Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Learned helplessness

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Learned helplessness:
How we learn to give up
This page is part of the Motivation and emotion book. See also: Guidelines.

Overview[edit | edit source]

Helpless Mantled Guereza

Upon completion of this chapter you will be able to understand and critique the followings areas:

  • What is Learned Helplessness?
  • Who are the 'founding fathers' in learned helplessness research?
  • What are the main theories?
  • How does learned helplessness develop in animals and humans?

Origins and theory[edit | edit source]

Definitions[edit | edit source]

Learned helplessness theory defines learned helplessness as individuals who are exposed to events deemed as uncontrollable learn that their associated responses are independent to their outcomes (Alloy, Peterson, Abramson, & Seligman, 1984). As a result of this learning an expectation can form surmising that any response will be pointless (Alloy et al., 1984). This expectation can be generalised to future events or situations and can impact with future learning behaviours (Alloy et al., 1984).

Seligman, Overmier and Maier and learned helplessness in dogs[edit | edit source]

In 1967, James Overmier and Martin Seligman completed a series of experiments involving inescapable shocks on canine participants (Overmier & Seligman, 1967). The participants were detained in a Pavlovian harness for 24 hours prior to enduring shuttlebox training (Overmier & Seligman, 1967). Initially, the canine participants would react to the shock in the same manner as a ‘normal’ dog. However it was noted that after a period of time the dog would stop removing itself from the shock and remain silent until the shock expires (Overmier & Seligman, 1967). The dog no longer crossed a barrier to escape from shock and instead appeared to submit and yield to the shock (Overmier & Seligman, 1967). Results from further trials showed that the canine participants continued to lack any escape motivation or movement and instead endured severe, continuing shocks in multiple trials (Seligman, Maier & Geer, 1968). During the trials it must be noted that if a canine participant did attempt to escape or displayed signs of avoidance behaviour, this did not necessarily predict future occurrences of escape or avoidance behaviour (Seligman, Maier & Geer, 1968). This was due to the pretreatment of the dogs as they would shortly revert back to their submissive behaviour after escape or avoidance behaviours had occurred (Seligman, Maier & Geer, 1968).

Seligman and Maier's canine experiments[edit | edit source]

In further experiments on dogs Seligman and Maier (1967) divided dogs into three separate groups. The first group was a control group which received no shocks (Seligman and Maier, 1967). The second group received an electric shock that it could terminate (Seligman and Maier, 1967). The third group received the same shock as the second group however the termination of the shock was dependant on the second group as the third group could not terminate the shock (Seligman and Maier, 1967). To the third group this gave the illusion that the shocks were stopping at random when they were actually being terminated by the second group (Seligman and Maier, 1967). The third group which had no control over the shocks were said to receive ‘inescapable shocks’ (Seligman and Maier, 1967).

Following this initial phase of experimentation all three groups were placed in a shuttlebox which is designed to invoke an escape response resulting from an electric shock (Seligman and Maier, 1967). Resulting from the first phase of experimentation the only dogs that appeared to display a poor escape response were those in the third group (Seligman and Maier, 1967). Due to the inescapable shocks present in the first phase, the dogs in the third group did not try to escape the shock (Seligman and Maier, 1967). Instead they appeared to submit to the shock and passively accept them (Seligman and Maier, 1967). The control group and the second group both appeared to escape the shocks by jumping over the partition in the shuttlebox (Seligman and Maier, 1967). As the control group and the second group both displayed an escape response triggered by the shock, Seligman and Maier both suggested that it was a ‘perceived inescapability’ of the shocks that resulted in the submission or passive acceptance and not the shock itself (Seligman and Maier, 1967).

This submissive response produced by the previous inescapable shocks is quite negative and inhibits normal adaptive behaviours (Seligman, Maier & Geer, 1968). A dog that had not been previously exposed to inescapable shock will endure minimal shock prior to escape (Seligman, Maier & Geer, 1968). Conversely, a dog that is exposed to inescapable shock prior to entering shuttlebox training will take prolonged periods of shock and in some cases will submit to the shock until the shock expires (Seligman, Maier & Geer, 1968). It was at this stage that the term ‘learned helplessness’ had yet to be coined. Overmier and Seligman hypotheses designed to explain similar occurrences. Namely, they considered the competing motor response hypothesis and an adaptation hypothesis (Seligman & Maier, 1968). The competing motor response hypothesis was first discussed by Carlson and Black (1960) which stated that whilst a dog was harnessed it will learn that some motor response will lessen shock. When a dog is placed in a shuttlebox, the dog will utilize this response and not that of jumping the barrier (Carlson & Black, 1960). This hypothesis was found to be false (Overmier & Seligman, 1967). The adaptation hypothesis was first discussed by MacDonald (1946) in which the conclusion that dogs adapted to shock while harnessed and consequently were not motivated to escape shock whilst in a shuttlebox was postulated. This hypothesis was shown to be inconsistent with the findings of Overmier and Seligman (1967).

An analysis of the responses with regard to ‘learned independence’ between shock termination and instrumental learning was considered by Seligman and Maier (1967). It was postulated that whilst harnessed during a period of inescapable shock the dogs learned that shock expiration took place separately to their responses (Seligman & Maier, 1967). It is publicized that typical learning theory permits the notion that animals are susceptible, and on some level ‘aware’, of the probability of shock termination issued by a given, specified response (Seligman & Maier, 1967; Seligman & Maier, 1968). Furthermore, it is also consistent within the literature that animals are also susceptible to the probability of shock termination not issued by a given, specified response (Seligman & Maier, 1967; Seligman & Maier, 1968). Therefore, when particular cases in which these two possibilities are equal it is suggested within the literature that the animal amalgamates the two events (Seligman & Maier, 1967; Seligman & Maier, 1968). To put it rather bluntly, this amalgamation could be labeled an anticipation that shock termination is independent of responding (Seligman & Maier, 1967; Seligman & Maier, 1968).

Affects on behaviour[edit | edit source]

The earlier experiments conducted by Seligman and his colleagues helped to establish a model of learned helplessness that considered both human and animal behaviours (Overmier & Seligman, 1967; Seligman & Maier, 1967). Once these experiments were published and reviewed there was a period of intense research involving learned helplessness in animals in addition to experiments on humans. Seligman (1978) criticised the formally proposed animal model of learned helplessness and suggested a reformulated model of human depression. It was noted that the new term of reformulation was used as a way to express the importance and relevance of past research and the impact and prevalence this research has on all future studies (Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978). This new term and the associated research suggested that learned helplessness in animals could be linked to clinical depression in human beings (Abramson et al., 1978). However this result was supported by a chain of disputable notions. Kathryn Hahner (1989) argued that the reformulated model of depression in humans relied on information and research gathered from the study of animals. This information and research used factors that could not be studied accurately in animals and therefore the reformulation could not be accurately derived from the animal model (Hahner, 1989). Consequently, learned helplessness as a model for human depression has since been discarded (Hahner, 1989).

Seligman (1978) discussed his theory that learned helplessness in animals was parallel to that of human depression. It was suggested by Pratt (1980) that the canine participants of Seligman and Maier’s experiments did not act as through they were suffering from depression, but rather as though they were trauma victims. The experiments conducted by Seligman and Maier all involve the following hypotheses in explanation for the behaviour of the canine participants. Firstly, the dogs may have been incapacitated with heightened levels of anxiety or fear (Hahner, 1989). Another explanation is that the dogs learned that the electric shocks administered during the experiment were inescapable and that all efforts of escape are in vain. Regardless of which explanation is correct, neither account for nor allude to depression in humans.

The DSM-IV-TR (2000) Definition of Depression or Depressive State
Depression " a psychiatric symptom... or depressed mood to sadness or grief in response to a loss..."

Fernand Gobet's learned helplessness experiment in chess players[edit | edit source]

In an experiment conducted by Gobet (1992), the effects of non-contingency between subjects relating to responses and outcomes was observed. The experiment consisted of three groups. The first group was required to solve multiple chess problems with objective solutions and they would consequently receive unaltered, honest feedback on their solutions (Gobet, 1992). The second group was subjected to chess related problems with no objective solutions and received the same feedback as the member of the first group that they were ‘yoked’ with; however there was no control (Gobet, 1992). The final group received a waiting task (Gobet, 1992). It was discovered that the group with the unsolvable chess problems were more depressed than the two other groups at the completion of the experiment (Gobet, 1992). The results of the study limit the area of applicability to that of the learned helplessness model in humans (Gobet, 1992).

How to overcome learned helplessness[edit | edit source]

In order to overcome learned helplessness it is important to understand how the concept became a reality. By taking steps to reduce a stress response can be the first cornerstone in reversing the affects of learned helplessness in humans. Secondly, by taking control of the environment and developing a positive outlook can reduce the affects of learned helplessness and reverse the learning process of the better. It is important to note that the ability to overcome learned helplessness in humans does not rest solely on the notion of positive thinking, but instead relies on ones ability to challenge the negative outlook and beliefs that were instilled upon conception. As was discussed by Seligman et al. (1968), it is common for people to blame themselves when negative things occur to them. He also discussed the idea that people typically believe that due to a singular negative event in ones life, this one event and the negativity surrounding it can become persistent and infect all areas of ones life (Seligman et al., 1978). Furthermore, he suggested that due to this one negative event this area of life is flawed in an irreconcilable manner and doomed for any future attempts at repair (Seligman et al., 1978). By challenging these three notions, it is possible to overcome learned helplessness and learn to overcome the associated negativity (Seligman et al., 1978). For more information, see Overcoming learned helplessness (Book chapter, 2015).

Criticisms[edit | edit source]

In 1976, Maier and Seligman discussed other descriptions of the learned helplessness response in animals. Both Maier and Seligman attempted to refute the competing theories of the time however it became aware to them that the learned helplessness phenomenon may have been somewhat confusing (Maier & Seligman, 1976), especially with regard to a standardised, uniformly accepted definition. Consequently, the animal model of learned helplessness was deserted. This decision was considered appropriate by the scientific community largely due to the difficulties and risky assumptions involved with the assessment of animals and their emotional and motivational states (Hahner, 1989).

A significant criticism of learned helplessness can be found in the area of human participants. According to Abramson, Seligman and Teasdale (1978) they had formed a human counterpart to the animal model of learned helplessness. In notable learned helplessness human experiments by Hiroto (1974) and Barber and Winefield (1986), participants were exposed to loud noises as opposed to the shock administered to their animal counterparts. According to the participants they described their apparent submission as simply ignoring the noise (Barber and Winefield, 1986). When contrasted with the animal shock experiments it was apparent that the shocks were painful, however there is no way that one can ever accurately know the psychological basis for learned helplessness in animals and therefore can not be considered similar to the human experiments (Barber and Winefield, 1986).

Conclusions[edit | edit source]

From the conceptualization of learned helplessness theory progressing through the numerous stages and resting upon the reformulated model it is clear there are many concerns. Initially, it was speculated that helpless animals perceived non-contingent events (Hahner, 1989). It was then decided that learned helplessness in human counterparts was equal to that in animals (Hahner, 1989). Furthering this stretch, it was then suggested that the human model of learned helplessness was equal to that of the human model of depression (Hahner, 1989). Lastly it was concluded that the basis for which their findings were established, namely animal based research, would provide a foundation for a reformulated model of depression in humans (Hahner, 1989). In Seligman’s 1978 publication, he specifically states himself that learned helplessness is a hypothetical construct. As is evident by the variations of the theory presented over the years preceding the 1960’s experiments, the findings will almost certainly have low construct validity. As was argued by Hahner (1989), the Seligman approach to learned helplessness theory and its measurement may be precise, however the issue remains in establishing what is actually being tested.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Abramson, L., Seligman, M., & Teasdale, J. (1978). Learned Helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87(1), 49-74. doi:10.1037//0021-843X.87.1.49

Alloy, L., Peterson, C., Abramson, L., & Seligman, M. (1984). Attributional Style and the Generality of Learned Helplessness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46(3), 681-687. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.46.3.681

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders (Revised 4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author

Barber, J., & Winefield, A. (1986). Learned helplessness as conditioned inattention to the target stimulus. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 115(3), 236-246. doi: 10.1037/0096-3445.115.3.236

Carlson, N., & Black, A. (1960). Traumatic avoidance learning: The effect of preventing escape responses. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 14(1), 21-28. doi:10.1037/h0083179

Gobet, F. (1992). Learned helplessness in chess players: The importance of task similarity and the role of skill. Psychological Research, 54(1), 38-43. doi:10.1007/BF01359222

Hahner, K. (1989). Learned Helplessness: A critique of research and theory. Perspectives on animal research. Retrieved from

Hiroto, D. (1974). Locus of control and learned helplessness. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 102(2), 187-193. doi: 10.1037/h0035910

MacDonald, A. (1946). The effect of adaptation to the unconditioned stimulus upon the formation of conditioned avoidance responses. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 36, 11-12. doi:10.1037/h0060456

Maier, S. & Seligman, M. (1976). Learned helplessness: Theory and evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 105(1), 3-46. doi: 10.1037/0096-3445.105.1.3

Overmier, J., & Seligman, M. (1967). Effects of inescapable shock upon subsequent escape and avoidance responding. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 63(1), 28-33. doi:10.1037/h0024166

Pratt, D. (1980). Alternatives to Pain in Experiments on Animals. Retrieved from

Seligman, M. (1978). Comment and integration. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87(1), 165-179. 10.1037/0021-843X.87.1.165

Seligman, M., & Maier, S. (1967). Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74, 1-9. doi:10.1037/h0024514

Seligman, M., Maier, S., & Geer, J. (1968). Alleviation of Learned Helplessness in the dog. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 73(3), 256-262. doi:10.1037/h0025831