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.

Connected Business Heuristics

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. Whereas divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. Where convergent thinking might work for larger, mature organizations where divergent thinking is more suited for startups and innovative companies.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and any eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analyzing observations, facts, evidence, and arguments to form a judgment about what someone reads, hears, says, or writes.

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a holistic means of investigating the factors and interactions that could contribute to a potential outcome. It is about thinking non-linearly, and understanding the second-order consequences of actions and input into the system.

Vertical Thinking

Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.

First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

Ladder Of Inference

The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.

Six Thinking Hats Model

The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Moonshot Thinking

Moonshot thinking is an approach to innovation, and it can be applied to business or any other discipline where you target at least 10X goals. That shifts the mindset, and it empowers a team of people to look for unconventional solutions, thus starting from first principles, by leveraging on fast-paced experimentation.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What in marketing can be associated with social proof.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBand

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