Learned helplessness is a condition that is brought about by repeated exposure to negative stimuli. The result is that the individual learns that there are no options and no possibility for an escape from the negative stimuli. Helplessness exists when an individual’s actions have no perceived positive effect on outcomes.
Learned helplessness is when an individual learns the response of resigning oneself passively to aversive conditions rather than taking action to change, escape, or avoid them. This learning occurs through repeated exposure to inescapable or unavoidable aversive events. Research by Martin Seligman has shown that helplessness is prominent in humans and has emotional, cognitive, and motivational consequences. He discovered from his research that prior experience, lack of discriminative control, and the importance of outcomes are three factors that contribute to learned helplessness. The concept has been successful at explaining the response of members of a minority group to the pressures of living in an oppressive cultural milieu.
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Applications to Understanding Responses to Oppression
Learned helplessness is an important psychological construct to assist in understanding the experience of a minority member living in an oppressive society. The negative stimuli in this situation are the perpetual onslaughts of the pernicious racism that is present in U.S. culture. It is important to point out that these negative stimuli do not need to be severe (e.g., lynching) to have their effect. It is the omnipresent, repeated exposure to oppression, oftentimes in the form of microaggressions, that can create learned helplessness. The recipient of these repeated assaults eventually comes to accept them and sees no other possible options. Institutionalized racism also influences personal behaviors and decisions made by minorities that lead to learned helplessness. This perceived lack of options makes the current social and economic power structure seem inescapable and unchangeable.
A related concept that contributes to the understanding of the dynamics of racism is the fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution, also known as correspondence bias or overattribution effect, is the tendency to explain other people’s behavior in dispositional terms, while underemphasizing situational influences. For example, if an African American tells a European American that he or she is unemployed, the European American may view the individual as lazy or unmotivated, ignoring that there may be a high unemployment rate or a lack of economic opportunity for the individual. The sociocultural and economic milieu in which an individual is living may create a state of learned helplessness (the unemployed African American has been denied economic opportunity for so long that he or she may come to accept it as an immutable condition), yet the outside observer explains this individual’s behavior in terms of internal causes, such as pathological personality or lack of moral character.
Development of the Concept
In early 1965, Seligman and his colleagues, while studying the relationship between fear and learning, accidentally discovered an unexpected phenomenon while replicating Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiment. Pavlov’s 1905 experiment demonstrated that if a ringing bell or tone is repeatedly paired with a presentation of food, a dog will salivate. Later, upon hearing the ringing of the bell without the food, the dog will salivate. In Seligman’s experiment, instead of pairing the tone with food, he paired it with harmless shock. The idea was that after the dog learned to associate the tone with the electrical shock, the dog would feel fear on the presentation of a tone and would then run away or attempt to avoid the shock in some way.
This treatment was carried out for many days, and after this conditioning phase, the same dog was placed, unrestrained, in a large box that had a low fence dividing the box into two sections. Seligman and his colleagues made sure that the dog could see the fence and easily jump over the fence to escape his section any time he wished. They then rang the same bell and expected the dog to jump over the fence because he was conditioned to associate this bell with pain from the electrical shock. Instead, they were surprised that the dog did not move! They then decided to subject the conditioned dog to an electrical shock; again there was no response on the part of the dog. Next, they put an unconditioned dog (one that had never experienced inescapable electrical shock) in the same box. This dog immediately jumped over the fence to the other section as soon as the shock occurred. It seems that the conditioned dog, which was repeatedly subjected to pain, learned that trying to escape from the shocks was useless. In other words, the dog learned to be helpless.
Extension of the Concept to Humans
Seligman and his colleagues started a scientific revolution resulting in more focus on cognitive psychology instead of focusing solely on behavioral psychology. His theory of learned helplessness was extended to human behavior. Through experiments with humans, Donald Hiroto and Seligman determined strong support for the theory that helplessness involved learning that one did not have control over events. Seligman led other helplessness researchers to reach the conclusion that the helplessness phenomenon, as produced in animal and human laboratories, was similar to certain failures of human adaptation.
Learned helplessness explained a lot of things, but then researchers began to find exceptions of people who did not get depressed, even after many bad life experiences. Seligman discovered that a depressed person thought about the bad event in more pessimistic ways than a nondepressed person. He called this thinking “explanatory style,” borrowing ideas from attribution theory.
Explanatory style is the process by which individuals explain why they are victims to a negative event. There are three components to explanatory style. The first such component is internality. Internality refers to the degree with which one feels responsible for the cause of the event or the degree to which one believes that it is someone else’s responsibility. The second characteristic is stability. Stability refers to whether the event was a one-time occurrence or whether it will continue indefinitely. The third component of explanatory style is globality. Globality refers to the extent of the negative event upon the individual. We can see how an individual from a marginalized group could come to feel a low level of internality (the individual’s situation is molded by external forces over which he or she has no perceived control), a high level of stability (the oppressive components of the culture are embedded into the bedrock of our society and are not going away), and a high degree of globality (racism impacts every aspect of life for the person of color). An event can impact a minor aspect of the individual’s life or affect every aspect.
Symptoms of learned helplessness include lack of motivation, listlessness, cognitive breakdown between actions and outcomes (i.e., inability to link actions to the consequences they bring about or blaming others or external factors for one’s situation, condition, and outcomes), boredom, anxiety, frustration, anger, hopelessness, and depression.
- Hiroto, D. S., & Seligman, M. E. (1975). Generality of learned helplessness in man. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 311-327.
- Jones, E. E., & Harris, V. A. (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3, 1-24.
- Seligman, M. E. (1992). Helplessness: On depression, development, and death. New York: W. H. Freeman.
- Seligman, M. E. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Random House.