What Is… Learned Helplessness

Insights into psychology: Learned helplessness

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness was first described by Martin Seligman, who is also the founder of positive psychology. It began with observations made during animal studies, and eventually became his theory of depression.

While doing classical conditioning studies involving dogs, he observed that when dogs had been given shocks that they couldn’t control/avoid through their own behaviour, they developed a passivity that later endured even in situations where it was possible for them to escape or avoid being shocked. Essentially, they had learned that they had no control over certain outcomes, so they stopped trying.

Something similar (but with loud noises rather than shocks) was observed in studies involving humans, with people developing a sort of “nothing works, so why try” attitude.

In 1974, Seligman first suggested that the effects of learned helplessness that he was seeing in the lab matched up with the symptoms of major depressive disorder, aside from suicidal ideation. He also observed that people with depression behaved in the laboratory with the same passivity as people who had developed learned helplessness, even when the depressed people weren’t exposed to the aversive stimulus.

Seligman concluded from this inability or unwillingness to act led to consequences including low self-esteem, chronic failure, sadness, and physical illness. He also believed that learned helplessness provided an explanation for depression. Maybe it’s just me, but that seems like a pretty big leap.

Reformulated theory of depression

A few years later, the learned helplessness theory of depression was reformulated to account for the fact that not everyone becomes depressed when exposed to the same stressors. The researchers concluded that the likelihood of a depressive response to helplessness would depend on whether the causes of the helplessness-related problem were perceived to be permanent or temporary, and whether the helplessness was experienced as pervasive or related to a specific problem. Chronic helplessness and helplessness that is global/pervasive are more strongly associated with depression.

There’s been further work exploring the neurological basis of all of this, which led Seligman and colleagues to realize that it’s not the absence of control that determines the response, but the presence of control. If control is not present, the default is to do nothing. They’ve suggested that one reason why transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is helpful in depression is that it stimulates the brain structures involved in learned helplessness.

Later work

The concept of learned helplessness influenced the torture techniques used by the CIA post-9/11. It’s also been used to describe why people stay in relationships with domestic abusers.

Seligman’s proposed antidote was learned optimism. His language choices sound awfully blame-y to me. I don’t think that’s what he’s aiming for, but I get the sense that he’s not very in touch with the reality of mental illness. I don’t have a problem with the conditioned response to stressful stimuli part, but the link to depression seems flimsy.

Had you heard of learned helplessness before? Does the link to depression make sense to you?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

31 thoughts on “What Is… Learned Helplessness”

  1. I’ve heard of it and it kinda makes sense that it’s tied to a why bother with anything state of depression. In my case though, I like to think of it as a logical reaction to circumstances. Forex, dating/romance. Every situation turned out bad for me, so I did indeed develop a why bother mindset and quit trying. This is a GOOD THING no matter how often well meaning people try to talk me out of it. I’m much LESS depressed now that I stay away from the whole mess. Obviously sometimes the attitude can be a negative, like at work…

    1. When it comes to depression, why bother seems more likely to be a product of depression than a cause. And when why bother takes stupid things and stupid people out of your life, that’s very good.

  2. I think I have learned helplessness from years of depression. I worry that if I get a firm autism diagnosis, that will just leave me in the “I can’t get anything right” mode of thought.

  3. We think Kids do not have much control (ie power to end abuse, be nurtured, make autonomous choices). So if we as kids can’t stop chronic, pervasive trauma, we learned helplessness.

    When we as kids do involve adults to help us, and they don’t improve the situation, we learn helplessness.

    A medical trauma seems to reinforce helplessness.

    This does resonate to us based on how DJ feels about DJ’s survival of certain of our trauma.

    Not sure if adult-onset of depression or helplessness would make a different outcome. Seems like adults have more resources and choices than do children, but still can feel helpless.

    The whole notion makes us sad for everyone who feels helpless.

    1. While the degree probably varies with age, children are inherently helpless. If adults reinforce rather than support, that puts kids in a terrible situation. I wish no kids had to go through that.

  4. Had you heard of learned helplessness before? Does the link to depression make sense to you?

    I HAVE heard of “learned helplessness”, but I had no idea of the meaning. I thought it was when a person develops a “victim’ mindset. Some folks seem to take that victim mindset and make it a lifestyle. They can’t or won’t help themselves, but seem to wait for rescue from someone else. I have a family member who has that trait, and it can be very irritating when this person refuses to take action for themselves, or sound advice when its offered. They only act when someone else has taken the choice away from them and acted in their stead. Usually with a lot of complaining about not being ‘allowed’ to run their own affairs. Oy vey!!

    The link to depression did NOT make sense to me. I believe, like Paula and yourself, that it’s a side effect or result OF depression, not something a depressed person can ‘think’ their way out of or work at changing their attitude to be less ‘helpless’. Argh. The worst therapist (well up in the top five) I ever saw had that “you can just shake it off’ idea and would chastise me for ‘thinking negatively’ when in their opinion I could think positively.

    I agree that how we REACT to things outside our control is our choice, but I also feel very strongly that depression (particularly chronic depression) colors our ability to react in a positive manner. It might even be physically impossible to find the bright side if someone is innately depressed. That “think positive’ stuff does nothing at all to deal with the anger issues some of us with depression have. Teach us some TOOLS to use, and shut up about the Pollyanna ideology. Learned optimism indeed. For some of us? That kind of learning is like trying to learn Mandarin Chinese. Impossible.

    1. I know what you mean about victim mindset, although I wish there was a different name for it, as people who are actually victims don’t typically have that mindset. Learned helplessness would actually make a much better name for it.

  5. I have heard about “learned helplessness”. Mary Trump declares that her uncle has it. Trump senior worked on his kids, he rewarded those who never showed any type of weakness. D Trump learned that if he acted strong and never showed any sign of weakness, his father would give him attention. Mary’s father was looked down on, he turned to drinking and died young.
    As for a link to depression I do not have any knowledge from Mary if her uncle suffered depression.

  6. The thing that struck me was, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. He’s saying learned helplessness causes depression, illness, low self esteem etc, but I wonder if depression, illness, and low self esteem etc can be a recipe for being susceptible to learned helplessness, rather than it being an influence the other way around?! Or maybe it’s a vicious circle, a cycle that’s hard to break, a bit like trying to get off the treadmill, or hamster wheel, or rat run, or whatever you call it nowadays!

    Out of interest, what do people do about learned helplessness? If it causes depression and illness, do you treat the depression first, to escape the learned helplessness, or do you treat the learned helplessness first, to treat the depression?

    1. I would think that depression and illness are more likely to cause learned helplessness than the other way around.

      Seligman’s answer to all of this was learned optimism. But that seems to presume that there’s something to be optimistic about, which isn’t necessarily the case with chronic illness.

  7. Yes, I have heard of this, and of the work of Martin Seligman. I even gave a talk in 2013 that was named “Learned Helplessness” in the context of the homeless situation. When I was homeless (or “houseless” I suppose) in Berkeley, I noticed that a lot of people who had wound up living outside began to believe themselves to be in a helpless predicament. This belief was furthered, however inadvertently, by many of those who were in the business of “helping” them.

    Because it was often assumed by a well-meaning social worker that the person had wound up homeless as the result of an inability to take care of themselves, the message was subtly conveyed to the person experiencing homelessness that they were UNABLE to help themselves. And many naturally began to believe it.

    While some people’s disabilities are such that they really do need to rely on a lot of external assistance, it was more often true among the homeless community that people felt a lot of shame around having becoming homeless. That shame – that extreme of low self-esteem, caused many of us to believe that we could no longer take care of ourselves, and that we would be forever dependent on our helpers in order to survive.

    So many people remain homeless throughout their days, dependent on food services and other social services, not believing they have what it takes to get themselves out of it. In my case, it took almost twelve years before a sudden “leap of faith” changed my thinking. While I was not the kind who depended on services — I preferred to fly a sign on a sidewalk and make my own living — I still balked at the idea of coming up with the wherewithal to score a place to live that would work for me.

    When I did decide to go for it and find a place where I could live ABSOLUTELY ALONE and afford it, all it really took was a one-shot “hand up” from someone who believed in me. And that single “hand up” (to the tune of about $600) was more valuable than all the “hand-outs” I could have received throughout the twelve years when I lived outdoors.

    1. That’s a very interesting point, and the same kind of thing happens in mental health care sometimes. That kind of benevolent paternalistic attitude that people can’t take care of themselves make it less likely that the person will get independent housing, vocational referrals, etc.

      1. That was well-put. You have a gift for expressing things succinctly that people like me fumble over many words to make the same point.

Leave a Reply