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Learned helplessness refers to the maladaptive passivity shown by animals and people following experience with uncontrollable events. Learned helplessness also refers to the cognitive explanation of this phenomenon. The individual learns in one situation that responses and outcomes are independent, represents this learning as an expectation of helplessness, and then generalizes this expectation to other situations to produce passivity even if outcomes objectively can be controlled.
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Researchers ﬁrst described learned helplessness in the 1960s. Dogs were immobilized and exposed to a series of electric shocks. Regardless of what the dogs did or did not do, the shocks went on and oﬀ. Twenty-four hours later, these animals were placed in a long box with a barrier in the middle. Shocks were delivered periodically through the ﬂoor of the box, and the dogs could escape them by jumping over the barrier and running to the other end of the box. Researchers found that animals previously exposed to uncontrollable shock acted passively when placed in a shuttle box. They simply sat there and endured the shocks. In contrast, animals without prior experience with uncontrollable shocks had no diﬃculty learning to escape the shocks.
These investigators proposed that the dog had learned to be helpless. When originally exposed to uncontrollable shock, it learned that nothing it did mattered because the shocks came and went independently of the dog’s behaviors. They hypothesized that this learning of response-outcome independence was represented cognitively as an expectation of future helplessness that was generalized to new situations to produce a variety of deﬁcits: motivational, cognitive, and emotional.
The deﬁcits that follow in the wake of uncontrollability have come to be known as the learned helplessness phenomenon, and their cognitive explanation as the learned helplessness model. Learned helplessness in animals continues to interest experimental psychologists, in large part because it provides an opportunity to investigate the interaction between mind and body.
1. The Learned Helplessness Model
The learned helplessness model is at odds with a stimulus-response (S-R) view of learning because it proposes that the helpless animal learns not speciﬁc responses but rather general expectations aﬀecting responses across a variety of situations. The helplessness model is a cognitive account of learning, and in the 1960s, it was a radical theory in a ﬁeld long dominated by strict behaviorism.
Accordingly, much of the early interest in learned helplessness stemmed from its clash with the tenets of traditional S-R theories. Alternative accounts of learned helplessness were proposed by theorists who saw no need to invoke mentalistic constructs. Diﬀerent alternatives were proposed, many of which emphasized an incompatible motor response learned when animals were ﬁrst exposed to uncontrollable shock. This response was presumably generalized to the second situation where it interfered with performance at the test task. Said another way, the learned helplessness phenomenon is produced by an inappropriate response learned in the original situation rather than an inappropriate expectation (of responseoutcome independence). For example, perhaps the dogs learned that holding still when shocked somehow decreased pain. If so, then they hold still in the second situation as well, because this response was reinforced previously.
Maier and co-workers conducted a series of studies testing between the learned helplessness model and the incompatible motor response alternatives. Several lines of research implied that the expectations emphasized by the learned helplessness model were operative. Perhaps the most compelling argument comes from the so-called triadic design, a three-group experimental design that shows that the uncontrollability of shocks is responsible for ensuing deﬁcits. Animals in one group are exposed to shock that they are able to terminate by making some response. Animals in a second group are yoked to those in the ﬁrst group, exposed to the identical shocks, the only diﬀerence being that animals in the ﬁrst group control their oﬀset whereas those in the second do not. Animals in a third group are exposed to no shock at all in the original situation. All animals are then given the same test task.
Animals with control over the initial shocks typically show no helplessness when subsequently tested. They act just like animals with no prior exposure to shock. Animals without control become helpless. Whether or not shocks are controllable is not a property of the shocks per se but rather of the relationship between the animal and the shocks. That animals are sensitive to the link between responses and outcomes implies that they must be able to detect and represent the relevant contingencies. A cognitive explanation of this ability is more parsimonious than one phrased in terms of incompatible motor responses.
Also arguing in favor of a cognitive interpretation of helplessness eﬀects were studies showing that an animal can be ‘immunized’ against the debilitating eﬀects of uncontrollability by ﬁrst exposing it to controllable events. Presumably, the animal learns during immunization that events can be controlled, and this expectation is sustained during exposure to uncontrollable events. Learned helplessness is thus precluded.
Along these same lines, other studies show that learned helplessness deﬁcits could be undone by forcibly exposing a helpless animal to the contingency between behavior and outcome. In other words, the animal is forced to make an appropriate response at the test task, by pushing or pulling it into action. After several such trials, the animal notices that escape is possible and begins to respond on its own. Again, the presumed process at work is a cognitive one. The animal’s expectation of response-outcome independence is challenged during the ‘therapy’ experience, and hence learning occurs.
The studies described so far exposed animals to aversive stimuli (i.e., shocks). But it is also possible to produce helplessness by providing uncontrollable appetitive stimuli: food or water regardless of responses. Here an explanation in terms of incompatible motor responses becomes quite diﬃcult to support. What is gained by holding still in response to food or water? Certainly not the reduction of pain.
Psychologists interested in humans, and particularly human problems, were quick to see the parallels between learned helplessness as produced by uncontrollable events in the laboratory and maladaptive passivity as it exists in the real world. Thus began several lines of research looking at learned helplessness in people.
In one line of work, helplessness in people was produced in the laboratory much as it was in animals, by exposing them to uncontrollable events and seeing the eﬀects on their motivation, cognition, and emotion. Unsolvable problems usually were substituted for uncontrollable electric shocks, but the critical aspects of the phenomenon remained. Following uncontrollability, people showed a variety of deﬁcits.
Other studies further attested to the similarity between the animal phenomenon and what was produced in the human laboratory. Uncontrollable bad events made anxiety and depression more likely. Previous exposure to controllable events immunized people against learned helplessness. Similarly, forcible exposure to contingencies reversed helplessness deﬁcits.
In another line of work, researchers proposed various failures of adaptation as analogous to learned helplessness and investigated the similarity between these failures and learned helplessness on various fronts. Especially popular was Seligman’s proposal that reactive depression and learned helplessness shared critical features: causes, symptoms, consequences, treatments, and preventions.
2. The Attributional Reformulation
As these lines of work were pursued, it became clear that the original learned helplessness explanation was an oversimpliﬁcation when applied to people. Most generally, it failed to account for the range of reactions that people displayed in response to uncontrollable events. Some people indeed showed pervasive deﬁcits, as the model hypothesized, that were general across time and situation, whereas others did not. Further, failures of adaptation that the learned helplessness model was supposed to explain, such as depression, were sometimes characterized by a striking loss of self-esteem, about which the model was silent.
As used to explain human behavior, the learned helplessness model was therefore revised by Abramson et al. (1978) to emphasize the role of the person’s interpretation of the cause of the original events. According to this reformulated theory, depression follows uncontrollability when a person explains an uncontrollable event with causes that are internal (‘it’s me’), stable (‘it’s going to last forever’), and global (‘it’s going to undermine everything I do’). Explanatory style refers to the causal explanations that people habitually oﬀer for negative events. An internal, stable, and global style for explaining negative events is often described as a pessimistic explanatory style. Research shows that pessimistic causal explanations and explanatory style relate to depression as proposed by the reformulated learned helplessness model.
Explanatory style has since been extensively studied in its own right. Here is some of what has been learned. Explanatory style seems to take form as a coherent individual diﬀerence around 8 years of age, when children’s cognitive abilities allow them to think in causal terms. Twin studies suggest that explanatory style is moderately heritable, but there is no reason to believe that there is a speciﬁc optimism-pessimism gene. Rather, such characteristics as intelligence, physical prowess, and attractiveness—which are themselves heritable—set the stage for success or failure in a variety of domains, and it is these experiences that lead the individual to entertain optimistic or pessimistic explanations for important outcomes. Early loss, such as death of a parent, or early trauma, such as sexual abuse, makes an individual more pessimistic. Early success makes an individual more optimistic.
Social learning is also implicated in the origins of explanatory style. Studies show convergence between the explanatory styles of parents and their children, although the ﬁne detail of how an explanatory style is transmitted across generations has yet to be explored. Messages from schoolteachers, peers, and the media about the causes of events may also be critical.
Explanatory style has a vast array of consequences other than depression. Pessimistic explanatory style has been linked to various negative emotions and poor morale, to giving up and ineﬀective problem solving, to academic, athletic, military, occupational, and political failure, to social estrangement, to poor health, and even to untimely death. The mechanism by which explanatory style leads to these disparate outcomes has yet to be fully speciﬁed, but it is likely that the pathway is overdetermined, involving biological, psychological, and interpersonal processes.
Learned helplessness has become a popular line of investigation because it sheds light on humans’ ills involving passivity. Helplessness theory, along with the attributional reformulation, suggests a ready explanation of such instances of passivity as well as interventions to prevent or remedy them. There is a downside to the availability of powerful theory. Some applications have been too zealous, overstating the similarity between learned helplessness on the one hand and a given failure of adaptation on the other. When applied carefully, however, helplessness theory can be highly useful, suggesting how maladaptive passivity can be changed or prevented.
Investigations of learned helplessness are ongoing. Laboratory studies with animals have delved into the biochemical basis of the helplessness phenomenon, suggesting that learned helplessness may have as much to do with anxiety as with depression. Furthermore, animal studies suggest that experience with uncontrollable events can sometimes disrupt the immune system, making illness more likely. Survey researchers have started to look at how explanatory style and its consequences diﬀer across cultures. What is identiﬁed in the Western world as a pessimistic style may be more common in Asian cultures that emphasize the collectivity and individual modesty. Finally, community intervention studies are exploring the use of cognitive-behavioral strategies for immunizing children against helplessness and its negative consequences.
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