Learned Helplessness

Learned Helplessness Definition

Learned helplessness refers to a phenomenon in which an animal or human experiences an uncontrollable, inescapable event and subsequently has difficulty obtaining desirable outcomes, even when it is easy to do so. The term is often used to explain why people may display passive, helpless behavior or feel powerless in situations that are actually simple to avoid or change.

Learned Helplessness Background and History

Learned HelplessnessMartin Seligman and Steven Maier discovered learned helplessness accidentally while conducting behavioral research on negative reinforcement with dogs. They set up a cage with two compartments separated by a shoulder high wall, called a shuttlebox, that allowed the dogs to escape a mild but painful electric shock delivered to the floor of one side by jumping to the other side. Typically, dogs easily learn to escape shocks by jumping over the wall in such devices, but Seligman and Maier found that dogs that had recently experienced unavoidable shock prior to being in the shuttlebox tended to passively accept the shock, even though they could easily escape it. In their classic study, they compared the performance of dogs that had previously received inescapable shock to those who had either received the same amount of escapable shock or no shock prior to being in the box. From this and many follow-up studies, they found that it was the uncontrollable nature of the event experienced in the previous task (rather whether it was desirable or undesirable or led to negative feelings) that was responsible for the dogs’ passive behavior afterward.

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Their findings sparked further research, using similar methods and using both rewards and punishments, that demonstrated that learned helplessness behavior could be observed in a variety of other species, including cats, fish, birds, gerbils, rats, cockroaches, and humans. Early helplessness research in humans was conducted in much the same way but used somewhat different procedures. Such research typically exposed participants to uncomfortable events (e.g., bursts of loud noise, unsolvable problems) that were either controllable or uncontrollable and then administered a different test task, which participants could control (e.g., solvable problems of another kind, avoiding annoying shock or noise by pressing buttons). The results of these studies were mixed: Sometimes researchers found that humans behaved very similarly to animals and would give up on the second task if they had a previous uncontrollable experience; other researchers found that humans would work even harder on the second task.

Subsequent research on humans has also shown that relatively simple procedures can reduce learned helplessness. Those designed to highlight the connections between a person’s behavior and the outcomes, whether it is verbal instruction or giving experience with a controllable task, decreases learned helplessness. Similarly, prompting people to think of different explanations for their poor performance also lessens helplessness. Interestingly, boosting someone’s self-esteem and improving their mood beforehand have also been shown to decrease helplessness. In general, research on learned helplessness was part of a broader trend in social psychology in the early 1970s that explored the importance of choice and personal control in optimizing performance and mental functioning. For example, Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin found that giving elderly people a choice of activities and responsibility for caring for a plant increased their well-being and lengthened their lives compared to a similar group who had no choice or responsibilities over the same things.

Reformulated Theory of Learned Helplessness

Over time, it became clear that learned helplessness operated differently in humans than in animals, primarily as a result of humans’ ability to observe and explain events in different ways. For example, humans can learn helplessness vicariously by watching another person responding to uncontrollable events, but animals cannot. Also, studies found that groups of people working together can experience learned helplessness, which was also unique to humans. Furthermore, certain thinking patterns are associated with helpless behaviors even when an uncontrollable event had not been directly experienced

In the late 1970s, Lyn Abramson, Martin Seligman, and John Teasdale revised and reformulated the theory of learned helplessness to address these and other issues. In their reformulation, they argued that certain ways of explaining negative life events lead people to perceive life events as uncontrollable, which in turn lead to expectations that no behavior can prevent future negative events and other helpless behaviors. These explanations about the causes of events (also known as attributions) are particularly likely to lead to helpless feelings and behaviors when negative events are seen as stemming from internal, stable, and global causes. On the other hand, explanations that focus on external, unstable, and specific causes lead to perceptions that negative outcomes can be controlled and prevented in the future.

Internal attributions refer to causes that stem from the individual, whereas external attributions refer to causes outside the individual. For example, if someone fails an exam, an internal attribution might be that the person has bad study skills, while an external attribution might be that the test was too difficult. Stable attributions are explanations that suggest causes that do not change, whereas unstable attributions are about causes that are likely to change. An example of a stable attribution about a poor exam grade would be that the person is not good at the subject matter, while an unstable attribution would be that the person was distracted by a personal problem that day. Global attributions are explanations that focus on a wide variety of outcomes and situations, whereas specific attributions focus on few outcomes or situations. “Stupidity” is an example of a global attribution for a poor exam performance, whereas “not liking the teacher’s teaching style” is an example of a specific attribution.

While some events may seem to clearly have only one cause (e.g., “I was injured because the flowerpot fell on my head”), people are free to focus on any aspect of the situation that may be relevant (e.g., “I was injured because I’m not observant enough”). As a result, researchers have found that people have typical ways they make attributions about events in their life; these are called explanatory styles. For example, in one study, researchers had teachers identify elementary school students who often acted in helpless ways and found that those children were much more likely to have an internal/stable/global explanatory style (as measured earlier in the school year) than those who didn’t act helpless. Furthermore, such pessimistic explanatory styles have been shown to influence important life outcomes, like academic performance and a variety of health outcomes, including more frequent illness, dying sooner from cancer, and poorer immune system functioning.

The reformulated approach to learned helplessness theory has also been particularly helpful in understanding mental health problems. For example, many of the characteristics of learned helplessness (e.g., passive behavior, negative thinking, loss of appetite, anxiety) are similar to the symptoms of clinical depression, and researchers have found that learned helplessness has a role in many aspects of depression. Longitudinal studies have found that having a pessimistic explanatory style puts people at greater risk for developing depression later, while an optimistic style (making external/stable/specific attributions) is associated with recovering from depression more quickly. Furthermore, therapies that focus on changing pessimistic attributions (e.g., cognitive therapy) have been shown to be effective in treating depression. More recent theories have argued that helpless beliefs in combination with the belief that negative events are likely to happen in the future are particularly likely to lead to depression.

Difference between Learned Helplessness and Similar Behaviors

The concept of learned helplessness has been popular to help explain a wide variety of unhealthy behaviors, from staying in bad relationships to procrastination to spontaneous death to poor performance in sports and business. It is important, however, to distinguish other sorts of helpless behavior from learned helplessness, because sometimes people may behave helplessly for other reasons.

According to Seligman, there are three features that must be present to qualify behavior as learned helplessness: inappropriate passive behavior, experience of uncontrollable events (or at least the perception of uncontrollability), and helpless beliefs. For example, staying in a violent, abusive relationship may or may not be a case of learned helplessness. Although such abuse is often uncontrollable (and perceived as such), staying in the relationship may or may not be a passive response. Some people may give up and stay, whereas others may realize that they have limited options and make a choice to stay. Likewise, many in such relationships believe they are helpless, but others stay because they believe they can change their partner or because they want to make the relationship work. Still other people may act helpless, but do so to get things from others. In sum, human behavior is complex, and helpless behavior is no exception. Learned helplessness theory is a useful tool for explaining some passive behavior but not all.


  • Peterson, C., Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1993). Learned helplessness: A theory for the age of personal control. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.