Helplessness refers to maladaptive passivity in situations where an active response can alleviate negative conditions or produce positive ones. Helplessness entails not just a deficit in activity, but also a lack of motivation, aversive feelings—notably anxiety and depression—and cognitive difficulties in recognizing that certain behaviors indeed affect what happens. Helplessness has been explained from theoretical perspectives ranging from psychoanalytic accounts of symptom formation through sociological accounts of alienation, but perhaps its best-known contemporary explanation has emerged from studies by psychologists of what has come to be known as learned helplessness. These studies have investigated the causes and consequences of helplessness and led to effective strategies of treatment and prevention.

Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness was first described several decades ago by investigators studying animal learning. Researchers immobilized a dog and exposed it to a series of electric shocks that could be neither avoided nor escaped. Twenty-four hours later, the dog was placed in a situation in which electric shock could be terminated by a simple response. The dog did not make this response, however, and passively endured the shock. This behavior was in contrast to dogs in a control group who reacted vigorously to the shock and learned readily how to turn it off.

These investigators proposed that the dog had learned to be helpless: When originally exposed to uncontrollable shock, it learned that nothing it did mattered. The shocks came and went independently of the dog s behaviors. Response-outcome independence was represented by the dogs as an expectation of future helplessness that was generalized to new situations to produce motivational, emotional, and cognitive difficulties. The deficits that follow in the wake of uncontrollability are known as the learned helplessness phenomenon, and the associated cognitive explanation as the learned helplessness model.

Much of the early interest in learned helplessness stemmed from its clash with traditional stimulus-response theories of learning. Alternative accounts of learned helplessness were proposed that did not invoke mentalistic constructs, and many of these alternatives emphasized an incompatible motor response learned when animals were first exposed to uncontrollable shock. This response was presumably generalized to the second situation, where it interfered with performance at the test task. For example, perhaps the dogs learned that holding still when shocked somehow decreased pain. If so, then they held still in the second situation as well because this response was previously reinforced. Studies testing the learned helplessness model versus the incompatible motor response alternatives showed that expectations were critical in producing helplessness following uncontrollable events.

Support for a cognitive interpretation of helplessness also came from studies showing that an animal could be immunized against the debilitating effects of uncontrollability by first exposing it to controllable events. The animal learns during immunization that events can be controlled, and this expectation is sustained during exposure to uncontrollable events, precluding learned helplessness. In other studies, learned helplessness deficits were undone by forcibly exposing a helpless animal to the contingency between behavior and outcome. So, the animal was compelled to make an appropriate response at the test task, by pushing or pulling it into action. After several such trials, the animal notices that escape is possible and begins to respond on its own. Again, the process at work is cognitive. The animal’s expectation of response—outcome independence is challenged during the therapy experience, and hence learning occurs.

Helplessness and Human Problems

Psychologists interested in humans, and particularly human problems, were quick to see the parallels between learned helplessness as produced by uncontrollable events in the laboratory and maladaptive passivity as it exists in the real world. Thus, researchers began several lines of research on learned helplessness in people.

In one line of work, helplessness in people was produced in the laboratory much as it was in animals, by exposing them to uncontrollable events and observing the effects. Unsolvable problems usually were substituted for uncontrollable electric shocks, but the critical aspects of the phenomenon remained: Following uncontrollability, people show a variety of deficits. In other studies, researchers documented further similarities between the animal phenomenon and what was produced in the human laboratory, including immunization and therapy.

In another line of work, researchers proposed various failures of adaptation as analogous to learned helplessness and investigated the similarity between these failures and learned helplessness: depression; physical illness; academic, athletic, and vocational failure; worker burnout; deleterious psychological effects of crowding, unemployment, noise pollution, chronic pain, aging, mental retardation, and epilepsy; and passivity among ethnic minorities.

Attributional Reformulation

As research ensued, it became clear that the original learned helplessness explanation was an oversimplification. The model failed to account for the range of reactions that people display in response to uncontrollable events. Some people show the hypothesized deficits across time and situation, whereas others do not. Furthermore, failures of adaptation that the learned helplessness model was supposed to explain, such as depression, are often characterized by a striking loss of self-esteem, about which the model is silent.

In an attempt to resolve these discrepancies, Lyn Abramson, Martin Seligman, and John Teasdale reformulated the helplessness model as applied to people. They explained the contrary findings by proposing that people ask themselves why uncontrollable (bad) events happen. The nature of the person’s answer then sets the parameters for the subsequent helplessness. If the causal attribution is stable (“it’s going to last forever”), then induced helplessness is long-lasting; if unstable, then it is transient. If the causal attribution is global (“it’s going to undermine everything”), then subsequent helplessness is manifest across a variety of situations; if specific, then it is correspondingly circumscribed. Finally, if the causal attribution is internal (“it’s all my fault”), the person’s self-esteem drops following uncontrollability; if external, self-esteem is left intact.

These hypotheses comprise the attributional reformulation of helplessness theory. This new theory left the original model in place because uncontrollable events were still hypothesized to produce deficits when they gave rise to an expectation of response-outcome independence. The nature of these deficits, however, was now said to be influenced by the causal attribution offered by the individual.

In some cases, the situation itself provides the explanation made by the person. In other cases, the person relies on his or her habitual way of making sense of events that occur: explanatory style. People tend to offer similar explanations for disparate bad (or good) events. Explanatory style is therefore a distal, although important, influence on helplessness and the failures of adaptation that involve helplessness. An explanatory style characterized by internal, stable, and global explanations for bad events can be described as pessimistic, and the opposite style— external, unstable, and specific explanations for bad events— can be described as optimistic.


One practical implication of these ideas is that helplessness and its consequences can be alleviated by changing the way people think about response-outcome contingencies and how they explain the causes of bad events. Cognitive therapy for depression is effective in part because it changes these sorts of beliefs and provides clients with strategies for viewing future bad events in more optimistic ways.

Another practical implication is that helplessness and its consequences can be prevented in the first place by teaching clients cognitive-behavioral skills before the development of problems. One protocol based on these tenets, designed for group administration to middle-school students, is the Penn Resiliency Program (PRP). PRP is a 12-session curriculum administered by school teachers and guidance counselors. The program contains two main components, one cognitive and the other based on social problem-solving techniques.

In the cognitive component, five core cognitive techniques are translated, through the use of cartoons and skits, into a language that adolescents can understand and apply to their own lives. Group facilitators begin by teaching students about the link between thoughts and feelings. In the second lesson, students learn how to evaluate the beliefs they learned to recognize in the first lesson. Skits are used to help find differences between the beliefs of fictitious characters who are thriving and those who are not. By the end of the lesson, students have learned that “me” (its my fault), “always” (it’s going to be this way forever), and “everything” (it affects everything I do) beliefs about bad events are more likely than others to result in undesirable outcomes.

In the third lesson, two detectives are contrasted: one good and one bad. The good detective makes a list of many possible suspects (beliefs) and chooses the one most supported by the evidence. The bad detective always chooses the first suspect that pops into his head. Students are taught to evaluate their beliefs as if they were the good detective. In the fourth lesson, students learn to decatastrophize, or to evaluate the accuracy of their first and often erroneous belief. In the fifth lesson, students intensively practice a technique called the hot seat, which helps transition the cognitive skills from the classroom into the real world by providing an opportunity for rapid-fire disputation of negative beliefs.

Through the cognitive component, students learn to evaluate the accuracy of their interpretations of the world. In the social-problem-solving component, students learn seven skills that help them better interact with this world: assertiveness, negotiation, relaxation, procrastination, social skills, decision making, and problem solving. The PRP has been successfully evaluated in school and managed care settings in both the United States and China. Results indicated that prevention participants reported fewer depressive symptoms and were less likely to report symptoms in the moderate to severe range through 2 years of follow-up. At 2 years, 22 percent of the prevention participants compared to 44 percent of controls reported symptoms in the moderate to severe range.


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