If you don't know what Learned Helplessness is, you may find
this as "eye opening" as I did!
There is a saying that "an ounce of prevention (in this case through
education) is worth a pound of cure."
My hope is to those who read this is:
If you educate yourself about learned helplessness, and the various ways people
can be affected by it, you can be aware when certain life situations occur that could induce learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness can be INCREDIBLY DECEPTIVE. By understanding how it works, you can more easily prevent it
by hopefully stopping it from affecting your life, or detecting it sooner, and change your
thinking to solve the problem.
As a believer in positive
thinking, I believe the goal is to be able to identify (but don't
dwell on) any negative "roadblocks" or "potholes"
that may be hindering your positive direction. For once identified, you then
chose the positive actions or direction to take.
Another way of putting it is that if you don't know there is a big pothole if you drive down
"Street A", you may drive down "Street A" and get stuck in
the pothole. However if you DO know about the pothole in "Street
A", instead of driving down "Street A", you may choose to drive down
"Street B" (which does not have a pothole), instead of getting stuck in the
pothole on "Street A."
Learned helplessness is something I first learned about just a few years ago,
and when I first read about it, I was stunned! I was stunned because of the
potentially illusive nature of this behavior. Not long ago, I had allowed myself (without
knowing it) to become a victim from
learned helplessness. It was through education and understanding what I learned
that I realized what changes (action) were needed in my life in order to recover
my self-esteem, and restore myself back to once again realizing the amazing gift
of life that I have, and resume positive
thinking. For those who are familiar with 12 Step
programs, I could adapt part of a phrase from the 12
Steps to say "I was restored to sanity."
What is "Learned Helplessness" and what affect can it have in
The short definition from Oxford
Dictionaries is: "A condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. It is thought to be one of the underlying causes of depression."
But I think to really understand how quickly and powerful of an impact it can
have, there is a great video that I suggest you watch. In the video, Dr. Charisse Nixon,
a Penn State College professor uses some her
class as "guinea pigs" (so to speak) to demonstrate the power and
speed of learned helplessness.
First, I recommend you read the following points before you watch the video:
She divided the class (without telling them) into two groups, the right
side and left side group of students (roughly 1/2 of the class). On the RIGHT side
(from her view) they
were given one test, while the LEFT side was given a DIFFERENT test.
THOUGHT they ALL had the same test.
The test consisted of 3 words, one word for each "question." The
goal of the test was to have the students take each word and find an anagram
for that word. So if one word was "pot" an anagram for that could
Now here is where she "lied" to them (in the
interest of education on the topic). Her RIGHT side students had 3 EASY
to solve anagrams. BUT the LEFT side students of her class had the first two (2)
words which were NOT solvable, and the last
word (the 3rd word in the test) which was the SAME word for everyone in the
class (and was solvable).
Notice when you watch the video, how quickly the RIGHT side raised their
hand after the first word,
but the LEFT side did NOT raise their hand. Why? Because the word they were
given could NOT BE SOLVED. Remember, the first two questions for the left side are
During the test, notice how several times she says things like "this
isn't meant to be difficult" as she administers the test.
Now, when you watch the video, when the third word comes up, watch what
Now watch this short video
and watch how many students do NOT raise their hands on the
LEFT side of the classroom for question number 3.
She demonstrated to the class how easily that learned helplessness could be induced
in college students, and she said:
"In about 5 minutes"!
After watching the video and listening to her discussion after the test, I
realized my problem, and corrected it. But what I found so disturbing was when I
also started thinking about how many other socially induced situations could be
attributed to learned helplessness. She mentions some of them in her class. That
further motivated me to write this page.
Learned helplessness appears to have first been observed in animals in an experiment by Dr.
Martin Seligman. A summary of his experiments and some results are discussed
in this video (study.com).
Learned Helplessness can show up in MANY "situations":
The more I thought about it, I think learned helplessness
SO many life / social situations
and the effected people DON'T EVEN KNOW what has "hit" them!
In other words, how can you fix something when you don't know what the cause
of the problem is, or that there even IS a problem?
There is lots of information about learned helplessness on the web. The
learned helplessness gives a brief overview. Another example of learned helplessness
was told to me by a YMCA member. He explained the story about chained elephants.
Trainers would chain when they are young so they wouldn't run away. But what
happens to those elephants when they get bigger and stronger than the chain? If
you're unfamiliar with
the truth of what happens,
you can read more about that here
But it seems learned helplessness can have a BIG impact on humans as well:
Could education be the best offence
to help prevent this primarily induced behavior?
Wouldn't this be a great to add into a middle school and/or high school class? Wouldn't it
be great if adults could view a government program on it? Awareness +
Effort=>Prevention and/or Change.
What if you are the person (or part of the group of people) who caused
learned helplessness that affected someone else?
What if, after reading this, you realize that you induced (or helped to
induce) learned helplessness onto someone else? Well, first of all, realize that
you probably learned this behavior from someone else. It's not something we are
born with. To fix the mistake, I suggest you consider the following:
Learning why and how you did it.
Make a commitment to not do it to anyone any more.
Do the work necessary to make the changes in you so that you don't do it
And this step, which is equally important to the steps above, make
direct amends to those people you have harmed, except when to do so
would injure them or others. This is very important both for you and for the
person you may have harmed.
Additional Examples of Learned Helplessness:
As mentioned I think there is potentially a huge list of issues that can be
caused or at least partly attributed by the effects of learned helplessness. The
following are thoughts of possible situations that may have roots that stem from learned helplessness:
If you grew up in a family that was dysfunctional, then you may relate to
some or many of the 13 Characteristics of Adult Children. Typically you may not have been
educated on how to live as healthy or functional life, so how could you know
how deal with those characteristics? This could be a form of learned helplessness.
You must learn how to change through education if you want to have a better
John at my YMCA talked about how he gave a group of people an unsolvable
problem. He clearly stated it was unsolvable. And then after everybody felt
it was unsolvable, one person raises their hand and said the answer to the
"unsolvable" question... He taught that while some people may
insist something is unsolvable, that the truth is that maybe it can be
also taught the power of groups working together to find a better solution.
Some things may appear unsolvable, but they really are solvable. Instead of
assuming or automatically believing when someone else says "it can't be
done", consider "maybe it can be done." The Wright brothers,
Edison and scores of other famous people didn't just listen to what others
said could not be done.
Another staff member John at the YMCA talked about how recently,
children in some areas get "trophies" for everything, even just for participation. Even if
they lose the game. Later on in life, when these children leave their homes
and are out working, they think that everything should be easy, and can't
understand, or can become devastated, when they can't (for example) seem to be able to land a job, or
have a successful relationship. He believes a major factor to the
epidemic of drug overdoses is primarily due to learned helplessness. This problem is also discussed with this video
(afterskool) called "Millennials in the Workforce, A Generation of Weakness."
Could elderly people feel helpless, that they have no other choice but to be put into a
nursing home or hospice, when they really want to life out the rest of their
life in their home? Are elderly treated respectfully equally in the U.S.? If
not, what is the root cause of this behavior, and how can that be improved?
How about Indian reservations? I've heard they have one of the highest
percentages of alcoholism per group.
While there are many benefits to TV, phone, and internet,
have they become America's pacifier for some, without even realizing it? Before they existed, parents
would have to work with their children to resolve problems, children would
have to learn to resolve problems with other children, children's would have
to go and play outside or play games together, do things together, with other children and parents. All of these
actions promoted communication, problem resolution, and family or community
sense, caring for others, helping each other out, working together, and working; instead of
Do some social "norms" promote learned helplessness? How many people have stayed in an abusive marriage because the message is that it's
"wrong" to divorce?
Could typical news channels which focus primarily on gathering and
displaying all the "best" (or "top") negative events of
the day (without balancing it with all the best positive news) be causing learned helplessness? One simple example
applies to people who are afraid of flying because every so often 1 plane
crashes and it makes the headlines. Has the news
ever said something like "a plane crashed today but
there are estimated averages of over 100 thousand flights per day that don't
I think the list can go on. The point of this list is to become aware of
these issues, and specifically, how those issues can affect your life. Once you do that,
as mentioned, you
can learn what you need to do to change your life for the better. There is a
great saying, "we don't know what we don't know." Like work, learning
is an essential ingredient towards producing change. You get out of life what
you put into it.
If you have read this paper, and have some negative feelings as a result of
reading this (which would be natural since learned helplessness is not a positive
topic!) than I suggest you consider this:
believe in positive thinking.
And I believe in order to be the best positive
thinking, if something has become a negative dominant feeling in your life,
you first need to identify it. And once you have identified what is causing
negativity in your life, you need to learn how to go in a positive
direction, and focus your energy in that direction. For example pick
models; since they become your mirrors.
Choose to drive down "Street B" and you will avoid the pothole. The effects of learned
helplessness can be very illusive, "sneaky", and pervasive. I'm very
grateful that I have learned about it, and hope
this education will also help you, in the best case; with prevention through awareness.
Thank you for reading this!
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This page updated 05/12/18 11:09 AM