Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness is a mental state where an individual forced to endure repeated adverse events becomes unwilling to avoid them.

Understanding learned helplessness

Learned helplessness is a result of repeated exposure to an aversive stimulus for which there appears to be no escape. Over time, the individual ceases trying to avoid the stimulus and acts as if their situation cannot be improved. 

While learned helplessness is rooted in studies of animal behavior, it is very much applicable to humans. Such is the power of the phenomenon that many species will fail to act even when presented with a viable chance to escape. 

It was psychologists Steven F. Maier and Martin Seligman who discovered learned helplessness by accident at the University of Pennsylvania in 1965. In an initial experiment, they observed behavior in canines that were conditioned to expect an electric shock after hearing a particular noise. 

The animals were then placed in a box consisting of two chambers partitioned by a low barrier, with the floor of one chamber electrified. Despite an easy route over the small barrier to the non-electrified chamber, no animal attempted to escape.

When does learned helplessness occur?

Learned helplessness may begin in childhood, particularly if a child receives inadequate or inappropriate care. Children with a history of improper care, such as those in institutions or unstable family environments, are particularly susceptible. 

Symptoms that can persist into adulthood include low self-esteem, low motivation, an ability to ask for help, low expectations of success, and the tendency to attribute success to factors outside one’s control.

In adults, smokers who have tried to quit multiple times and failed may accept their lot and continue smoking. The same is true for those who have tried to lose weight through exercise. Unsurprisingly, learned helplessness is linked with depression, maladaptive perfectionism, emotional exhaustion, cynicism, various phobias, loneliness, and shyness.

How to overcome learned helplessness

Learned helplessness, as the name suggests, is a learned trait that no one is born with. This means it can be unlearned.

How is this achieved? Before we list some solutions, it is important to reiterate that learned helplessness is a form of conditioning. This means human behavior is learned from environmental responses and associations. In simple terms, an individual who is rewarded for a behavior is likely to repeat it, while those that are punished are less likely repeat the behavior.

Overcoming learned helplessness means unlearning these predominantly subconscious responses. This can be done in the following two ways which incorporate aspects of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Adopt an optimistic explanatory style 

In the first solution, the individual can alter the way they look at the causes of events in their life. This is the classic “glass half full” descriptor that many use to reference optimistic people. 

For example, a pessimist who fails to deliver an effective sales presentation will criticize their ability or self-worth and predict the situation will reoccur in the future. An optimist, on the other hand, may view the poor performance as due to a lack of sleep that can be prevented in the future by simply going to bed earlier. 

Use the ABC method

The ABC method was developed by Seligman together with colleague Albert Ellis as a more flexible antidote to the negativity of learned helplessness. Below is the five-step process:

  1. Adversity (A) – the individual starts by describing the event without emotion, evaluation, or criticism.
  2. Belief (B) – how was the adverse event interpreted? In other words, what were the beliefs the individual defaulted to?
  3. Consequence (C) – what were the actions or emotions that resulted from these beliefs? This requires a level of introspection that some may be uncomfortable with.
  4. Disputation (D) – is there scope to dispute these conditioned responses? What are the potential consequences of acting conditionally? Here, the individual should also think about the benefits of not acting in a conditioned or impulsive way. 
  5. Energization (E) – the fifth step only occurs when the individual has successfully disputed their conditioned response. To increase the odds that the new behavior becomes habitual, the individual should take the time to celebrate their win and enjoy the associated benefits.

Key takeaways:

  • Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon where humans are conditioned to expect pain or discomfort that they cannot escape.
  • Learned helplessness may begin in childhood, particularly if a child receives inadequate or inappropriate care. In adulthood, it is often associated with various additions and is linked with a raft of mental disorders.
  • Overcoming learned helplessness means unlearning the predominantly subconscious responses that underpin the phenomenon. Two possible solutions include the adoption of a more optimistic explanatory stale and the ABC method.
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