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Learned Helplessness

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:

  • 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 it could induce learned helplessness.
  • Learned helplessness can be incredibly deceptive. By understanding how it works, you can more easily prevent it by stopping it from affecting your life, or detecting it sooner, and change your thinking to solve a 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.

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."

I wish I had known about learned helplessness before I had become a victim. I hope the knowledge in this page will provide awareness that can prevent a negative experience.


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 realizing it) to become a victim from learned helplessness. It was through education and understanding of what I learned that I realized what changes (action) were needed in my life. These changes were needed in order to recover my self-esteem, and restore my feelings to be back to once again realizing the amazing gift of life that I have This allowed me to resume my positive thinking. For those who are familiar with 12 Step programs (wiki), I could adapt part of a phrase from the 12 Steps (wiki) to say, "I was restored to sanity."

What is "Learned Helplessness" and what affect can it have in people's lives?

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."

However, 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 students in 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:

  1. 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.
  2. The students thought they ALL had the same test.
  3. The test consisted of three words, one word for each "question." The goal of the test was to have the students take each word and find an anagram (oxforddictionaries.com) for that word. If one word was "pot", an anagram for that could be "top".
  4. Now here is where she lied to them (in the interest of education on the topic). Her RIGHT side students had three 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).
  5. 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 Unsolvable.
  6. During the test, notice how several times she says things like "this isn't meant to be difficult" as she administers the test.
  7. When you watch the video, notice when the third word comes up, how the students react!

Now watch this short video (youtube) 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. Then I 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 (youtube/study.com).

Learned Helplessness can show up in MANY "situations":

The more I thought about it, I think learned helplessness

can negatively effect

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 Wiki page for 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 elephants when they are young so they wouldn't run away. 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 (careers360.com).

It seems learned helplessness can have a BIG impact on humans as well:

  • Check out Wiki's list of heartbreaking effects learned helplessness could have on just SOME social situations (wiki).
  • If you google search (google) the web, you will see many other situations.

Could education be the best offence
 to help prevent this primarily induced behavior?

Wouldn't this be a great topic 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? First, 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:

  1. Learning why and how you did it.
  2. Make a commitment not do it to anyone any more.
  3. Do the work necessary to make the changes in you so that you don't do it anymore.
  4. In addition, 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. Given that, 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 life.
  • John at my YMCA talked about how he gave a group of people an "unsolvable" problem. He clearly stated it was unsolvable. Then after everybody felt it was unsolvable, one person raises his or her 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 could be solved. He 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 others who said it 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 had lost 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 called "Millennials in the Workforce, A Generation of Weakness" (afterskool).
  • 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 live out the rest of their life in their home? Are elderly people 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 just sitting.
  • Do some social "norms", or group behavior.s promote learned helplessness? Many people have "followed the crowds opinion", even though the resulting outcome was destructive.
  • Could learned helplessness cause, or be a result of, some dictator relationships?
  • 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 one 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 didn't crash"?

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 page, 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:

I believe in positive thinking. I believe in order to be the best positive thinker, if something has become a negative dominant feeling in your life, you first need to identify it. 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 healthy role 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. Education can provide awareness and solutions. You can use this knowledge to prevent or eliminate learned helplessness throughout your life.

Thank YOU for reading this!

By David Morgan

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This page updated 04/14/19 09:03 AM