Learned Helplessness: The Whimpering Dogs of Seligman

Learned helplessness is a surrender response. It is the conviction that nothing you do can ever improve your situation. It makes you say, “There’s no way out, so let me just give up.”

Learned helplessness is the core concept around which psychologists and positive psychologists have built many theories and principles. Its impact extends well beyond the sphere of science, and common people are aware of it today.

What lies beneath a state of learned helplessness is chronic stress. The unending stress forces a person to “learn” that there is no way out, leaving them deeply “helpless.”

This method is often used by cruel narcissists and psychopaths to make their victims feel fully powerless. It has also been used to extract information from captured terrorists.

Learned Helplessness - Martin Seligman

What is the concept of learned helplessness?

Learned helplessness is a state of mental powerlessness that occurs when one is repeatedly exposed to an inescapable negative stimulus. It emerges as a reinforced belief when the subject fails to extricate themselves from a painful situation after many attempts. It is a surrendering mindset that may be caused by multiple failures to control an unpleasant life event.

A person reaches the state of learned helplessness when they are repeatedly exposed to a highly stressful event and not allowed to escape. They accept the belief that they are powerless to influence their torturer or change the situation.

When someone lives under toxic stress for a long time, it not only affects their behavior but can also alter the structure of their brain. It simply damages their ability to handle stress.

They start to believe that no matter what they do, they can never escape the situation. Eventually, they conclude that they have to continue suffering until their last breath.

This makes them give up trying to escape the situation, even when there might be a chance to escape. They tell themselves that they have become too feeble to take any effort to get away from the painful situation. That is the state we are talking about today.

So they stop trying to overcome it, even when openings for change present themselves.

In a series of experiments that he began in 1967, Martin Seligman found that when a dog is given repeated painful electric shocks while kept inside a closed box—from which it cannot escape—the dog learns this helplessness.

That is, they develop an inability to control an overwhelming situation. He named this research finding “learned helplessness.”

What’s the experiment where the dog receives electric shocks?

Seligman and his team built a partitioned box with a “shocking” floor on one side and a normal floor on the other.

At first, they kept the partition low. When a dog was inside the “shocking” side, whenever an electric shock came through the floor, it jumped the low partition to the safer side.

Whimpering dogs of Seligman
Picture: Rose M. Spielman, PhDCC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Next, the experimenters raised the partition to close up the chambers. This time, the dogs could not flee after receiving electric shocks. They made frantic attempts to find a way out whenever a shock came through, but they couldn’t.

Finally, they lay down, whimpering every time they felt a shock, without even trying to get up. They marked these dogs as having learned “helplessness.”

In the next experiment, when these “helpless” dogs were put inside the low-height partition box and subjected to electric shocks, they simply lay there. The partition was low this time, and the dogs could have leaped over. But since Seligman had conditioned them to be “helpless,” they merely lay there, enduring the shocks while whimpering helplessly.

These whimpering dogs’ brains tell them that no matter what they do, they cannot stop the shocks. So, believing they have no control over the situation, they remain in their box crying helplessly.

Learned helplessness also alters the brain physically.

What is an example of learned helplessness?

When bad things happen to us, we do everything in our power to change them for the better. But the theory of “learned helplessness” says when people believe they have no control over what happens, they simply give up and accept whatever happens as their destiny.

Here’s an example.

Think of psychological torture from a toxic boss. He not only torments you but also does not let you leave on the pretext of legal obligations. His non-stop torment breaks your will to try to leave the factory since you realize nothing you do will ever stop your boss.

Even if you leave, you think, they will call the cops and have you dragged back. You reach a state of learned helplessness.

In such a state, even when your boss stops coming, you do not try to flee out of the fear of being discovered and tortured more.

Learned helplessness is a maladaptive behavioral response to difficulties, marked by avoidance of problems, negative affect, and the loss of problem-solving skills.

What causes learned helplessness?

Learned helplessness has also been linked to a variety of psychiatric illnesses such as depression, anxiety, phobias, shyness, and loneliness.

There are several explanations for what can cause humans to become “learned helpless.” Common explanations involve a decrease of norepinephrine (arousal system), a decrease of GABA (a neurotransmitter), a fall in serotonin and dopamine (feel-good neurotransmitters), an increase in amygdala activation (intense emotion), and a boosting of the hormone cortisol (commonly known as stress-hormone).

Hammack and his team found that increased serotonin activity in the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN) of the brain plays a critical role in learned helplessness. Serotonin is a brain chemical that produces a sense of reward or even pleasure; it is released in response to an agreeable action.

A number of researchers believe the way people understand the causes of behavior and events (called attribution), or explain to themselves a specific event, positive or negative (called explanatory style), can determine how they are affected by learned helplessness.

Whether people develop learned helplessness is affected by a particular way of explaining, known as the pessimistic explanatory style. A pessimistic explanatory style has been linked to a greater likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness.

Learned Helplessness

How can learned helplessness cause depression?

Seligman proposed that depression results from a tendency to give up passively in the wake of unavoidable stressors. The sufferer believes the desired outcomes are not achievable, and even if probably achievable, their own actions will not affect the outcome.

In his seminal paper, Seligman suggested that learned helplessness behaviors can cause depression and other related mental illnesses. He pointed out it was observed in humans who had a pessimistic explanatory style. Such people have low self-esteem and are likely to be depressed.

People with this explanatory style regard negative events as Permanent, Pervasive, and Personal (3 P’s of Pessimism).

In effect, pessimists tell themselves that bad events will last a long time, or forever, affect all parts of their life, and will hamper only them, not others.

In a paper published in the International Journal of Stress Management, researcher P. C. Henry wrote that people who perceive events as uncontrollable are less likely to change unhealthy patterns of behavior. It could make them, for example, neglect healthy habits like diet, exercise, and medical treatment.

Henry found people who had an optimistic explanatory style, that is, explain the events of their lives positively, had more positive emotions, and did less negative thinking.


What are the three elements of learned helplessness?

Learned helplessness requires the presence of three components: contingency, cognition, and conduct.

Can learned helplessness be reversed?

Yes, learned helplessness can be reversed. Since it is a learned behavior, it can be unlearned, though with effort. The most crucial aspect in overcoming learned helplessness is reaffirming to oneself that one is in charge of the situation.

Learned helplessness can have severe consequences for one’s mental health and well-being. However, it can be avoided or reversed by learning to interpret situations more positively and focusing on things one can control.

Of course, every aspect of a difficult situation is not under one’s control. But, when one focuses on things they have control over, it can lead one to change their mental state from pessimism to optimism.

The basic idea is that anything you can learn, you can also unlearn. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that can help people overcome the thoughts and behaviors that contribute to learned helplessness. Using CBT approaches, you can override your limiting thoughts and perceptions.

Final Words

Learned helplessness is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. People in such a state believe they are powerless and do not attempt to take up new opportunities to improve their lives. This, then, reinforces their sense of powerlessness.

In conclusion, to begin to break free from learned helplessness, we need to understand it and to see that we do have the power to change things — we just need to understand what we’re doing and how we can do better.

Seligman wrote about it in his book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. In it, he writes:

The optimists and the pessimists: I have been studying them for the past twenty-five years. The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.

“I have found, however, that pessimism is escapable.

[Martin Seligman is widely regarded as the Father of Positive Psychology. Some sub-topics in the field are mindfulness, flow (the optimal state of happiness), kindness, optimism, hope, awe, gratitude, forgiveness, self-compassion, and resilience.]

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental health, happiness, mindfulness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).

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