Learned helplessness is a behavior pattern involving a maladaptive response characterized by avoidance of challenges, negative affect, and the collapse of problem-solving strategies when obstacles arise. Three components are necessary for learned helplessness to be present: contingency, cognition, and behavior.
Contingency is the idea that there is an identifiable relation between one’s actions and the environmental response, such as tapping a drum and the ensuing sound. In learned helplessness research, contingency is more often operationalized as its converse— uncontrollability—so that when an agent acts, there is no identifiable relation with a specific response. Cognitions are also necessary. These are thought of as the way one understands and explains contingency or lack thereof. How individuals explain environmental contingencies leads to the third component of learned helplessness—behavior. Thus, learned helplessness exists in a situation in which there is no observable contingency and in which one expects that this uncontrollability will continue and behaves accordingly, such as by quitting.
Origins Of The Theory
This theory emerged in the mid-1960s as Martin Seligman and Steven Maier’s attempt to explain why some dogs failed to attempt to escape electric shocks while others easily escaped. Initially, dogs were placed into a harness and strapped down so that they would not be able to escape the shock. At first, they jumped around trying to evade the shock. Eventually, however, these dogs began passively accepting the shock, failing to respond. What was particularly disconcerting to the researchers was that when these dogs were moved into a different box, they continued to passively accept the shock, failing to even attempt escape even though it was now quite easy. Contemporary learning theory was unable to explain this behavior adequately, and learned helplessness theory was born.
As researchers applied the theory to humans, it became clear that human responses are considerably more complex than animal responses. Initial studies were modeled on the animal studies, using aversive events, experimenter-determined controllability or uncontrollability, and examination of subsequent responses. Early results were generally supportive of the theory while continuing to raise new questions.
As attribution theory gained prominence in the 1970s, learned helplessness theory was reformulated to include more specific information about cognitive processes. In particular, Abrahamson, Seligman, and Teasdale incorporated humans’ tendency to ask “why” when something happens and noted that their answers can often lead to specific and predictable reactions to events. As the theory now proposed, a person need only expect that an outcome is noncontingent for learned helplessness to result. How the expectation of noncontingency is arrived at is less important, whereas causal attributions of why the outcome is noncontingent become more important in predicting the nature of subsequent deficits. These adjustments in the theory proved more powerful in predicting behavior.
Processes In Learned Helplessness
Uncontrollability seems to be associated with increases in negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, and depression, reduction in observable aggression, and increased arousal. Self-esteem is particularly susceptible to learned helplessness. Research findings imply that individuals who experience noncontingent outcomes may become increasingly likely to display the helpless pattern. An early question in the human learned helplessness literature was whether or not helplessness actually generalized from one situation to another, as it did in animals. Hiroto and Seligman demonstrated that failure to avoid the aversive event was associated with subsequent failure at a cognitive task, and that failure at a cognitive task was associated with failure to avoid the aversive event, effectively establishing “cross-modal helplessness”—generalization from one type of task to another. This was crucial to the advancement of the theory. Critics had claimed learning was situation specific; Hiroto and Seligman’s results effectively countered their arguments.
These findings continue to support the idea of helplessness as a coherent set of deficits, rather than simply a task-specific problem. Individuals who demonstrate helpless patterns make statements suggesting that they believe themselves to be personally responsible for failure, to attribute their failures to stable circumstances, and to state that these characteristics encompass their whole selves. In other words, they seem to believe that they have failed because they are stupid, they are going to remain stupid, and everything they do is stupid—controllability, cognitions, and behavior. This pattern is often referred to as “explanatory style,” and much research has gone into supporting the idea that humans tend to use a particular style to explain both good and bad events.
Critics suggested that perhaps it is adaptive for an individual to stop responding in the face of failure and that failure to solve the problem, not uncontrollability, underlies the helplessness phenomenon. To test this idea, Kofta and Sedek set up an experiment that separated uncontrollability from failure. They demonstrated that, whereas failure resulted in decreased mood, it was the condition of uncontrollability that resulted in task performance deficits. Their data support the idea that participants can distinguish uncontrollability and failure and that passivity as a behavior is a deficit, rather than an appropriate response.
Who Does Learned Helplessness Affect?
In 1991, Villanova and Peterson conducted a meta-analysis of the literature on learned helplessness in humans. Meta-analysis is a statistical procedure that combines data from many different studies. Findings suggest not only that humans tend to reliably demonstrate deficits in subsequent performance after failures, but also that the magnitude of this tendency is relatively robust. Furthermore, these findings appear to be consistent across age, gender, and type of task. Evidence of generality is surprising, considering that many researchers believed that certain types of people (e.g., women) may be more susceptible to helplessness than others.
Carol Dweck and colleagues have studied the presence of helplessness deficits in children, finding evidence that children as young as 4 and 5 are susceptible. They demonstrate many of the same characteristics as older children and adults. In a related study, O’Donnell found that 41% of 4to 6-year-old children who failed on three unsolvable puzzles showed the helpless pattern when later presented with solvable puzzles, lending further support to Dweck’s findings. Children exhibiting this pattern have difficulty acquiring and demonstrating cognitive skills in the face of adversity. They demonstrate dramatically poorer outcomes in a wide variety of domains, including social relationships, sports, moral development, and academics. It is apparent that a child’s orientation toward challenging tasks has a compelling impact on the child’s future adjustment in a variety of areas.
There is very little evidence at this point describing the antecedents of learned helplessness. Some research suggests a genetic component, noting that monozygotic (identical) twins are more alike in their explanatory style than dizygotic (fraternal) twins. This is thought to be due to their higher level of genetic similarity but could also be explained by their greater degree of shared experiences. Others have looked for correlations between parental explanatory style and children’s, finding only slight relations. One promising area is looking at parental provision of structure and intrusiveness. Results suggest that paternal intrusiveness disrupts environmental contingency and may result in adoption of a helpless pattern in early childhood. Clearly, more work needs to be done in this area.
Application Of The Theory
The primary application of learned helplessness has been to depression and other emotional disorders. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema and colleagues have studied the precursors of depression. They discovered that explanatory style (i.e., cognitions) is a more powerful predictor of depression than negative life events. Pessimism and a general tendency to explain events as internal and stable are correlated with depression. However, it may be that the reverse is true; individuals with a learned helplessness pattern may be more likely to see problems when another person in a similar circumstance sees opportunities.
Much of the empirical work on perceived control has been conducted in academic environments. To understand the relation of control to helplessness, researchers have examined the interaction of the teacher’s behavior in the classroom (social context) and children’s perceptions of what they have to do to succeed (strategy) and whether they have the capability to do what it takes (confidence). Results indicate that strategy and confidence combine to produce the child’s actions (engagement in the classroom) and subsequent outcomes.
We have also learned through several different studies that learned helplessness can be unlearned. Just as dogs in a box can be taught to escape, schoolchildren who are told that they will probably get better at a task also tend to improve. Dweck in particular found that teaching children to attribute failure to lack of effort rather than lack of ability was helpful in changing subsequent performance. Other researchers have made similar contributions to understanding the retraining process. Peterson has gone so far as to refer to retraining as an immunization against depression, making a comparison to Salk’s polio vaccine.
Further research on learned helplessness will consider better ways of conducting research, understanding the relations between explanatory style and behavior, learning how parents contribute, and, perhaps most important, learning how to prevent it.
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