Cupids Health

The Whimpering Dogs Of Seligman


Learned helplessness is a surrender response. It’s caused by the belief that nothing you do matters anymore. It makes you say, “There’s no way out of this, so I’m giving up.” Click To Tweet

Learned helplessness happens as a result of repeated failures to control unpleasant events in your life.

When you have been under the effect of a painful and distressful situation for a long time, you start to believe that no matter what you do, you will not be able to escape the situation. You feel like you can’t get rid of your suffering or get away from the painful situation.

You eventually give up trying to escape the discomfort, even when opportunities to escape are present. Learned helplessness stops you from taking any action to escape, even when you can.

What is the concept of learned helplessness?

Learned helplessness is a state that develops after a person has repeatedly been exposed to a stressful event. They learn to believe that they are powerless to influence or modify the situation, so they don’t try – even when openings for change present themselves.

Martin Seligman, in a series of experiments that he began in 1967, 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, an inability to control an overwhelming situation. He named this research finding “learned helplessness.”

Later, when these dogs receive similar shocks — but also provided with ways to escape the box — they simply stay there, enduring the shocks. Even when they see a low-height partition in the box that they can easily jump over, they do not escape.

Instead, these dogs act from their learned behavior and lie down in their boxes, whimpering helplessly. Their 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.

Instead, these dogs act from their learned behavior and lie down in their boxes, whimpering helplessly. Their 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.

The dogs learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is a behavior pattern of maladaptive response to difficulties, marked by avoidance of problems, negative affect, and the breakdown of problem-solving skills.

Learned helplessness physically alters the brain.

Learned Helplessness

What is an example of learned helplessness?

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.

How can learned helplessness cause depression?

Seligman suggested in his seminal paper that learned behavior 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.

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 causes learned helplessness?

There are a variety of 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 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.

Happiness is described as subjective well-being (SWB). Subjective well-being consists of day-to-day happiness and satisfaction over a lifetime. Now, the scientists who study this subject, which unearths what special things the happier people do that keep them more cheerful than others, are called Positive Psychologists.

Martin Seligman is 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.


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 with effort. The most crucial aspect in overcoming learned helplessness is reaffirming to oneself that one is in charge of the situation.

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.

So, to reverse learned helplessness, one should start with focusing on things one can control.

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.

• • •

Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.


• Our story: Happiness Project


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