Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Unlearn Learned Helplessness | Take Charge of Your Life

How we attribute the events that occur in our lives has a significant effect on our attitudes and efforts in improving our lot. In particular there are three types of belief affect us:

  • Stable or unstable cause: If we believe that events are caused by factors which do not change, we assume that it is not worth us trying to change them. So if I believe my success is based on an unchangeable ability, it will seem that it is not worth my trying to improve myself.

  • Internal or External cause: We can believe that events are caused by ourselves or something outside of ourselves. If I assume a serious car crash was my fault, I will be less likely to drive again than if I attribute it to a greasy road.

  • Global or Specific cause: If we believe that events are caused by a large number of factors then we feel we can do less to change things than if we see few and specific causes.

Martin Seligman is responsible for the Learned Helplessness theory which had a major influence on psychological research into depression in the 1970s. Seligman discovered helplessness by accident whilst studying the effects of inescapable shock on active avoidance learning in dogs.

Seligman restrained dogs in a pavlovian harness and administered several shocks (UCS) paired with a conditioned stimulus (CS) - this is the conventional CS-UCS pairing procedure used to study classical conditioning . Then these dogs were placed in a shuttle-box where they could avoid shock by jumping over a barrier. The shuttle-box was used to study the role of operant conditioning in learning. Most of the dogs failed to learn to avoid shock.

Seligman argued that prior exposure to inescapable shock interfered with the ability to learn in a situation where avoidance or escape was possible. Seligman used the term Learned Helplessness to describe this phenomenon.

It is important to emphasize that helplessness is not an all-or-none phenomenon. Seligman studied the behavior of about 150 dogs between 1965 and 1969. About 100 (2/3rds) were helpless after the administration of unavoidable electric shock in the pavlovian situation. The remaining 1/3rd were completely normal and learned to avoid shock in the avoidance learning test. There was no intermediate outcome - dogs either learnt to avoid, or passively accepted shock in the shuttle-box. Furthermore, about 5% of naive dogs that had never received inescapable shock, exhibited helplessness when first exposed to shock in the operant learning situation.

The central idea in the Learned Helplessness theory is the notion that all animals (including humans) are able to learn that reinforcers are uncontrollable . This marks a sharp change in direction from previous studies of learning which had focused on learning in controllable situations (Seligman,1992).


If a poor test result is attributed to a lack of intrinsic capability as evidenced by many past failures, then we are likely to reduce our efforts, be more depressed and view ourselves in an ever-fading light.

Cognition and helplessness

It is important to appreciate that although cognition is at the heart of Seligman's theory, learned helplessness affects other psychological processes:
  • motivation - reduced, no incentive to try new coping responses
  • cognition - inability to learn new responses to overcome prior learning that trauma is uncontrollable

  • emotion - the helpless state resembles depression

The most efficient solution for learned helplessness is to open your eyes and free your mind. Many of us think of learned helplessness as an inability. We tend to imagine this situation as not being able to do something. We also tend to believe that it involves fear.

Those are not close to the truth of learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is a psychological condition in which a human being or an animal has learned to act or behave helpless in a particular situation, even when it has the power to change its unpleasant or even harmful circumstance (wikipedia).

When a person is suffering from learned helplessness, he or she is not even aware of his or her state. When confronted with a situation which requires an act on the part of an individual, and this individual does not act accordingly, this is not because of a feeling of helplessness. It is because he even cannot think that he should act or he does not know that he can act.

Therefore, the key solution to learned helplessness is not courage but awareness. This is not a road in which the subject will be empowered. This should be a way of "dis-learning" or forgetting and learning again in a new fashion, what is being learned beforehand.

Learned helplessness is not an emotion, it is a belief.

Then how can one overcome learned helplessness? How is it possible for an individual who is not really aware or just barely aware of his situation?

Learned helplessness is itself not an emotion but it can produce negative emotions usually so much that the individual knows deep inside about his helplessness. However the big obstacle is the resistance towards such a negative emotion and willing to work on it. It takes time.

So, the biggest help is insight about the helplessness and trying to decondition and unlearn it.

To overcome such a learned helplessness, you have to try and expose yourself to the same situation again.

I think we all have a touch of this learned helplessness, in some areas of our lives, and I also think we can overcome this learned helplessness in three very simple steps.

The first step is just to recognize that you’re practicing learned helplessness. You can ask someone you really trust if they see this behavior in you at times. You can also start noticing when you tell yourself you can’t do something when in fact you really just don’t want to. Whatever method you use for recognizing your helpless behavior, it’s important that you do recognize it.

Second, you can then begin eliminating this behavior simply by committing to stop. Like anything else, you have to want to stop acting helpless, but fortunately, once you realize you are doing this, you’ll be so annoyed by your behavior, yourself, that you’ll be very eager to get rid of this pattern of inaction in your life.

And of course the third step is to stop acting helpless. Of course, it’s not that easy. I would suggest that once you’ve identified an area in which you do not take responsibility (which is all learned helplessness is), you first find someone who can help you learn the things you need to do, if you don’t know how, then make a practice of doing one thing in that area every day. If it’s not something that needs doing every day, then spend time every day learning or writing about that area of your life.

When I say “area,” I don’t mean that if your computer is messed up or you haven’t figured out how to program the DVD player you should spend endless hours fixing these things. But if you can spend time on that area of your life. Learn what it takes to take charge of those technologies or hire someone else to do so. This way, you’ll be using the technology for what it was intended for instead of watching it gather dust and cursing at it and the world in which we live. Spend time on the maintenance areas of your life.

How can you take charge of your life and overcome learned helplessness today?
  • Find one area of your life that needs an overhaul

  • Plan what you can do this week to start taking responsibility

  • Take an action today

Seligman suggests in his book "Learned Optimism" that one can overcome depression by learning new explanatory styles. This is the basis of cognitive therapy. In such therapies, the counselor challenges the client's beliefs and explanations of life's events.The whole self-help movement is based on the optimistic belief that we can change ourselves for the better.

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