Learned helplessness is behavior typical of an organism (human or animal) that has endured repeated painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it was unable to escape or avoid. After such experience, the organism often fails to learn escape or avoidance in new situations where such behavior would be effective. In other words, the organism seems to have learned that it is helpless in aversive situations, that it has lost control, and so it gives up trying. Such an organism is said to have acquired learned helplessness. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from such real or perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.
Foundation of research and theory
Early key experiments
American psychologist Martin Seligman initiated research on learned helplessness in 1967 at the University of Pennsylvania as an extension of his interest in depression. This research was later expanded in experiments by Seligman and others. One of the first was an experiment by Seligman & Maier. In Part 1 of this study, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses. Group 1 dogs were simply put in the harnesses for a period of time and later released. Groups 2 and 3 consisted of "yoked pairs." Dogs in Group 2 were given electric shocks at random times, which the dog could end by pressing a lever. Each dog in Group 3 was paired with a Group 2 dog; whenever a Group 2 dog got a shock, its paired dog in Group 3 got a shock of the same intensity and duration, but its lever did not stop the shock. To a dog in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was his paired dog in Group 2 that was causing it to stop. Thus, for Group 3 dogs, the shock was "inescapable."
In Part 2 of the experiment the same three groups of dogs were tested in a shuttle-box apparatus. All the dogs could escape shocks on one side of the box by jumping over a low partition to the other side. The dogs in Groups 1 and 2 quickly learned this task and escaped the shock. Most of the Group 3 dogs, which had previously learned that nothing they did had any effect on shocks, simply lay down passively and whined when they were shocked. This is a dramatic example of the retardation of learning that typifies learned helplessness, as defined above.
In a second experiment later that year with new groups of dogs, Overmier and Seligman ruled out the possibility that, instead of learned helplessness, the Group 3 dogs failed to avoid in the Part 2 test because they had learned some behavior that interfered with escape. To prevent such interfering behavior, Group 3 dogs were immobilized with a paralyzing drug (Curare), and underwent a procedure similar to that in Part 1 of the Seligman and Maier experiment. When tested as before in Part 2, these Group 3 dogs exhibited helplessness as before. This result seems to rule out the interference hypothesis.
In these experiments there seemed to be only one cure for helplessness. By Seligman's hypothesis, the dogs do not try to escape because they expect that nothing they do will stop the shock. To change this expectation, experimenters physically picked up the dogs and moved their legs, replicating the actions the dogs needed to take to escape from the electrified grid. This had to be done at least 2 times before the dogs would start jumping over the barrier on their own. In contrast, threats, rewards, and observed demonstrations had no effect on the "helpless" Group 3 dogs.
Later experiments have confirmed the depressive effect of lack of control over an aversive stimulus. For example, in one experiment, humans performed mental tasks in the presence of distracting noise. Those who could use a switch to turn off the noise rarely bothered to do so, yet they performed better than those who could not turn off the noise. Simply being aware of this option was enough to substantially counteract the noise effect. In 2011, an animal study found that animals with control over stressful stimuli exhibited changes in the excitability of certain neurons in the prefrontal cortex. Animals that lacked control failed to exhibit this neural effect and showed signs consistent with learned helplessness and social anxiety.
Research has found that human reactions to a lack of control differ both between individuals and between situations. For example, learned helplessness sometimes remains specific to one situation but at other times generalizes across situations., Such variations are not explained by the original theory of learned helplessness, and an influential view is that such variations depend on an individual's attributional or explanatory style. According to this view, how someone interprets or explains adverse events affects their likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness and subsequent depression. For example, people with pessimistic explanatory style tend to see negative events as permanent ("it will never change"), personal ("it's my fault"), and pervasive ("I can't do anything correctly"), are likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression. Such people can often be helped to learn a more realistic explanatory style by cognitive behavioral therapy, a therapy heavily endorsed by Seligman.
Bernard Weiner proposed a detailed account of the attributional approach to learned helplessness. His attribution theory includes the dimensions of globality/specificity, stability/instability, and internality/externality. A global attribution occurs when the individual believes that the cause of negative events is consistent across different contexts. A specific attribution occurs when the individual believes that the cause of a negative event is unique to a particular situation. A stable attribution occurs when the individual believes the cause to be consistent across time. Unstable attribution occurs when the individual thinks that the cause is specific to one point in time. An external attribution assigns causality to situational or external factors, while an internal attribution assigns causality to factors within the person.
Research has shown that increased 5-HT (serotonin) activity in the dorsal raphe nucleus plays a critical role in learned helplessness. Other key brain regions that are involved with the expression of helpless behavior include the basolateral amygdala, central nucleus of the amygdala and bed nucleus of the stria terminalis. Activity in medial prefrontal cortex, dorsal hippocampus, septum and hypothalamus has also been observed during states of helplessness.
In the article, "Exercise, Learned Helplessness, and the Stress-Resistant Brain", Benjamin N. Greenwood and Monika Fleshner discuss how exercise might prevent stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression. They show evidence that running wheel exercise prevents learned helplessness behaviors in rats. They suggest that the amount of exercise may not be as important as simply exercising at all. The article also discusses the neurocircuitry of learned helplessness, the role of serotonin (or 5-HT), and the exercise-associated neural adaptations that may contribute to the stress-resistant brain. However, the authors finally conclude that "The underlying neurobiological mechanisms of this effect, however, remain unknown. Identifying the mechanisms by which exercise prevents learned helplessness could shed light on the complex neurobiology of depression and anxiety and potentially lead to novel strategies for the prevention of stress-related mood disorders".
People who perceive events as uncontrollable show a variety of symptoms that threaten their mental and physical well-being. They experience stress. They often show disruption of emotions, becoming passive or aggressive, have difficulty with cognitive tasks such as problem-solving. They are less likely to change unhealthy patterns of behavior, causing them, for example, to neglect diet, exercise, and medical treatment.
Depressed patients often express feelings of helplessness and uncontrollability, and abnormal and cognitive psychologists have indeed found a strong correlation between depression and learned helplessness.
Young adults and middle-aged parents with a pessimistic explanatory style often suffer from depression. They tend to be poor at problem-solving and cognitive restructuring, and also tend to demonstrate poor job satisfaction and interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Those with a pessimistic style also tend to have weakened immune systems, having not only increased vulnerability to minor ailments (e.g., cold, fever) and major illness (e.g., heart attack, cancers), but also poorer recovery from health problems.
Learned helplessness can be a factor in a wide range of social situations. The following are examples.
- The motivational effect of learned helplessness is often seen in the classroom. Students who repeatedly fail may conclude that they are incapable of improving their performance, and this attribution keeps them from trying to succeed, which results in increased helplessness, continued failure, loss of self-esteem and other social consequences.
- Child abuse by neglect can be a manifestation of learned helplessness. For example, when parents believe they are incapable of stopping an infant's crying, they may simply give up trying to do anything for the child.
- Learned helplessness may be a factor in the development of a victim mentality in a child or young adult. By being repeatedly exposed to uncomfortable or painful situations, such as bullying or abuse by their peers, the person may stop trying to cope with painful social situations. This can lead to continued stress, feelings of self-hatred, and maladaptive behaviors such as avoiding all social interactions.
- Those who are extremely shy or anxious in social situations may become passive due to feelings of helplessness. Gotlib and Beatty (1985) found that people who cite helplessness in social settings may be viewed poorly by others, which tends to reinforce the passivity.
- Aging individuals may respond with helplessness to the deaths of friends and family members, the loss of jobs and income, and the development of age-related health problems. This may cause them to neglect their medical care, financial affairs, and other important needs.
- According to Cox et al., Abramson, Devine, and Hollon (2012), learned helplessness is a key factor in depression that is caused by inescapable prejudice (i.e., "deprejudice"). Thus: "Helplessness born in the face of inescapable prejudice matches the helplessness born in the face of inescapable shocks."
Social problems resulting from learned helplessness may seem unavoidable. However, there are various ways to reduce or prevent it. When induced in experimental settings learned helplessness has been shown to resolve itself with the passage of time. People can be immunized against the perception that events are uncontrollable by increasing their awareness of previous experiences, when they were able to effect a desired outcome. Cognitive therapy can be used to show people that their actions do make a difference and bolster their self-esteem.
Cognitive scientist and usability engineer Donald Norman used learned helplessness to explain why people blame themselves when they have a difficult time using simple objects in their environment.
The US sociologist Harrison White has suggested in his book Identity and Control that the notion of learned helplessness can be extended beyond psychology into the realm of social action. When a culture or political identity fails to achieve desired goals, perceptions of collective ability suffer.
Emergence in interrogation
In CIA interrogation manuals learned helplessness is characterized as "apathy" which may result from prolonged use of coercive techniques which result in a "debility-dependency-dread" state in the subject, "If the debility-dependency-dread state is unduly prolonged, however, the arrestee may sink into a defensive apathy from which it is hard to arouse him."
- Cognitive restructuring
- Explanatory style
- Fundamental attribution error
- Learned industriousness
- Learned optimism
- Locus of control
- Pervasive refusal syndrome
- Somebody else's problem
- Spiral of silence
- Victim mentality
- Victim playing
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