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.
Link to depression
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.
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?
- Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. (2016). Learned helplessness at fifty: Insights from neuroscience. Psychological Review, 123(4), 349.
- Ackerman, C.E. (2018). Learned Helplessness: Seligman’s Theory of Depression (+ Cure). PositivePsychology.com.
- Konnikova, M. (2015). Trying to Cure Depression, but Inspiring Torture. The New Yorker.
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
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.