What is Learned Helplessness

What is learned helplessness?

The theory of learned helplessness was conceptualised by an american psychologist who goes by the name, Martin Seligman. This was first observed in dogs and now the same is observed in human beings. 464ab07ec4d4bb056256c343837a3a2ced132996_1600x1200

Learned helplessness occurs when the subject endures repeated painful or aversive stimuli which the subject is unable to escape or avoid.

The Experiment 

In the experiment with dogs, the animals were put in a box and given a shock. Before infliction, the dogs were warned with the sound of a bell. Initially, the dog would jump to the other side of the box the moment it received a shock. Through repeated trials, the dog learnt to associate the ringing of the bell to the shock it would feel as a consequence and therefore, every time the bell rang, the dog jumped to the other side of the box before it could really feel the shock.


In the second phase, the dog had no place to escape. When the dog tried to jump over the hurdle it was shocked regardless. After repeated trials the dog realized that there was no point trying, accepted its fate and received the shock. The dog had experienced learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness in humans

We do not have to be shocked to experience learned helplessness, as in the case of the dog. Often times we see learned helplessness in those applying for jobs. Many, for better or worse, don’t score a job in their first 10 to 20 interviews. Sadly, this can affect a person’s morale, leading to his/her resignation to the supposed notion that no one would hire them. People stop trying even if there is a job out there for them.

Students often experience learned helplessness when they don’t receive the marks they expect for a while. They stop trying, thinking, “It’s pointless to study, I’m bound to get low marks even if I try!”.

Learned helplessness and Depression

Helplessness can lead to depression, especially in those who suffer from chronic helplessness ( continued feeling of helplessness for long periods of time) are more likely to feel the effects of depressive symptoms. Many studies have verified and shown that learned helplessness is strongly correlated with depression.

In seligman’s experiment, the dogs became depressive and unresponsive which goes to show that, learned helplessness and depression is not only prevalent in humans, but in animals too.

Ethically there are many controversies pertaining to this experiment if you haven’t already guessed. In today’s day and age, Seligman’s treatment would have never been approved but here lies the question, how far can we push the ethical boundaries for science and for understanding the world better?

Edited by: Keerthana Suresh




http://lotuseat3r.blogspot.com/2016/03/learned-helplessness-and-depression.html (content image)


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