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The Theory of Learned Helplessness

By Edited Sep 13, 2015 0 0

        I’ve always been fascinated by the theory of learned helplessness. We sometimes hear the term ‘learned helplessness’ being used in the media or in everyday conversation.  It is often presented as a condition that has neither treatment nor cure.  Victims view themselves as ‘fated’ to their circumstances.  They see their lives as being a one long streak of bad luck.  

In this article we will examine the theory of learned helplessness and how it can affect us.

Learned Helplessness
What is Learned Helplessness?

The concept of learned helplessness is based on experiments conducted by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier. They had observed an unexpected behavior (helplessness) in dogs that had been classically conditioned to elicit a fear response when a tone was presented.  The experiment went like this. A tone was sounded, and then a mild electric shock was given to the dogs.  The expectation was that the dogs would jump or run away when the tone was sounded, even if there was no accompanying shock.  However, some of the animals simply lay down and whimpered when they heard the tone.

A further study was designed to explore this phenomenon further.  In this study, the dogs were placed in a shuttle box.  A shuttle box is a cage or carrier with a wire floor and a small partition in the center.  The floor of the shuttle box could be electrified to give the dogs a mild shock.  The dogs could easily jump over the partition at any time.

Now the dogs were separated into three groups.  The first group could escape the electric shock by simply jumping over the partition in the shuttle box.  The floor on the other side of the partition was not electrified.  The second group could not escape the electric shock, the entire floor was electrified.  The third group was the control. They received no electric shocks.

What do you think were the results?  The first group learned that they could escape the shocks by simply jumping over the divider in the shuttle box.  The second group would jump back and forth trying to escape the shock, then eventually give up trying.  They would often lay down in the cage and simply whimper.  The third group would show no signs of learned helplessness, as expected.

The interesting part is that when the animals in the second group were placed in a shuttle box where they could escape the shocks by jumping over the divider, they lay down and whimpered.  They made no attempt to escape.  They had learned helplessness.

Does it Affect Humans?

To determine if learned helplessness affects people, a human study was conducted.

In the human study, ‘volunteers’ (i.e. mostly college students) were placed in a room and subjected to annoying noise, atonal music, or an endlessly repeating dialogue.  The first group could easily escape the noise by pressing a button.  The second group could not stop the noise no matter what they did.  The third group was not subjected to the noise.

The results were similar to the animal experiments.  The first group shut off the noise and thought it was a stupid experiment.  The second group gave up trying to stop the noise.  The third group was unaffected.  Learned helplessness had been demonstrated in humans.

How does learned helplessness theory help us?

The exciting part of this study was the discovery that learned helplessness can be unlearned!  In the study with the dogs, the animals from the second group were placed in the shuttle box which had only half the floor electrified.  They were then taught by their trainers to jump over the barrier to escape the shock.  The animals were no longer helpless.

In the study with humans, the volunteers were informed that they could now stop the noise by pressing the button.  They also unlearned helplessness.


Learned helplessness is the result of being unable to change your situation.  In time, the victim begins to believe that nothing can or will change.  The animal and human studies suggest that learned helplessness can in fact be unlearned.

Resource Box.

The Labrat is a (semi) retired electrical engineer with an interest in robotics, artificial intelligence, psychology and mathematics among other things.

If you would like to learn more about Learned Helplessness Theory and Application you might like to read the book Learned Optimism

by Dr. Martin P. Seligman.

Photo courtesy of Maggie Smith / FreeDigitalPhotos.net




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