The American psychologist Martin Seligman's foundational experiments and theory of learned helplessness began at Cornell University in 1967, as an extension of his interest in depression. Quite by accident, Seligman and colleagues discovered that the conditioning of dogs led to outcomes that opposed the predictions of B.F. Skinner's behaviorism, then a leading psychological theory (Seligman & Maier, 1967; Overmier & Seligman, 1967).
In part one of Seligman and Steve Maier's experiment, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses. Group One dogs were simply put in the harnesses for a period of time and later released. Groups Two and Three consisted of "yoked pairs". A dog in Group 2 would be intentionally subjected to pain by being given electric shocks, which the dog could end by pressing a lever. A Group 3 dog was wired in parallel with a Group 2 dog, receiving shocks of identical intensity and duration, but his lever didn't stop the electric shocks. To a dog in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was his paired dog in Group 2 that was causing it to stop. For Group 3 dogs, the shock was apparently "inescapable". Group 1 and Group 2 dogs quickly recovered from the experience, but Group 3 dogs learned to be helpless, and exhibited symptoms similar to chronic clinical depression.
In part two of the Seligman and Maier experiment, these three groups of dogs were tested in a shuttle-box apparatus, in which the dogs could escape electric shocks by jumping over a low partition. For the most part, the Group 3 dogs, who had previously "learned" that nothing they did had any effect on the shocks, simply lay down passively and whined. Even though they could have easily escaped the shocks, the dogs didn't try.
In a second experiment later that year, Overmier and Seligman ruled out the possibility that the Group 3 dogs learned some behavior in part one of the experiment, while they were struggling in the harnesses against the "inescapable shocks," that somehow interfered with what would have been their normal, successful behavior of escaping from the shocks in part two. The Group 3 dogs were immobilized with a paralyzing drug (curare), and underwent a procedure similar to that in part one of the Seligman and Maier experiment. A similar part two in the shuttle-box was also undertaken in this experiment, and the Group 3 dogs exhibited the same "helpless" response.
However, not all of the dogs in Seligman's experiments became helpless. Of the roughly 150 dogs in experiments in the latter half of the 1960s, about one-third did not become helpless, but instead managed to find a way out of the unpleasant situation despite their past experience with it. The corresponding characteristic in humans has been found to correlate highly with optimism; however, not a naïve Polyannaish optimism, but an explanatory style that views the situation as other than personal, pervasive, or permanent. This distinction between people who adapt and those who break down under long-term psychological pressure was also studied in the 1950s in the context of brainwashing.
Other experiments were performed with different animals with similar results. In all cases, the strongest predictor of a depressive response was lack of control over the negative stimulus. One such later experiment, presented by Finkelstein and Ramey (1977), consisted of two groups of human babies. One group was placed into a crib with a sensory pillow, designed so that the movement of the baby’s head could control the rotation of a mobile. The other group had no control over the movement of the mobile and could only enjoy looking at it. Later, both groups of babies were tested in cribs that allowed the babies to control the mobile. Although all the babies now had the power to control the mobile, only the group that had already learned about the sensory pillow bothered to use it (Finkelstein & Ramey, 1977).
A similar experiment was done with people who performed mental tasks in the presence of distracting noise. If the person could use a switch to turn off the noise, his performance improved, even though he rarely bothered to turn off the noise. Simply being aware of this option was enough to substantially counteract its distracting effect (Hiroto and Seligman, 1975).
Later research discovered that the original theory of learned helplessness failed to account for people's varying reactions to situations that can cause learned helplessness (Peterson & Park, 1998). Learned helplessness sometimes remains specific to one situation (Cole & Coyne, 1977), but at other times generalizes across situations (Hiroto & Seligman, 1975).
An individual's attributional style or explanatory style was the key to understanding why people responded differently to adverse events (Peterson & Seligman, 1984). Although a group of people may experience the same or similar negative events, how each person privately interprets or explains the event will affect the likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness and subsequent depression (Abraham, Seligman & Teasdale, 1978).
The pessimistic explanatory style—which sees negative events as permanent ("it will never change"), personal ("it's my fault"), and pervasive ("I can't do anything correctly")—are most likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression (Peterson, Maier, & Seligman 1993). Cognitive behavioral therapy, heavily endorsed by Seligman, can help people to learn more realistic explanatory styles, and can help ease depression.
Bernard Weiner's attribution theory (1979, 1985, 1986) concerns the way that people attribute a cause or explanation to an unpleasant event. Attribution theory includes the dimensions of globality/specificity, stability/instability, and internality/externality (Weiner, 1986). A global attribution occurs when the individual believes that the cause of negative events is consistent across different contexts. A specific attribution occurs when the individual believes that the cause of a negative event is unique to a particular situation. A stable attribution occurs when the individual believes the cause to be consistent across time. Unstable attribution occurs when the individual thinks that the cause is specific to one point in time. An external attribution assigns causality to situational or external factors, while an internal attribution assigns causality to factors within the person (Abraham et al., 1978).
There are several aspects of human helplessness that have no counterpart among other animals. One of the most intriguing aspects is "vicarious learning (or modelling)": that people can learn to be helpless through observing another person encountering uncontrollable events (Bandura, 1986). However, studies with animals have shown that many species can learn through observation. Thus, this "difference" may not exist between humans and nonhumans.
Apart from the shared depression symptoms between human and other animals such as passivity, introjected hostility, weight loss, appetite loss, social and sexual deficits, some of the diagnostic symptoms of learned helplessness—including depressed mood, feelings of worthlessness, and suicidal ideation—can be found and observed in human beings but not necessarily in animals (Peterson, Maier & Seligman, 1993).
Whatever their origins, people who suffer uncontrollable events reliably see disruption of emotions, aggressions, physiology, and problem-solving tasks (Roth, 1980; Wortman, & Brehm, 1975). These helpless experiences can associate with passivity, uncontrollability and poor cognition in people, ultimately threatening their physical and mental well-being.
Learned helplessness can effectively contribute to poor health when people neglect diet, exercise and medical treatment, falsely believing they have no power to change. The more people perceive events as uncontrollable and unpredictable, the more stress they experience, and the less hope they feel with about making changes in their life (Henry, 2005).
Young adults and middle-aged parents with a pessimistic explanatory style are likely to suffer from depression (Chan & Sanna, 2007). People with a pessimistic explanatory style tend to be poor at problem-solving and cognitive restructuring, and also tend to demonstrate poor job satisfaction and interpersonal relationship in the workplace (Welbourne, Eggerth, Hartley, Andrew & Sanchez, 2007; Henry, 2005). Those with a pessimistic explanatory style also tend to have weakened immune systems, and not only have increased vulnerable to minor ailments (e.g. cold, fever) and major illness (e.g. heart attack, cancers), and but also a have less effective recovery from health problems (Bennett & Elliott, 2005).
Learned helplessness can also be a motivational problem. Individuals who have failed at tasks in the past conclude erroneously that they are incapable of improving their performance (Stipek, 1988). This might set children behind in academic subjects and dampen their social skills.
Children with learned helplessness typically fail academic subjects, and are less intrinsically motivated than others. They may use learned helplessness as an excuse or a shield to provide self-justification for school failure. Additionally, describing someone as having learned to be helpless can serve as a reason to avoid blaming him or her for the misfortunes experienced. In turn, the student will give up trying to gain respect or advancement through academic performance (Ramirez, Maldonado, & Martos, 1992).
Child abuse by neglect can be a manifestation of learned helpnessness: when parents believe they are incapable of stopping an infant's crying, they may simply give up trying to do anything for the child (Donovan, Leavitt, & Walsh, 1990).
Another example of learned helplessness in social settings involves loneliness and shyness. Those who are extremely shy, passive, anxious and depressed may learn helplessness to offer stable explanations for unpleasant social experiences. However, Gotlib and Beatty (1985) found that people who cite helplessness in social settings may be viewed poorly by others, resulting in a situation that reinforces the problematic thinking. A third example is aging, with the elderly learning to be helpless and concluding that they have no control over losing their friends and family members, losing their jobs and incomes, getting old, weak and so on (Rodin, 1986).
Social problems resulting from learned helplessness seem unavoidable; however, the effect goes away with the passage of time (Young, & Allin, 1986). Nonetheless, learned helplessness can be minimized by "immunization" and potentially reversed by therapy. People can be immunized against the perception that events are uncontrollable by increasing their awareness of previous positive experiences (Altmaier, & Happ, 1985). Therapy can instruct people in the fact of contingency (Thornton, & Powell, 1974) and bolster peoples' self esteem (Orbach & Hadas, 1982).
The American sociologist Harrison White has suggested in his book Identity and Control that the notion of learned helplessness can be extended beyond psychology into the realm of social action. Organizations or nations, for example, could experience negative events or failures that lead them to collectively believe that change is beyond their control.