Why do some people feel in control, even in the face of adversity, while others feel depressed and helpless? We can look at three important things: 1) what is currently happening in their lives; 2) how they explain and respond to what is happening; 3) what they have experienced in the past.
One of the most fundamental studies we have for understanding human behaviour was conducted by psychologist Martin Seligman in the 1960s. Seligman was trying to understand if and how past experiences can lead to depression. To do this he conducted a study with dogs. He split the dogs into two groups, one group experienced a mildly painful electric shock but could stop it by pressing a lever. The other group experienced the same shock but could not stop it. Later, all of the dogs were put into another situation in which they received an electric shock but could escape by jumping over a small barrier. The dogs who had previously been able to press a lever to stop the shock quickly learned to leap over the barrier to escape. The dogs who had not had a lever didn’t learn to leap over the barrier, they lay down and gave up. As they previously experienced a situation in which they had no control they learned, falsely, that they would never have control . Seligman and colleagues showed that the same applies to humans. They played an irritating noise to a group of people, some of whom could switch it off by solving a problem and others who could not switch it off. They then put all participants into a second situation in which they heard the irritating noise but this time all of them had the power to switch it off. Only those who had previously had control over the noise tried to stop it. The others did not try to switch it off exhibiting what Seligman called “learned helplessness” .
So how does this translate to real life? People can have different levels of learned helplessness depending on what they have experienced but also on what they attribute negative events to. Some people who experience negative uncontrollable events do not develop learned helplessness. Seligman and colleagues have found that people’s level of learned helplessness predicts how successful they will be in the workplace and how likely they will be to quit . The same is true of athletes and of school achievement [4, 5]. Children with high levels of learned helplessness also have more depressed mood .
Thankfully, it is possible to change a learned helplessness mindset and interventions exist to do so. Teaching people how to be optimistic and how to reappraise some of the events in their lives helps to change not only how they think about but also how they behave in a situation that seems hopeless at first sight but that may not be on a second look.
- Seligman, M.E., Learned helplessness. Annual review of medicine, 1972. 23(1): p. 407-412.
- Hiroto, D.S. and M.E. Seligman, Generality of learned helplessness in man. Journal of personality and social psychology, 1975. 31(2): p. 311.
- Seligman, M.E. and P. Schulman, Explanatory style as a predictor of productivity and quitting among life insurance sales agents. Journal of personality and social psychology, 1986. 50(4): p. 832.
- Seligman, M.E., et al., Explanatory style as a mechanism of disappointing athletic performance. Psychological Science, 1990. 1(2): p. 143-146.
- Nolen-Hoeksema, S., J.S. Girgus, and M.E. Seligman, Learned helplessness in children: A longitudinal study of depression, achievement, and explanatory style. Journal of personality and social psychology, 1986. 51(2): p. 435.