Learned Helplessness

Sometimes we find ourselves in a mental state in which we feel unable to change a negative situation. If that happens for a prolonged period of time this can result in learned helplessness — we no longer even attempt to alter our circumstances. The concept was first introduced by Martin Seligman who noticed it in dogs that were repeatedly exposed to electric shocks and stopped trying to avoid them even when given the chance.

the full story
The full story

Ideally parents let their children learn how to help themselves. Parents who neglect their children or those who are overly involved, achieve the opposite. Their children often learn helplessness — and hence believe that they can neither control their life, nor change their environment. 

martin seligman & steven f. maier
M Seligman_S F Maier

Learned helplessness was first discovered by two researchers who conditioned dogs to endure electric shocks. Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier conducted their experiment with three groups of dogs.

the experiment
the experiment

Dogs from the first group were caged and made to wait for a period of time before being released. These dogs were what’s known as the control group.

The second group were also caged and got electric shocks from below. When they pressed a button, the shocks stopped. They learned that they could stop the pain. The third group of dogs were exposed to the shocks, but had no way of stopping them.

After the conditioning, all three groups were put into a box that gave shocks on one side, but not the other.

conclusion
conclusion

The first and second group of dogs quickly learned to avoid being shocked by jumping over the wall that separated the two sides of the box.

The third group of dogs made no attempt to avoid the shocks -they had developed a cognitive expectation that they could not avoid the pain. Seligman and Maier attributed this to learned helplessness. Children can also be affected, as this oversimplified story attests.

The story of Joe
The story of Joe

This is the story of Joe. While other kids were allowed to run, this cute little boy was put in a walker so he couldn’t hurt himself. And so, from early on, Joe learned that the world is a dangerous place.

On the rare occasions that his father was home, he told Joe to toughen up, and become a strong boy. But without a role model, Joe lacked the motivation to live up to his dad’s expectations. He began to feel inferior. Over time this feeling got stronger. 

Mother

Whenever there was a problem his mother would jump in to help. Joe began to internalize the belief that he couldn’t help himself when confronted with challenges. Whenever he had to make a major decision, he’d ask his mom for advice. Deep inside he resented her for not allowing him to become more independent.

what do you think?
lh what do u think

What are your thoughts? How can we help those that fail to see the path out of their toxic life? How can we help them to help themselves? Share your thoughts and your own experience with learned helplessness in the comments below!

Sources

Dig deeper!

Classroom activity

A 2004 study found that students who took an exam that began with difficult questions became more frustrated and defeated than students who took an exam that began with easier questions. Even when both tests contained the same questions, those who began with the easier questions did better on these questions than those who came to them after the more difficult and frustrating questions. 

  • Divide the students into two groups.
  • Have both groups take two sets of multiple choice questions. 
  • For the first set, have one group start with the simple question, the other with the hard ones. For the second set of questions, reserve the order. 
  • Afterwards, let the student compare their responses with the correct answers. 
  • Can you reproduce the results from the 2004 study? Did the students internalize helplessness over the course of a few hard questions? 
  • Finish the class by watching our videos on the topic and discussing how the exercise compares with the dog experiments.

Note that you can help your students to build resilience which could in turn decrease learned helplessness with these tips

Collaborators

  • Script: Jonas Koblin
  • Artist: Pascal Gaggelli
  • Voice: Matt Abbott
  • Coloring: Nalin
  • Editing: Peera Lertsukittipongsa
  • Production: Selina Bador
  • Fact-checking: Ludovico Saint Amour Di Chanaz
  • Sound Design: Miguel Ojeda

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