How Seligman's Learned Helplessness Theory Applies to Human Depression and Stress
Learned helplessness is when people feel helpless to avoid negative situations because previous experience has shown them that they do not have control. In this lesson, we'll explore some of the causes and effects of learned helplessness.
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Seligman’s Learned Helplessness Theory
In 1965, Martin Seligman and his colleagues were doing research on classical conditioning , or the process by which an animal or human associates one thing with another. In the case of Seligman’s experiment, he would ring a bell and then give a light shock to a dog. After a number of times, the dog reacted to the shock even before it happened: as soon as the dog heard the bell, he reacted as though he’d already been shocked.
But, then something unexpected happened. Seligman put each dog into a large crate that was divided down the middle with a low fence. The dog could see and jump over the fence if necessary. The floor on one side of the fence was electrified, but not on the other side of the fence. Seligman put the dog on the electrified side and administered a light shock. He expected the dog to jump to the non-shocking side of the fence.
Instead, the dogs lay down. It was as though they’d learned from the first part of the experiment that there was nothing they could do to avoid the shocks, so they gave up in the second part of the experiment.
Dogs who had previously been shocked did not try to escape the shocks in a subsequent experiment.
Seligman described their condition as learned helplessness , or not trying to get out of a negative situation because the past has taught you that you are helpless.
After the dogs didn’t jump the fence to escape the shock, Seligman tried the second part of his experiment on dogs that had not been through the classical conditioning part of the experiment. The dogs that had not been previously exposed to shocks quickly jumped over the fence to escape the shocks. This told Seligman that the dogs who lay down and acted helpless had actually learned that helplessness from the first part of his experiment.
Attributions and Learned Helplessness
What does that have to do with humans? At first, Seligman wasn’t completely sure. But, further research has shown that the way people view the negative events that happen to them can have an impact on whether they feel helpless or not.
Let’s look at an example: imagine that you just failed a math test. There are several things that you could say were the reason for that: ‘I’m stupid.’ ‘I didn’t study hard enough.’ ‘The test was too hard.’
Each of those reasons can be seen as a different type of attribution. An attribution is the factor that a person blames for the outcome of a situation. Attributions can be made for both positive and negative events. Psychologists have discovered that there are specific types of attributions that cause learned helplessness. The attributions most likely to cause learned helplessness are internal, stable, and global.
An internal attribution is any attribution that gives the cause of an event as something to do with the person, as opposed to something in the outside world. For example, if you believe you failed the test because you’re stupid, that’s an internal attribution. Compare that to believing that the test was hard - that’s an external attribution ; you’re blaming the test, which is outside of your control.
A stable attribution is one that doesn’t change over time or across situations. For example, believing that you failed because you’re stupid is a stable attribution; the fact that you’re stupid won’t change depending on the situation. Compare that to believing that you failed because you didn’t study enough. That’s not a stable attribution because next time you can change that and study more.
Finally, a global attribution is the belief that the factors affecting the outcome applies to a large number of situations, not just one of them. For example, believing you failed the test because you’re stupid is a global attribution because it is true in that class and in many others. However, if you believe that you failed the test because you’re bad at that particular subject, it is specific; just because you failed the math test, doesn’t mean that you’d fail an English test.
As we said before, learned helplessness is most likely to be caused by attributions that are internal, stable, and global. In the example above, the attribution most likely to contribute to learned helplessness is the belief that you failed because you’re stupid.
Studies on Learned Helplessness in Humans
Of course, a single test is probably not going to cause learned helplessness. But, many studies have been done showing the effect of negative events over time.
For example, one study showed that children who regularly did badly in math became convinced that they were bad at math and that there was nothing they could do. The resulting learned helplessness meant that they stopped trying to do well in math. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy, where they gave up - and as a result, continued to struggle in math.
Another study looked at learned helplessness in college freshmen. It’s believed that many freshmen struggle academically because they make attributions that lead to learned helplessness. To combat this, researchers randomly selected freshmen to receive instruction on how things like intelligence and success change over time. The result? Those freshmen who received the instruction had less academic issues than the freshmen who did not. They displayed fewer symptoms of learned helplessness.
In addition to these studies, there have been many studies showing how learned helplessness can lead to depression. Learned helplessness also contributes to raising stress levels, reducing the ability of a person to learn new things, and decreasing a person’s effort. This makes sense: if you don’t think what you do will help, you’re less likely to try.
Learned helplessness occurs when people or animals feel helpless to avoid negative situations. Martin Seligman first observed learned helplessness when he was doing experiments on dogs. He noticed that the dogs didn’t try to escape the shocks if they had been conditioned to believe that they couldn’t escape. Other psychologists have shown that learned helplessness is most likely to occur if a person makes global, stable, and internal attributions to negative events. Learned helplessness has many effects: it can cause depression and high stress, and it can decrease effort and the ability to learn new things.
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