“Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness will prevent any action.”
In humans, learned helplessness is related to the concept of self-efficacy; the individual’s belief in their innate ability to achieve goals. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from such real or perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.
Emergence under torture
Studies on learned helplessness served as the basis for developing enhanced interrogation techniques. In CIA interrogation manuals, learned helplessness is characterized as “apathy” which may result from prolonged use of coercive techniques which result in a “debility-dependency-dread” state in the subject, “If the debility-dependency-dread state is unduly prolonged, however, the arrestee may sink into a defensive apathy from which it is hard to arouse him.”
Impact on Health and Life
People who perceive events as uncontrollable show a variety of symptoms that threaten their mental and physical well-being. They experience stress, they often show disruption of emotions demonstrating passivity or aggressivity, and they can also have difficulty performing cognitive tasks such as problem-solving. They are less likely to change unhealthy patterns of behavior, causing them, for example, to neglect diet, exercise, and medical treatment.
Abnormal and cognitive psychologists have found a strong correlation between depression-like symptoms and learned helplessness in laboratory animals.
Young adults and middle-aged parents with a pessimistic explanatory style often suffer from depression. They tend to be poor at problem-solving and cognitive restructuring, and also tend to demonstrate poor job satisfaction and interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Those with a pessimistic style also tend to have weakened immune systems, having not only increased vulnerability to minor ailments (e.g., cold, fever) and major illness (e.g., heart attack, cancers), but also poorer recovery from health problems.
Learned helplessness can be a factor in a wide range of social situations.
In emotionally abusive relationships, the victim often develops learned helplessness. This occurs when the victim confronts or tries to leave the abuser only to have the abuser dismiss or trivialize the victim’s feelings, pretend to care but not change, or impede the victim from leaving. Unfortunately, as the situation continues and the abuse gets worse, the victim will begin to give up and show signs of this learned helplessness.
The motivational effect of learned helplessness is often seen in the classroom. Students who repeatedly fail may conclude that they are incapable of improving their performance, and this attribution keeps them from trying to succeed, which results in increased helplessness, continued failure, loss of self-esteem and other social consequences. This becomes a pattern that will spiral downward if it continues to go untreated.
Child abuse by neglect can be a manifestation of learned helplessness. For example, when parents believe they are incapable of stopping an infant’s crying, they may simply give up trying to do anything for the child. This learned helplessness will negatively impact both the parent and child.
According to Cox et al., Abramson, Devine, and Hollon (2012), learned helplessness is a key factor in depression that is caused by inescapable prejudice (i.e., “deprejudice”). Thus: “Helplessness born in the face of inescapable prejudice matches the helplessness born in the face of inescapable shocks.”
Overcoming Learned Helplessness
Social problems resulting from learned helplessness may seem unavoidable to those entrenched. However, there are various ways to reduce or prevent it. When induced in experimental settings, learned helplessness has been shown to resolve itself with the passage of time. People can be immunized against the perception that events are uncontrollable by increasing their awareness of previous experiences, when they were able to affect the desired outcome. Cognitive therapy can be used to show people that their actions do make a difference and bolster their self-esteem. Seeking out these types of treatment options can be extremely helpful for people stuck in a rut when it comes to learned helplessness. While it may initially feel hard to escape, with the proper time and help it can get better.