27 Nov 2022


What is Learned Helplessness?

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It has been seven months of exercising, selective eating habits, massages, and many more tiresome activities. Days have appeared like months and hours drag. The weighing scale is reading worse and numbers in the room are decreasing. After being advised by a friend, Jane had enrolled for a weight loss program as her body size was no longer appealing and her self-esteem was falling on daily basis. The beginning of the program was tough but the urge to have a good body size kept her and other members going. The various activities involved appeared to give little or worse results to almost everyone in the group. Jane was adding weight contrary to her expectations. No one seemed to understand what was happening and few people had started missing sessions. The instructors knew that the results were negative and they tried to introduce other unique sessions to salvage the situation and as the anagram task got more complicated, more participants gave up leading to learned helplessness. 

Learned helplessness is a condition whereby an individual experiences a feeling of being powerless as a result of a life-changing event or continuous failure in something. Research has shown that this condition is closely related to depression and that such feeling may make an individual to completely stop making attempts in daily activities because they have learned to accept that they are not destined to succeed. Learned helplessness has been studied for years with researchers adopting various methods to ascertain their arguments. Learned helplessness was first discovered by Martin Seligman in 1965. In their study, Seligman, Maier, & Geer (1968) used dogs to study classical conditioning where they strained the dogs for a specific period and induced a shock every time a sound was heard. They later put the dogs in a free box hoping to see them jump out to avoid the shock once the sound was heard. 

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The dogs however, learned that the shocks were not avoidable and they just laid still and get shocked in the new box. This experiment justifies that a person learns to adapt to a condition if initial efforts did not work. Such a person do not find a reason to try new things or continue trying what had failed with few modifications because they no longer feel that it is worth trying. This experiment shows that even with less restrictive situations, a person maintains what he has learned initially and may end up completely getting frustrated. A study by Costello (1978) reaffirms this observation as his conclusion showed that learned helpless is cognitive since a victim forgets the need to escape danger as earlier attempts were fruitless. This learned condition exposes the victim to adverse conditions that can be easily avoided in future. 

Similar observations of learned helplessness were obtained by Taylor et al. (2014). They carried out a pilot study that involved induction of learned helplessness in adults by exposing them to stimuli. Half of the participants were given faulty buttons to press once they felt the stimuli. They observed that the half whose buttons were operational kept pressing it once they felt the stimuli and the other half felt that it was pointless to struggle pressing it because every effort they placed was pointless (Taylor et al., 2014) . This experiment shows that the half of participants who were given faulty buttons learned to accept the situation that they were powerless and they had no point of making more tries on the button since they had already failed several times. If the buttons were activated and the induction made dangerous if they do not press the button, they would have all perished even when they had all the capacity to save themselves. This experiment showed that if a system that was expected to work fails, it creates a notion that it can never work hence bringing in a feeling of helplessness on the subjects. In our everyday lives, we lose hope after failing a few times and even quit because we feel that making more attempts is a waste of time. 

The fact that continued failure may make an individual give up can also explain that the learned condition can be unlearned. In their study, Coley & Hoffman (1990) used children to analyze the possibility of unlearning helplessness. The children were taken through self- evaluation sessions where they were to provide a different perspective of themselves. After sometime, the children were able to reverse their initial perception of their status through the learning process. This experiment was used to show that although the children had formed their own view about their abilities, they were able to change that perception through learning a new perspective. Although people may end up quitting a trial as a result of continuous failure, it is possible to change one’s feelings and get to unlearn the helplessness that we already possess. 

With the advancement in cultural set ups and the fight for equality, women have learned to air their views. Circumstances such as domestic violence especially when a woman is the victim have however, been ignored when it comes to airing problems. In her study, Wauchope (1988) analyses whether women who are battered by their husbands easily develop learned helplessness. The study analyses the learned helplessness theory and modifies stress theory to come up with a model that can be used to test the possibility of a battered woman to seek for assistance. From the study, it was observed that many women who were assaulted by their male partners asked for help hence many of them never developed helplessness as a result of the violence. This could probably be associated with fruitful help once such women asked for help. A higher percentage of these women were found to be of advanced age, high education, respectable occupations, have fear of being hit, or free of depression. Although many would feel that battered women fear to ask for help because they feel helpless, this research showed that such women are active and help-seeking rather than dormant and helpless. 

Another scenario that has been identified as a cause of learned helplessness in unemployment. When a person continuously applies for jobs and fails to secure one for several years, he finally becomes hopeless and finds it pointless to keep sending applications. In his study, Bjørnstad (2006) comes up with a model that describes how unemployment leads to learned helplessness. He adopts a model that incorporates an unemployed worker’s efficiency in searching for a job and found that continuous failure to secure a job leads to a pro-cynical behavior. This study also associated this behavior with the observed increasing trend of unemployment. This study clearly shows that a job seeker tends to quit applying for jobs after failing to secure one after making several applications. This is worsened if the person feels that most of the employers were biased in selecting applicants. 

Even in occasions where a person is not the direct victim of a situation, one may end up becoming helpless. Problems affecting close relatives or friends a times make a person feel helpless. In their study, Sullivam et al. (2012) analyzed the frequency of learned helplessness in key people or close family members of a person in Intensive Care Unit. By utilizing perceived stress and learned helplessness scales, they were able to analyze the psychological condition of individuals in a Baltimore hospital. Using the samples, they found out that family members of ICU patients were prone to learned helplessness if they have low education levels and high stress level. The study showed that educated people would have the ability of thinking wide on how they may help in such situations compared to their counterparts who view ICU as the path to death. A learned person tends to be able to rationally think and their conscience is in most cases working straight. Similar observation regarding learned helplessness as a result of family condition was observed by Gomez et al. (2015). In their study, they analyzed outcomes of adults who age out of foster care and those who were homeless. Systemic causes were analyzed to explore the perceived causes of the participants’ learned helplessness. The results showed that individuals who aged out of foster care developed learned helplessness compared to their counterparts. This researched showed that as people grow up, circumstances surrounding them create permanent picture in their minds. Foster children for instance view themselves as less fortunate even when they can access everything they need. The fact that they know that they are fostered makes them feel less loved or appreciated hence creating a condition of being helpless. This may make them consider not taking part in some family activities because they feel that they are not part of them and that it is of no use to participate. 

In a study by Maadikhah & Efrani (2014), a person’s personality has a significant influence in learned helplessness. This study used female students in a third grade who showed different personalities and attributes. The results showed that traits such as conscientiousness and agreeableness affect development of learned helplessness. Even when subjected to similar situations where results look unpromising, learned helplessness is rarely developed by people who have the ability to understand situations easily. 

In an effort to understand learned helplessness in various development stages of a human being, Fincham & Kathleen (1986 ) integrated learned helplessness in both adults and children. The study showed that changes that occur in regard to casual understanding and opinions on noncontingency during development highly influence how children express learned helplessness at different ages. Children who have a high casual understanding ability show less likelihood of learned helplessness. 

As the past research has examined how helplessness is develop and provided a number of circumstances that are considered risk factors, it is now evident that no matter what situation is under consideration, most victims give up in their endeavors. Exposure to situations that look unavoidable sets an individual’s mind to remain dormant and unresponsive. Continuous failure demoralizes a person and discourages from making more attempts as it is seen as fruitless and unnecessary; it is at this point that a person expresses learned helplessness irrespective of whether the task is simple or complex. 


Bjørnstad, R. (2006). Learned helplessness, discouraged workers, and multiple unemployment equilibria. Journal of Socio-economics, 35 (3), 458-475. 

Coley, J. D., & Hoffman, D. M. (1990). Overcoming learned helplessness in at-risk readers. Journal of Reading, 33 (7), 497-502. 

Costello, C. G. (1978). A critical review of Seligman's laboratory experiments on learned helplessness and depression in humans. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87 (1), 21-31 

Fincham, F. & Kathleen, C. (1986). Learned helplessness in humans: A developmental analysis. Developmental Review, 6 (4), 301-333. 

Gomez, R., Ryan, T., Norton, C., Jones, C. & Galán-Cisneros, P. (2015). Perceptions of learned helplessness among emerging adults aging out of foster care. Child and Adolescent Social Work, 32 (6), 507-516 

Maadikhah, E. & Erfani, N. (2014). Predicting learned helplessness based on personality. Interciencia , 39 (5), 339-343. 

Seligman, M., Maier, S. F. & Geer, J. H. (1968). Alleviation of learned helplessness in the dog. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 73 (3), 256-262. 

Sullivan, D. R., Xinggang, L., Corwin, D. S., Verceles, A. C., McCurdy, M. T., Pate, D. A., & ... Netzer, G. (2012). Learned Helplessness Among Families and Surrogate Decision-Makers of Patients Admitted to Medical, Surgical, and Trauma ICUs. Chest , 142 (6), 1440-1446. 

Taylor, J., Neitzke, D., Khouri, G., Borckardt, J., Acierno, R., Tuerk, P., Schmidt, M. & George, M. (2014). A pilot study to investigate the induction and manipulation of learned helplessness in healthy adults. Psychiatry Research, 219 (3), 631-637 

Wauchope, B. A., & New Hampshire Univ., D. L. (1988). Help-Seeking decisions of battered women: A test of learned helplessness and two stress theories . ERIC. 

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