Some ideas for preempting “learned helplessness”

Nick IngramThinking0 Comments

As I mentioned in last week’s post on attributional styles, I have been listening to the You Are Not So Smart podcast – and especially episode 52 on learned helplessness. It’s got me thinking about how learned helplessness can apply in various situations we encounter in our lives. And what we can do about it.

What is “learned helplessness”?

Learned helplessness occurs in an animal when it is conditioned to think that it cannot overcome the negative effects of its external environment. Instead it just lies down and takes whatever the world is throwing at it.

The frightening thing about learned helplessness is how easy it is to induce in animals.

Learned helplessness was first discovered by Martin Seligman, by accident, in the 60s. Yep – that’s the same Martin Seligman of Positive Psychology fame.

Seligman (and colleagues – he was a grad student at the time) was working on learning theory with “negative reinforcement” (read “electric shocks” – remember it was the 60s). He was teaching dogs to jump from one side of a shuttle box to the other by applying an electric shock to the dog’s side of the box. He wanted to see if dogs who had previously been exposed to electric shocks learned more quickly to jump to the other side.

“What’s a shuttle box?”, I hear you ask. Here’s a picture (from a site on animal experimentation):

shuttle box

Basically, Seligman wanted to see how quickly a dog would learn to jump to the other side of the short wall after a buzzer sounded the warning of an impending shock to the floor on the dog’s side.

Seligman’s hypothesis was that dogs, which had been exposed to the buzzer and electric shocks outside of the shuttle box, would learn more quickly to jump over the wall than dogs who had not been exposed.

But, what Seligman found was the exact opposite.

The dogs that had previously been exposed to the buzzer and shocks didn’t try to jump the wall. They didn’t try to avoid the shocks at all. Many just lay down on the floor and took the shocks. But the dogs who hadn’t been exposed to the shocks previously very quickly learnt that they could avoid the shocks by jumping to the other side of the wall.

What was the problem with the previously shocked dogs? Well the experimenters had put them in a harness and sounded the buzzer and then shocked them. There was no way the dogs could escape from the harness. After the experiment, Seligman theorised that in this way the dogs had learned that they were helpless in the face of the shocks. As a result, when they were in the shuttle box, this previously conditioned “learned helplessness” kicked in and the dogs didn’t try to escape.

The dogs that had not been previously exposed to shocks, on the other hand, had not learned that they were helpless with shocks. And so they quickly learned to jump over the wall.

The theory of learned helplessness was born.

Does learned helplessness apply to people?

Does learned helplessness apply to people? Are we as easy to make helpless as those poor dogs? The short answer is yes and no.

We are more complex than dogs – and the complexity comes from the meaning we make out of events. And if that sounds like a function of your attributional style, then you’re not wrong.

Basically, if you adopt a negative attributional style to negative events you are more likely to induce learned helplessness in yourself. As we said last week, if you view a negative event as stable, global, and internal, you are going to cause yourself problems. And one of those problems may well be learned helplessness – where you don’t even attempt anymore to change the negative circumstances you find yourself in.

In short, it would appear that having a negative attributional style puts a person more at risk of succumbing to learned helplessness in tough situations. This of course raises the obvious question.

So how do we reduce the risk of learned helplessness in ourselves?

How do we reduce the risk of getting into a spiral of learned helplessness in ourselves? Clearly a key way is to look at our own negative attributional styles – and in last week’s post I mused a bit about strategies for that. The post provoked some great responses from you guys – with some great other suggestions. Here’s what you said:

1. Regard setbacks as temporary, specific, and external

Henny Shone, who sounds like she cycles pretty seriously, talked about the principles she brings to races, principles she learnt from another cyclist. They could have been taken straight from an attributional style text book. Henny says, to increase her resilience on the bike, she deliberately thinks this way:

“Setbacks are temporary, specific and external. Good things are permanent, global and internal.

When faced with a setback you need to think of it as temporary, specific and external. Temporary is about thinking it will end, and you will get an opportunity to get over it. Specific is about making the effect narrow. External is about making it not your fault. For instance getting a puncture when you’re leading a race could make you think it’s all over and you may as well give up. On the other hand, you could tell yourself it’s just unlucky, fix yourself up, remember the race isn’t over and concentrate on doing what you did to get yourself to the front in the first place.

When the good things happen you make them permanent, global and internal. It’s about telling yourself you did well in a race because you trained right, rode smart and you’re a top rider; not because you were lucky, in the right place at the right time or because the big riders didn’t show up that day. Thinking in that way carries through to the next race, meaning you show up knowing you deserve to be there and absolutely can get that podium finish.”

Henny’s great illustration is all about the meaning we choose to make from events. And it’s the key advantage we have over those poor dogs getting shocked in Seligman’s experiment.

2. Take an approach from the world of improvisational theatre

Tony Weir suggests taking an approach from the world of improvisational theatre. Maybe even objectively bad things (losing your job, or a relationship) can be responded to in a way that puts us more on the front foot, by changing the attribution we give those events. In the world of improvisational theatre:

“The improviser’s impulse at each moment is to say ‘Yes, and what can I make from this?’ Imagine an improvised scene between person A and person B: person A gives their partner a line that takes the scene off the track, derailing the momentum it had been building. In some eyes, a ‘negative’ contribution. But to person B it is a gift, provoking the scene to move in a new and surprising direction, to a theme never before explored.

The thing is that to the improviser, any ‘event’ is not a monumental presence, full of meaning, but rather a launching pad into the ever moving future. The past is not settled until the future gives it meaning.

What it might add to the thinking about attribution is to not focus on negative events as inert lumps of reality, but as provocations to make the future: ‘Ok, yes, that happened, now what can I make from it?’”

Taking a stance that regards negative events as “provocations to make the future” is a mindset that is the antithesis of learned helplessness.

3. Adopt the principles from Carol Dweck’s “Growth mindset”

Another commenter, Catherine, reminded me of: “Carol Dweck’s work on Mindsets, and the impact this has on the narrative we construct (either knowingly or subconsciously) regarding how we operate in the world.”

A lot of my education clients have been talking about Dweck’s work on “growth mindset” for years. They are actively applying it to the principles they bring to the classroom. But in the last twelve months I have noticed my corporate clients starting to refer to it too. (In fact, HBR had a piece on this a few months ago).

Dweck contrasts two types of mindsets that form the poles of a continuum along which most people fall:

  • A person with a fixed mindset regards intelligence and other attributes as fixed characteristics that can’t be changed.
  • A person with a growth mindset regards intelligence and other attributes as things that can be developed.

You can immediately see that a student with a fixed mindset who fails a maths exam (as we were talking about last week) is much more likely to adopt a negative attributional approach. They are much more likely to see the failure as internal and stable. On the other hand, a student with a growth mindset is much more likely to see the failure as an opportunity to learn and improve – to see failure as temporary.

There’s a great interview with Dweck here if you want to find out more about fixed and growth mindsets.

4. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help

It’s clear we do have an advantage over those poor dogs in Seligman’s experiment. We have a much bigger brain with which to attribute helpful meanings to negative events, and so avoid the pit of learned helplessness. But remember, a bigger more complex brain is not always an asset. One in five of us will experience some kind of mental health issue this year. Sometimes our brains just need professional help – and there’s nothing wrong with that!


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