So many bad things beyond your control have happened, you are
overwhelmed and have stopped trying to help yourself. Your vitality and zest are gone, you are listless and discouraged,
and you believe that nothing you do even matters. You have lost the struggle and learned to
become helpless, and you are now passive and complacent even though you could
take action to
help yourself. Perhaps rethinking how
you explain these events to yourself can help you cope better.
Informally, learned helpless can be thought of as:
- Giving up,
- Expectations of future noncontingency—outcomes
no longer depend on actions,
- Believing: It won't matter what I do,
- Believing: I have no control over the outcome.
- The belief that your actions are futile.
- Believing you are incompetent.
Learned helplessness was first studied and described as an animal's failure to escape
traumatic electric shock. Although learned helplessness was first studied in laboratory animals, here we
are discussing the theory as it applies to people. The theory describes what
happens when a person comes to believe they have no control over their situation
and that whatever they do is futile. As a result, the person will stay passive
in the face of an unpleasant, harmful, or damaging situation, even when they
actually do have the ability to improve the circumstances. To qualify as learned helplessness, a phenomenon has to meet all three of
- The person has to become inappropriately passive, and
- This change has to follow exposure to prolonged uncontrollable events, and
- There is a change in the way the person thinks about their ability to
control similar future events.
Uncontrollable events disrupt peoples' subsequent problem solving skills. How
people choose to explain the causes of these bad events affect their response in
a variety of ways, including motivation, emotion, cognition, and behavior.
People tend to define the extent of their helplessness—their lack of control or
incompetency—as being pervasive or narrow, short term or long term.
The terms complacency, apathy, discouraged, demoralized, and futility often describe
thoughts and behavior that may result from learned helplessness. The opposite of
learned helplessness is learned mastery, learned optimism, and
Control—the ability to change things through voluntary action—is the opposite of
Origins and Benefits
Beating your head against the wall wastes time and energy and is potentially
harmful. Persistent attempts to control the uncontrollable are futile.
Hope has its limits; wishful thinking is not a sufficient
strategy. Knowing what we can change and what we cannot
and knowing when to give up frees us to pursue productive activities. Remaining
us to conserve energy when the evidence tells us
there is simply nothing else for us to do. Adopting a passive stance provides us with the
“serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”
There is considerable evidence that the uncontrollable adverse events that
characterize learned helplessness cause stress, while similar but controlled
adverse events do not. Several neural and neurochemical changes occur in animals
exposed to uncontrollable shocks that do not occur when the animal can control
the shocks. Levels of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine are reduced in rats
subjected to inescapable electric shocks but not in rats exposed to shock that
could be avoided or escaped. Rats exposed to inescapable shock show decreased
brain levels of Gamma-amino butyric Acid (GABA) while rats exposed to escapable
shock do not. The analgesic state—such as the response to morphine where the
organism is less responsive to painful stimulus—is induced in rats by
uncontrollable, but not controllable shock.
Studies of helplessness in people show changes in biological markers that
usually indicate increased arousal, consistent with increased
fear or anxiety.
The conclusion is that these uncontrollable adverse events result in
considerable stress, however similar controllable events do not. Learning that
the stressor is uncontrollable may increase fear, or
learning that it is controllable may reduce fear. Control
is a form of coping that
prevents some forms of stress.
When important things happen people
tend to explain what caused the outcome. The way we explain
can be analyzed along two dimensions known as locus and generality.
Locus of control refers to the tendency to take personal
responsibility for the outcome (internal) or to
attribute the outcome to external events (external). It may also be called
personalization. Generality refers to considering the
outcome as an isolated one-time event or as a permanent and pervasive
condition. Generality has the dimensions of time and scope. Causes lasting for
only a limited time are
called “unstable” and those lasing for a long time are referred to as “stable”
or “permanent”. Limited scope
is called “specific” and general scope is called “global” or “pervasive”. Consider these four
different ways of explaining why you did poorly on a test:
Time & Scope
||I did not study effectively this time for this test.
||This test was unfair.
Time & Scope
||I'm never any good at
||Tests are unfair.
Individuals have characteristic explanatory styles they habitually use to
explain why things happen. Attributing causes to internal specific factors explains outcomes in terms of
behaviors; “I made a mistake this time”. The bad outcome is attributed to a
single isolated instance of bad behavior. This is an optimistic explanatory
style for bad outcomes because your behavior
can be modified to best suit specific events. Attributing causes to internal general factors explains outcomes
in terms of character traits. This is pessimistic for bad outcomes because character
traits remain largely constant over time. The pessimistic viewpoint says: “The
bad outcome occurred because I am a bad person now and always”.
Now consider the possible explanations when something good happens. Here are four different ways of explaining why you made money when a stock you
bought increased in value:
Time & Scope
||I was skillful in choosing
this stock this time.
||This company was well run for
this period of time.
Time & Scope
||I am generally skillful,
especially with financial
||The economy is doing well. I got lucky this time.
Here the optimistic person takes full credit when things go well, attributing
the good outcome to internal rather than external factors. Attributing the good
fortune to your generally good character, rather than specific behavior in this
case is especially optimistic. In contrast, the pessimistic person attributes good outcomes
to external events, including uncharacteristically good luck.
In summary, the optimist takes broad credit for good outcomes and narrow
responsibility for bad outcomes. The pessimist
blames himself broadly for bad outcomes and
attributes good outcomes to external factors.
A reliable and validated self-report questionnaire, the
Attributional Style Questionnaire
(ASQ) can be used to assess an individual's explanatory style. It provides a
score that is rated on a scale running from “very optimistic” to “very
Fortunately attribute training can
often teach people reassess their thinking, recognize and correct
errors in their thinking, and adopt a more
appropriate optimistic explanatory style. This is described below in the section
“dispute Pessimistic Explanations”.
Both Views are Important:
Optimism and pessimism describe two extremes of a continuum of viewpoints
used for assessing and extending uncertain, ambiguous, or conflicting
information and making estimates, forecasts, and decisions. Some situations are
best met by optimism, others by pessimism. This table characterizes the differences:
|Takes broad personal credit for good outcomes.
Personalizes and adopts an internal locus of control when
things go well.
||Attributes good outcomes to external factors or luck. Adopts an
external locus of control when things go well.
|Attributes bad outcomes to external factors and
rare circumstances, or to narrowly isolated mistakes. Adopts an external locus of control when things go
||Blames himself broadly for bad outcomes.
Personalizes and adopts an internal locus of control when things go bad.
|Fuels the aspirations of hope. Sustains
and persistence required to overcome obstacles. Inspires others. Allows us to dream
and see possibilities. Seeks to
||Promotes caution, critical thinking, skepticism, and defensive measures.
Sustains a keen sense of reality. Highlights problems. Seeks to protect.
|Expansive; seize the possibilities.
Exploration, adventure, discovery. Discounts or dismisses risks. The
engine that moves us forward.
||Conservative; protect what we have. Concerned with safety. Highlights and emphasizes
risks. The brakes that keep us from crashing.
|Recover quickly from setbacks. Undaunted by
||Recover slowly, if at all, from setbacks. Wallow in defeat.
|Unlikely to suffer from
||Likely to suffer from depression.
|Unwarranted or excessive optimism can result in
recklessness, risk taking, egotism, aggrandizing, and avoiding
responsibility. It can also result in
an unearned or undeserved sense of pride.
||Unwarranted or excessive pessimism can result in inaction, depression, or other
inappropriate passive behavior. It can also result in unwarranted
fear, anxiety, guilt or shame.
landed a man on the moon
. . .
|| . . . and also insisted on launching the
space shuttle challenger
the day it exploded.
Avoid the polarization and false dichotomy
of arguing optimism vs. pessimism. Instead choose, realism; the viewpoint that is
supported by the best available information, estimation, and judgment.
Explanatory Styles are Learned
Research shows that explanatory style is primarily learned rather than
inherited. Children learn how to explain bad things from three main sources. The
first source a child uses for learning how to explain adversity is to model how
their mothers (or other primary care giver) explains adverse events. If the
mother blames herself or the child broadly when bad
things happen, the child will notice and learn this pessimistic style. The
second source a child uses to learn their own explanatory style are the adults
that care for, discipline, teach, and criticize the child. These people include
teachers, parents, and other authority figures. When these adults blame the
child's character, personality, or
self whenever bad things happen, the child quickly
learns to blame themselves using personal, permanent, and pervasive explanations
for why thing go wrong. The final powerful teacher is tragic life crises. If
children experience a crisis, such as a house fire, divorced parents, abuse, or
extreme poverty, they notice if these tragedies get resolved after a period of
time or if they persist forever. If the crisis gets resolved quickly, then the child
learns to believe that adversity is specific, temporary, and can be overcome. If
the crisis expands and never ends, the child learns to believe that adversity is
permanent and pervasive.
The style children learn for explaining adversity typically persists
throughout their adult life. However, we can learn to dispute our pessimistic
Dispute Pessimistic Explanations
If you tend toward pessimistic explanations for adverse events, you can learn
to dispute your own reasoning and adopt more objective, accurate, and optimistic
explanations. Recognize that in blaming yourself for a
bad outcome you are accepting a fallacy of
disproportionate responsibility. Imagine becoming your own defense
attorney, reexamining the evidence, challenging assumptions, casting doubt,
considering other possibilities, and offering alternative explanations. Here is
You have failed a test and you automatically blame yourself, believing “I am
just not any good a studying anything”. As a result you feel ashamed of yourself
and you may even feel mildly depressed,
discouraged, or overwhelmed. Now it is time to recognize you are not
helpless; it is time to dispute your hasty, inaccurate, and pessimistic conclusion. What does the
evidence say? Certainly you have passed many difficult
tests in your lifetime to get to where you are now. You have passed several
tests recently in other subjects, and even did OK in this subject. This
evidence clearly disputes your pessimistic belief that you are not any good at studying
anything. What additional contributing causes are there? Perhaps you did not get
a good night's sleep, you were under unusual stress, you may not have mastered
the prerequisites for this subject, you may not have had time to
study or get extra help, you may be taking a heavy course load or work load, you may be upset
about some recent problem, perhaps you had a fight with your lover, or your car
broke down, or the
test was not fair, or instructor does not communicate well. With so many factors at work, it is
inaccurate to attribute blame entirely to yourself, and it is certainly an
overgeneralization fallacy to extrapolate from this one occurrence to a general,
pervasive, and persistent conclusion. So a more accurate explanation is that you did poorly on this
test for some isolated reason, such as poor preparation for this particular
test. This isolated problem can certainly be overcome, and there is no need to
feel ashamed or helpless. Put this setback into the past,
address any specific issues, and go about studying
as you have done successfully so many times before.
responsibility only for what you did and what
you can change. Choose to
forgive yourself. Move forward with your life and
return to feeling OK with yourself.
Albert Ellis describes a technique for disputing pessimistic beliefs that
can be recalled using the mnemonic ABCDE:
- Adversity happens and you begin to think about
what caused it.
- You form a Belief to explain the failure to yourself.
This may be unrealistically negative.
- Your negative beliefs have Consequences, such as feeling
shame, becoming depressed,
or feeling overwhelmed.
- Dispute these negative beliefs, and create more objective, accurate, and
- Energize yourself through this optimistic outlook.
There are important relationships between learned helplessness and
depression. First, the symptoms are quite similar, including passivity,
cognitive deficits, decreased self-esteem, sadness, hostility, anxiety, loss of
appetite, reduced aggression, sleep loss, and depletion of the neurotransmitters
norepinephrine and serotonin. Second, depressed people are more likely to
offer internal and general explanations for bad events and tend to make external
and specific explanations for good events. Cognitive therapy that provides
relief from unipolar depression also results in a more optimistic explanatory
Studies show that depressive symptoms are associated with a pessimistic
Relevance to Social Problems
Learned helplessness theory has been studied as a model for a wide
range of social problems. Here are examples where research shows it to be an
especially good fit.
- Depression can be largely explained by the learned helplessness theory,
as described above.
- Academic achievement fits the theory well; optimistic explanatory style
predicts better academic achievement than does pessimistic explanatory
style. For example, in one study habitual explanations of bad events in
terms of internal general causes predicted poor academic performance, even
when SAT scores were held constant.
- Asian Americans are sometimes passive when a more active response might
improve their circumstances. Research has shown that uncontrollable events
leading to cognitive changes precede passive behavior by Asian
Americans in some situations.
- Learned helplessness explains some passive behavior by Black Americans. Poverty, discrimination, and ghetto life chronically exposes
people to uncontrollable circumstances. Some studies show that Blacks are
passive when perseverance would be more beneficial. Interviews with young
unemployed blacks determined that 23% have little hope of ever getting a
job. These criteria fit the model of learned helplessness, but other factors
are also clearly important.
- Burnout describes exhaustion and passive responses within a work
environment. It occurs after prolonged uncontrollable events cause the
worker to think more narrowly about the options they have for responding. This fits the
learned helplessness theory.
- Crowding can lead to reduced perseverance and social withdrawal. The
crowding itself is an uncontrollable condition, and leads people to report
having little control over events in their life. This fits the model.
- Uncontrollable noise interferes with performance. Studies have shown that
uncontrollable noise interferes with problem solving, but the identical
noise does not when it is interpreted as controllable. The effects of noise
pollution is an example of learned helplessness.
Learned helpless is also pertinent to our health. Several studies show that
optimistic explanatory style is linked to good health and pessimistic
explanatory style predicts poor health. Mechanisms probably include biological,
emotional, behavioral, and interpersonal factors.
Incomplete research also suggests that learned helplessness is an important
mechanism contributing to passive behavior in aging, athletic performance,
chronic pain, sales, and unemployment.
- “Whether you think you can, or think you can't, you're probably right.”
~ Henry Ford
- “Know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.” ~ Gambler's wisdom
Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control,
by Christopher Peterson, Steven F. Maier, Martin E. P. Seligman
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life,
by Martin E. Seligman
Helplessness Research, a listing of Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman’s books and
other publications on the topic of Learned Helplessness