Learned Helplessness: What Is It? How to Overcome It?

How to stay optimistic and hopeful about your life

In 1967, two American psychologists, Martin Seligman and J. Bruce Overmier, conducted an experiment to study behaviors under exposure to unpleasant stimuli.

In the first part of the study, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses. As the control group, Group 1 dogs were released after a short period of time in a harness.

The dogs in Group 2 were given electric shocks randomly, with a lever to end the shock when the dog pressed it. Each dog in Group 2 was also paired with a dog in Group 3. Whenever a dog in Group 2 got a shock, its paired dog in Group 3 got a shock of the same intensity and duration.

But unlike the Group 2 dogs, the lever in Group 3 did not work. Instead, the shock ended when its paired dog in Group 2 pressed its lever. To a dog in Group 3, the shock seemed inescapable but ended randomly.

In the second part of the study, the same three groups of dogs were placed in a two-compartmented box divided by a barrier a few inches high. All dogs could escape shocks on one side by jumping over a low barrier to the other side. The dogs in Groups 1 and 2 learned to escape the shock quickly. However, most of the dogs in Group 3 simply lay down passively and whined.

The experiment led Seligman and Overmier to form the theory of learned helplessness. It's believed that the dogs in Group 3 do not try to escape the shock in the second part of the experiment because they expect nothing they do will stop it—based on their experiences in the first part of the experiment.

In his book Principles, Ray Dalio talks about the first step to achieving success is to have a goal. However, what comes next after the goal isn't a plan but a problem.

It's through the process of solving sets of problems we get what we want while learning and growing at the same time. And if solving problems and overcoming obstacles are the only ways to accomplish success, then learned helplessness is the most destructive mental state one can have.

What is learned helplessness?

Learned helplessness is a state that occurs after we've gone through unpleasant and stressful situations repeatedly. When we become learned helpless, we believe there's nothing we can do to change the situation. We give up trying even when opportunities to change are available and easily accessible.

We become learned helpless when we think that a problem is permanent, personal, and pervasive.

  • When a problem is permanent, we say things like "it will never change." and "this is how things are." It stops us from being resourceful and creative in seeking solutions.
  • When a problem is personal, we see ourselves—our shortcomings, flaws, and even our mere existence—as the root cause. "Anyone could do that, but just not me." we would say.
  • When a problem is pervasive, we let a small problem in one area affect all areas of our lives in our imaginations. We fail to keep a problem in the right frame in order to think clearly.

Being in the mental state strips away our ability to make positive changes. It also makes a problem or situation bigger than it needs to be and kills our motivation and hope to overcome it.

Back to the dogs that become learned helpless in Seligman and Overmier's experiment: no threats, rewards, and observed demonstrations would help them to escape the electric shocks in the second part of the experiment. Instead, the researchers had to physically pick the dogs up and move their legs—replicating the exact actions to escape the electric shock—for at least twice before the dogs would start jumping over the barrier on their own.

Make one small improvement every day

That's how destructive learned helplessness could be. So what should we do?

Learning about the concept of learned helplessness is the first step to stopping ourselves from falling into it. And by understanding the three core elements, you can pull yourself out of the state by doing the exact opposite.

  • When you think a stressful situation is permanent, remember how everything changes and know nothing is permanent. This too shall pass. Neither the bad nor good moments in life ever indefinitely last.
  • When you start taking a problem personally, understand it's not about you and learn to detach yourself from it. Perhaps you made a poor decision. Now all you should do is learn from it and make better decisions in the future.
  • When you see a problem as pervasive, try to frame it within one category or area of your life. Maybe you're struggling with your business or your relationships. But no, your life isn't falling apart. Pinpoint the problem at its source so you can overcome it systematically.

As humans, we have what is known as self-efficacy and are intrinsically hopeful. Instead of being helpless, most of us simply lack a sense of control over our lives—especially under stressful circumstances over a long period of time.

The best way to break free from the limiting belief is to prove that we indeed have some degree of control over our lives. And the best proof comes from making a positive change—however small it is—starting today.

Footnotes

  1. Learned Helplessness: Theory and Evidence by Martin Seligman.
  2. Apologies for the audio quality of this podcast episode. It's time to get a new mic.

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