Learned Helplessness Essay

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Learned helplessness is the acquisition of the belief that attempting to escape from a negative situation is futile due to a previous situation in which escape was not possible. It is learning that nothing an individual does will affect what will happen to him or her, and, therefore, the individual does nothing to escape from the situation. Symptoms of learned helplessness include passivity, anxiety, depression, increased health problems, lower self-esteem, lack of motivation, and a general disinterest in life.

Learned helplessness has been used to explain the sense of loss of control that is reported by some victims of repeated instances of interpersonal violence. The battered woman who is abused repeatedly and unpredictably may begin to believe that her actions are futile in preventing violence. Similarly, children may develop beliefs of learned helplessness when abuse is administered in ways that are not contingent on their actions.

In a classic learned helplessness study, Seligman and Maier placed dogs in one of three conditions. Dogs in the escape group received shocks that they were able to terminate by pressing a panel with their nose. Each dog in this condition was paired with (yoked to) a dog in the inescapable condition. Dogs in the inescapable condition received the same shocks as the escape group, but they were unable to terminate the shocks. Rather, the shocks would end only when the “yoked” dog in the first group pressed the panel. Dogs in the control condition did not receive any shocks. Twenty-four hours later the dogs were placed in a shuttle box. In this new situation, the dogs had to learn to jump over the barrier during a period of darkness to escape being shocked. The escape group and the control group quickly learned how to avoid the shocks. However, 6 of the 8 dogs in the inescapable group made no effort to escape the shocks. Since the escape group and the yoked group both received the same shocks, the researchers concluded that it was the uncontrollable nature of the shocks that caused the helplessness rather than the trauma of being shocked. The dogs in the inescapable condition initially learned that they did not have any control over the situation; this lack of control later impaired their ability to learn how to control a subsequent situation.

Researchers have found that in situations in which there is no contingency between responses and outcomes, some individuals learn that control is not possible and therefore stop trying to control the situation. Researchers suggest that the perception of lack of control in one situation is not necessarily sufficient for learned helplessness to be displayed in another situation. According to the revised learned helplessness theory, how an individual explains the causes (explanatory theory) of the initial lack of control influences the likelihood of learned helplessness. The cause may be due to something about the person (internal) or due to something about the situation (external). The cause may be a factor that remains stable across time, or it may change over time. The cause may occur in a variety of situations (global), or it may be limited to a specific situation. Individuals who make global and stable attributions are more likely to view future events as uncontrollable. Individuals who rely heavily on stable, global, and internal attributions are more likely to experience depressive episodes when negative events occur.

Motivational and cognitive deficits associated with learned helplessness may create a self-perpetuating cycle of helplessness. Individuals who believe that their responses will have no impact on the outcomes are less likely to initiate new responses (ones that have the potential to end the helplessness). Cognitive deficits may prevent an individual from understanding that if the situation changes, a change in contingency will also take place.


  1. Palker-Corell, A., & Marcus, D. K. (2004). Partner abuse, learned helplessness, and trauma symptoms. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 23, 445–465.
  2. Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1983). Learned helplessness and victimization. Journal of Social Issues, 2, 103–116.
  3. Seligman, M. E. P., & Maier, S. F. (1967). Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74, 1–9.
  4. Walker, L. E. (1979). The battered woman. New York: Harper and Row.

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