manifestation of learned helplessness: when parents believe they are incapable of stopping an infant’s crying, they may simply give up trying to do anything for the child.

Another example of learned helplessness in social settings involves loneliness and shyness. Those who are extremely shy, passive, anxious, and depressed may learn helplessness to offer stable explanations for unpleasant social experiences. People who cite helplessness in social settings may be viewed poorly by others, resulting in a situation that reinforces the problematic thinking. A third example is aging, with the elderly learning to be helpless and concluding that they have no control over losing their friends and family members, losing their jobs and incomes, getting old, weak, and so on. Social problems resulting from learned helplessness seem unavoidable; however, the effect goes away with the passage of time. Nonetheless, learned helplessness can be minimized by ‘immunization’ (exposure to negative stimuli) and potentially reversed by therapy. People can be immunized against the perception that events are uncontrollable by increasing their awareness of previous positive experiences. Therapy can instruct people in the fact of contingency (i.e. the future is hard to predict) and bolster people’s self esteem.

Cognitive scientist and usability engineer Donald Norman used learned helplessness to explain why people blame themselves when they have a difficult time using simple objects in their environment. American sociologist Harrison White has suggested in his book ‘Identity and Control’ that the notion of learned helplessness can be extended beyond psychology into the realm of social action. When a culture or political identity fails to achieve desired goals, perceptions of collective ability suffer. According to author Jane Mayer, Seligman gave a talk at the Navy SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) school in San Diego, which he said was a three-hour talk on helping U.S. soldiers to resist torture, based on his understanding of learned helplessness.

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