Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Overcoming learned helplessness

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Overcoming learned helpnessness:
How can learned helplessness be overcome?

Overview[edit | edit source]

A cartoon centipede reads books and types on a laptop.
Founder of Learned Helplessness Martin Seligman.

Learned helplessness is the behaviour exhibited by individuals who have endured repeated painful or aversive stimuli which they were unable to avoid; these events are deemed as uncontrollable by the individual and they learn that their associated responses are independent to their outcomes (Alloy, Peterson, Abramson, & Seligman, 1984). As a result of this learning, an individual surmises that any response will be pointless (Alloy et al., 1984); they learn that they have lost control and so they give up trying. This learning expectation can be applied to future events or situations and can impact future learning behaviours (Alloy et al., 1984). This page will discuss learned helplessness with a focus on how a person who experiences this can overcome learned helplessness through empowerment, cognitive therapy and learned optimism. This page will provide treatment options and discuss their success.

Key Research and Theory[edit | edit source]

The theory of Learned Helplessness was conceptualized by Martin Seligman in the 1960s and 1970s. Learned helplessness is a type of behavioural conditioning which can affect adults, children and animals. In 1965, Martin Seligman and his team were researching Classical Conditioning, the process by which an animal or human associates one thing with another. In the Stage 1 of Seligman’s experiment he would place a dog into a crate and ring a bell each time he administered a shock to the dog. The dog was unable to escape the shock and after a while, Seligman noticed that the dog would respond to just the sound of the bell in the absence of a shock. The dog was now ‘conditioned’ to associate the sound of the bell with the shock consistent with Classical conditioning theory. In Stage 2 of Seligman’s experiment, he placed the dog into a crate which had a small fence in the middle dividing it into two separate sections. On one side of the fence, a shock would be administered and on the other a shock would not be administered. The fence was low enough for the dog to jump and escape the shock if it wanted to. Seligman placed the dog on the side of the fence that administered a shock and hypothesised that the dog would try to escape the shock and jump the low fence. Instead, the dogs lay down. Seligman’s experiments consistently showed that the dog would not attempt to escape the shocks; it seemed that in Stage 1 of the experiment the dogs had learned that they could not avoid the shocks, so they gave up in Stage 2 of the experiment. Seligman described their condition as ‘Learned Helplessness. Seligman found that when events are uncontrollable the organism learns that its behaviour and outcomes are independent, and this learning produces the motivational, cognitive, and emotional effects of uncontrollability (Maier, Steven F.; Seligman, Martin E., 1976).

Experiments on Animals[edit | edit source]

Many studies have taken place regarding the link between learned helplessness and depression. Until recently the cellular basis of depression has been poorly understood, perhaps owing to the multifaceted nature of depressive disorders (Pittenger & Duman, 2008). The study of “Synaptic potentiation onto habenula neurons in the learned helplessness model of depression (Le 2009)” was partially conducted on monkeys and indicated that neurons in the lateral habenula (LHb), a nucleus that facilitates communication between forebrain and midbrain structures, increase their activity when the animal receives a stimulus that predicts aversive conditions or does not receive an expected positive reward (Matsumoto, 2007). For example, anticipation or disappointment of a negative outcome. This study shows that in the learned helplessness models of depression, excitatory synapses from the LHb neurons increase the strength of nerve impulses along pathways in dopamine-rich areas which have been used previously, either short-term or long-term. LHb neurons exert a controlling influence on dopamine-rich regions within the brain which control reward-seeking behaviour (Matsumoto, M. & Hikosaka, 2007) and therefore hold relevance to learned helplessness and participate in depressive disorders (Matsumoto 2009).

The increase in the strength of nerves impulses correlates with an animal’s helplessness behaviour and is due to an enhanced presynaptic release probability. This study provided insight into the cellular mechanisms with human and animal brains revealing that when LHb neurons increase the strength of nerve impulses along neural pathways depression-like symptoms are more prevalent. The study attempted to deplete the transmitter release by repeated electrical stimulation of the brain. Deep brain stimulation has been shown to be effective for patients who are depressed (Sartorius 2010). The electrical stimulation markedly suppressed the synapses that caused the LHb neurons to fire. “This finding suggests that large changes in a small proportion of cells in the LHb may be capable of modifying an animal’s behaviour.” The results of brain scans and slice indicated that learned helplessness and depression in rats could be directly attributed to the LHb neurons. The results of the experiment indicate that excitatory synaptic activity in the LHb neurons may be a key modulator of learned helplessness. As stated in the study “reducing synaptic transmission onto LHb neurons through a Deep Brain Stimulation protocol led to acute reversal of learned helplessness (Li, Et al. 2009).” This is compelling research which suggests deep brain stimulation may be an effective treatment for humans and rodents alike.

Further studies in this area may reveal the cellular processes that occur during different moods. This study suggested that further study of the LHb neurons may lead to effective treatments and reversal of some forms of depressive orders.

Health Implications[edit | edit source]

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Physical Health[edit | edit source]

Research shows that pessimistic explanations of negative events are related to poor physical health (Buchanan, 1995; Kamen-Siegel, Roding, Seligman, & Dwyer, 1991). It is argued that learned helplessness leads to a pessimistic explanatory style which affects health indirectly by inhibiting health promoting behaviours, increasing depression and stress and increasing social isolation (Bennet, & Elliot, 1997).

Explanatory style and health[edit | edit source]

When individuals feel overwhelmed or believe they are unable to change their physical health, it inevitably declines. For example, an individual may decide to want to improve their health by losing weight, or simply improving their fitness. However, past experience may tell them that they can never lose weight or they will always be fat. A surplus of diet and exercise information can be overwhelming and cause a person to give up on exercise before they begin. A person who experiences depression, anxiety and learned helplessness may attribute their past failures to things outside of their control such as “I am obese because of my genetics”; “I cannot lose weight because diets do not work for me” or “I will never be healthy because I have diabetes”. A person who says these things aloud or to themselves has a pessimistic explanatory style. This causes a person to give up before they try because of the feelings they experience when they consider past outcomes or simply ponder their goals. Because they may experience feelings of being overwhelmed, helpless and anxious, their inability to try means they unknowingly display health inhibiting behaviours, increasing their depression, stress and anxiety when trying to achieve a particular goal.

When assessments of the causes of negative events are deemed pervasive, feelings of helplessness are expected to increase (Peterson et al., 1995). If an individual thinks that the cause of a negative event will follow them through to other situations, they are more likely to feel helplessness, begin catastrophizing and become severely overwhelmed by these thoughts. Feelings such as these can lead to sadness, loneliness, anxiety, and depression. One way to overcome this catastrophizing is to mediate the effects of stress, begin practicing health promoting behaviour and maintain a strong support network as well as positive relationships. Research by Bennet and Elliot (2009) speculate that individuals who “experience feelings of helplessness are needier than others and subsequently seek out more emotional and material help from their friends and families”. It is important for individuals who experience these feelings to express them to someone who they trust[factual?]. For more ways to overcome these feelings, see Treatment

Depression[edit | edit source]

In 1974, Martin Seligman suggested that depression can be caused by Learned Helplessness. Seligman suggessted the 'Giving up' behaviour was produced by exposure to unavoidable aversive events. Seligman (1989) States explanatory style is the habitual pattern of explanations an individual makes for good and bad events. Abraham and Seligman (1978) explain that individuals with an optimistic explanatory style are less likely to display helplessness deficits when faced with a negative situation than an individual who displays a pessimistic explanatory style (Abramson, Seligman and Teasdale, 1978). When faced with a set of undesirable circumstances, people will struggle vigorously to escape, counteract or overcome the situation. However, those who experience helplessness do not try to overcome or escape situations, their previous experiences have led them to believe that trying to struggle, escape or overcome a particular situation is futile. Once a person believes that they cannot control their situation they adopt depressive emotionality and experience emotions such as apathy, depression and listlessness. Individuals who display learned helplessness show signs of lethargy and depressive emotional responses in situations that call for a more positive emotional response. For example, much like the rats in Seligman’s experiment, when a person who has learned helplessness is faced with a set of circumstances that they could potentially overcome, they lose the will to try to overcome them. People in similar situations begin to attribute their failure to their own personal attributes such rather than their actions; people who have learned helplessness may say things such as “I am not good enough”, “I am not educated enough”, “ I will never be successful’. Those who experience helplessness respond differently in the face of failure than others. Generally, these people give up or they do not try.

Motivation[edit | edit source]

For children and adults who have learned helplessness, their motivation to try can be severely impaired due to irrational beliefs about themselves, the world and their ability to succeed. Failure can be defined as a ‘loss of control over a desired outcome’. Mastery of belief is the amount of control one believes they have over a particular situation. Peterson et al. (1993) explains that when a person has strong mastery they perceive a strong link between their actions and the impact they have on outcomes. However, when mastery is low, their beliefs are less resilient and the individual may perceive that their personal actions, influences or behaviour has limited or no effect on the outcome. This can have a significant impact on the person's motivation levels. In the face of adversity and failure, many people see it as a minor set-back and are energised by the challenge to succeed at the next challenge[factual?]. However those who experience helplessness respond to failure by giving up. Helplessness oriented people shy away from challenges, fall apart in the face of setbacks, begin to question and then outright doubt their ability. This can have a significant impact on career outcomes; for example if a person applies for a promotion, is unsuccessful and has learned helplessness, may respond by saying or thinking things such as ‘I am useless, I will never be promoted because I am dumb’ and so on. This person cannot be consoled or convinced that it is a minor setback and that they should continue striving for success and achievement; it is likely that they will give up entirely, internalising the situation emotionally and believing they are useless, unworthy and that there is not point in trying again. On the other hand, for someone without learned helplessness, they can logically attribute their set back to a poorly written application, not enough skills or perhaps simply bad luck.

A study conducted by Butkowsky and Willows (1980) sought to determine if children with reading difficulties would display negative self-perception that may contribute to motivational and performance deficits. Butkowsky and Willows (1980) studied 72 boys who were in Year 5 and were experiencing reading difficulties. The boys ranged from poor, average and good reading ability. Each child was assessed on reading tasks in which their success or failure was manipulated. The results of the study were consistent with the hypothesis; that the poor readers were observed displaying characteristics indicative of learned helplessness and low self-concepts of ability. These children displayed low self-esteem and showed significantly lower estimates of potential success. These children showed less persistence than the other children and they attributed their failures to lack of ability and to factors that were outside of their personal control (Butkowsky & Willows, 1980). Once a child had failed a particular task, they[grammar?] did not believe that they could be successful during the next task. Therefore, they were less willing to try believing that they could not improve their ability and that it was out of their control. These children were shown to have low motivation to improve their ability and were less willing to strive to success than the children who had a good reading ability but failed their tasks also. The children who had a good reading ability, but were manipulated to fail their tasks displayed more willingness to strive for success, believing they could improve their skills and persevere.

It is quite common for those who experience learned helplessness to have irrational beliefs about the way the world works and themselves[factual?]. Those who have learned helplessness often learn it at an early age [factual?]they may learn that a particular type of behaviour promotes a negative response in a parent so they cease that behaviour; however as they grow older, they may attribute their failures to factors that are outside of their control. Each person will experience failures during their life, many failures are unrelated to a persons ability or unrelated to them at all. However, for those who have learned helplessness these failures unintentionally reinforce to children or adults that their actions do not influence the outcome. For example, if a child experiences physical abuse when they are younger, they may try to escape this abuse. After a while they realise that trying to escape or cry has no affect, they stop trying to escape. As the child develops into adulthood, he or she may irrationally think that when a negative physical situation arises, they cannot escape or control it and they may therefore give up. This type of response can be detrimental to a persons close intimate relationships, education, career and family life. However, this type of behaviour is a learned response and can be changed.

Treatment[edit | edit source]

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Empowerment[edit | edit source]

There are several options available that can assist a person to overcome learned helplessness. Each person will respond to treatment differently, so it is important to consider what is right for you or someone you may know who wants to overcome learned helplessness. This page only considers treatment for humans. A crucial step towards overcoming learned helplessness is to recognise that it is not an inherent personality trait and that with perseverance and treatment it can it can be overcome (Abramson, L., Seligman, M., & Teasdale, J. 1978). A person who wants to overcome learned helplessness needs to feel empowered to do so.

Overcoming learned helplessness means empowering a person or yourself towards taking intentional actions, promoting optimal experience, positive functioning, positive emotions, a resilient sense of self, and healthy development away from impulsive functioning, counterproductive functioning, habitual experience, negative emotion, a fragile sense of self, maladaptive or dysfunctional development[factual?]. This may mean finding the motivation to exercise, using positive self-talk, attributing positive emotions to positive experiences and moving away from a pessimistic explanatory style and moving towards a more optimistic explanatory style. This could also mean that you need to work on building a positive sense of self and building resilience against negative events that may occur in your life, realising that not everything is within your control, but rather than using negative events as setbacks or a reflection of inability, by truly assessing those events to see if you could have performed better, prepared better or challenged yourself more. Often there will be events that you were underprepared for or a skill you did not acquire in time for ‘that job’, however these setbacks in life can be viewed as challenges that need to be conquered.

Perhaps one of the hardest habits to break is the thought patterns that allow a person to maintain their state of mind, whether it be depression, anxiety or a pessimistic frame of mind. The thought patterns that sustain depression and inhibit health promoting behaviours are often what holds a person back from overcoming helplessness. These thought patterns may exist in the form of smoking, drinking, unsafe sexual practices or abuse of self-administered-medications; relationships may fail, careers may not progress and health generally deteriorates. People who overcome learned helplessness often find that by taking each day at a time and focusing on the long term goal, they are able to quit the habits that were holding them back and begin fighting depression and anxiety. By having a good understanding of motivation and emotional problems your capacity to find workable solutions and real world motivational solutions to your emotional problems will improve.

If you are trying to help a friend overcome learned helplessness, consider how you may encourage a person who has experienced 'perceived' failure their entire life, a person who does not believe their actions directly relate to situational outcomes, a person who experiences depression and regularly experiences the world in a negative way, a person who expects to fail to try a treatment plan. This may seem like a difficult task at first, but if you encourage the person and empower them will a supportive social network, encouragement and a plan they may be able to begin to work through their motivational and emotional problems.

Positive Explanatory Style Treatment Case Study[edit | edit source]

A study conducted by Dweck (1975) aimed to see if altering a child‘s perception of the relationship between his behaviour and the occurrence of failure (pessimistic explanatory style) would result in a change in the child’s response to failure. A group of children received re-training on ways to perceive failure. Group A were taught to take responsibility for failure and to attribute it to insufficient effort (Dweck, 1975). It was believed this would lead to the children increasing their persistence in the face of failure. Research suggests that people with higher expectations of success lead to greater persistence in the face of difficulty (Battle, 1965). The study considered that while success is the most effective way to motivate children and adults, errors in everyday life will need to be accepted and children need to learn to accept that their performance will not always be perfect. Children and adults who are trying to overcome learned helplessness need to consider whether they can completely eliminate failure from every situation or if they could teach themselves to deal with it more effectively instead (Dweck, 1975). Dweck (1975) explains that the study began with the assumption that the manner in which a person deals with an aversive situation, such as failure, determines the way in which the person responds to that event. Therefore, if a child believes failure to be a result of external failures or their lack of ability the child is unlikely to persist with their efforts. On the contrary, if a child believes the failure is due to a lack of motivation, the child is likely to try harder in his or her efforts in a future attempt to obtain the goal. The children were given a math test after extensive training in positive explanatory style and their responses were measured. Prior to the training, each child displayed severely deteriorated performance immediately after failure, a problem they had tried to solve the previous day became sources of great emotional pain and general difficulty. Once the test was completed, children demonstrated increased persistence in the face of failure, with the results of the study strongly supporting the hypothesis that a pessimistic explanatory style can be overcome through therapy or training in the case of children (Dweck, 1975). Interestingly, another part of the study trained children to strive to make nil errors; this errorless training saw children who received a perfect mark excel and their performance and motivation were superior. However, the downside of this type of training is that is it unrealistic to expect a perfect score all the time and in life generally. The children who were encouraged to achieve a perfect score did not respond well to failure when their results returned errors. This should be a consideration for adults who seek to achieve perfection.

Further research is needed to determine if the extent to which failure retains its meaning as a cue for continued failure will decrease if an adult practises positive attribution. Continued positive attribution will eventually lead to a more positive explanatory response to failure. Research by Bennet and Elliot showed that individuals who experience learned helplessness score higher on the depression scale and tend to suffer from pessimistic explanatory style. This can be treated with cognitive therapy, supportive social networks as well as individual effort. Cognitive therapy teaches the pessimist that failure in one situation does not predict or ensure failure in another unrelated situation. Therapy and self-determination teaches individuals to abandon using global causal explanations and catastrophising behaviour, as this change in thought association may improve an individual’s mental health, and therefore influence their physical health.

Learned Optimism[edit | edit source]

Learned optimism is another term coined by Martin Seligman. Seligman explains that just like learned helplessness, optimism can also be learned. Seligman and many other positive psychology studies show that people with an optimistic outlook are higher achievers and have better overall health. However, pessimism has been proven to be much more common[factual?]. Someone with a pessimistic explanatory style is more likely to give up in the face of adversity and to experience depression and anxiety[factual?]. Seligman encourages pessimists to learn to be optimists by thinking about their reactions to adversity in a new way. The resulting optimism and change in explanatory style is a ‘learned optimism’. A person with an optimistic outlook will perceive failure as an event which was simply unlucky and really just a simple setback or challenge, rather than a permanent or personal reflection of one’s ability to succeed.

Explanatory style is a psychological attribute that indicates how people explain to themselves why they experience a particular event, either positive or negative. Psychologists have identified three components in explanatory style:

  • Permanence: Permanence is the way an optimistic person interprets the events in their life. Optimistic people tend to believe negative events to be more temporary than permanent and recover from setbacks quickly, whereas others may take longer periods to recover or may never recover. They also believe good things happen for reasons that are permanent, rather than seeing the transient nature of positive events. Optimists point to specific temporary causes for negative events; pessimists point to permanent causes. (Seligman)
  • Pervasiveness: Optimistic people compartmentalize helplessness, whereas pessimistic people assume that failure in one area of life means failure in life as a whole (Seligman). Optimistic people also allow good events to influence other areas of their lives rather than just the particular area in which the event occurred.
  • Personalization: Optimists tend to attribute failure to causes outside of themselves whereas pessimists tend to blame their inability or blame themselves for events that occur. Optimists are therefore able to process failure faster and experience higher levels of self-esteem and confidence. Optimists generally take greater personal responsibility for failure, seeing it as a setback or challenge rather than a failure that affects all areas of their life.

Research suggests that pessimistic explanatory style is associated with depression, this would imply that if a person challenged their own thinking and learned optimism that their depression may be alleviated.

Intervention Plans[edit | edit source]

Intervention plans can be successful if a person is experiencing significant affect in their life due to a failure. A strategy can be devised to assist the person to alleviate their reaction to failure, depression and anxiety.

Strategy 1: A strategy aimed at overcoming a fixed mindset can be implemented for learned helplessness. Often a person with learned helplessness may have depleted self control, a pessimistic explanatory style, hubristic pride, malicious envy, thought suppression, depression, anxiety and immature defence mechanisms[factual?]. Here is how an intervention plan may be structured to target pessimistic explanatory style and alleviate the negative impact failure has on an individual.

The intervention need to ensure that it is supporting psychological needs such as comfort, strong support network, trust and satisfaction that an outcome will be achieved. The intervention needs to target an individual's mindset and focus on increasing growth and changing their mindset. For example, the individual could learn optimism.

Promoting Emotional Knowledge is important for any intervention plan. In order for a person to be able to change, they must have cultivated a good understanding of emotions and why they feel a certain way in order to overcome and work through those emotions. In any intervention plan, a person must be willing to make long term changes and work hard to achieve their desired outcome. An intervention plan must be driven by the patient, rather than the psychologist. If the patient is inadequately motivated, it is unlikely that success will prevail.

See Also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Alloy, L., Peterson, C., Abramson, L., & Seligman, M. (1984). Attributional Style and the Generality of Learned Helplessness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Bennet, K., & Elliot, M. (1997) Mechanisms Linking Pessimism to Illness, University of Nevada.

Li, B., Piriz, J., Mirrione, M., Chung, C., Proulx, D., Schulz, D., Henn, F. & Malino, R. (2009) Synaptic Potentiation onto habenula neurons in the learned helplessness model of Depression

Maier, Steven F.; Seligman, Martin E. (1976) Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol 105(1), Mar 1976

Matsumoto, M. & Hikosaka, O. (2009) Representation of negative motivational value in the primate lateral habenula. Nature Neurosci. Pp. 77–84

Matsumoto M, Hisoka, O, (2007). Matsumoto, M. & Hikosaka, O. Lateral habenula as a source of negative reward signals in dopamine neurons.

Matsumoto, M. & Hikosaka, O. (2007) Lateral habenula as a source of negative reward signals in dopamine neurons. Pp. 447

Pittenger, C. & Duman, R. (2008) Stress, depression, and neuroplasticity: a convergence of mechanisms. Neuropsychopharmacology pp. 33, 88–109

Maier, S. & Seligman, M., 1976 'Journal of Experimental Psychology: General', Vol 105, V1.

Weitman, W. (2010), Psychology Themes and Variations, Eighth Edition, Wadsworth Publishing.

External links[edit | edit source]