Learned helplessness is a situation where a person doesn’t try to break away from a negative situation or attempt a particular task because he/she believes that it is impossible to do so. Such behavior occurs when a person has failed on the previous attempts or has witnessed others fail.
A young man was walking through an elephant camp when he noticed something peculiar. None of these elephants were caged. All they had was a thin rope tied to one of their legs while the other end of the rope was attached to a weak ledge. Any elephant could snap the rope or uproot the ledge without breaking a sweat. Yet, no elephant made an attempt to escape.
The young man stepped into the camp curious to know how had the trainer managed to achieve such a feat with a wild animal. He found the trainer feeding an elephant and he walked up to him and asked, “I was passing by when I couldn’t help notice that the elephants can easily escape if they want to. What techniques did you use to keep them so civilized?” he asked.
The trainer replied, “It’s simple really. We start early when they’re still newborns. When they’re smaller, the rope and the ledge are sufficient to hold them back. They try to escape, but after many futile attempts, they realize that it’s impossible. Once they believe that they cannot escape from the rope, they carry the same belief for the rest of their lives. They never try again.”
Surprising, right? “If I were an elephant, I would keep trying every day until I break free. The day I manage to do that, I would trample my trainer’s chest before leaving the camp” you think. But, hold on. Such behavior isn’t limited to elephants or animals alone.
Take a moment to listen to your inner voice as you read through the sentences below:
- You can make a billion dollars
- You can become the CEO of a top firm
- You can be as famous as Elon Musk, Brad Pitt, or Rihanna
What did your gut feel tell you? Did you hear your inner voice saying, “You’re kidding. That’s impossible for me. I can’t achieve such targets because …..” The blank at the end is your justification for why the goal is beyond your reach.
If you thought such dreams are too difficult for you, you’re no different than the elephant tied to the rope. In psychology, such behavior is called learned helplessness.
In this article, we will go through what learned helplessness is with real-life examples, how it affects you, and ways to overcome it.
- What is learned helplessness?
- Real-life examples of learned helplessness
- Research conducted
- What behavior does learned helplessness lead to?
- How to overcome learned helplessness:
What is learned helplessness?
Learned helplessness is the failure to make an attempt or change a negative situation because you believe it is impossible for you to do so. Such behavior occurs when you’ve encountered the same situation multiples times in the past and all your previous attempts have failed. The thought process can also stem from witnessing other people trying to change a similar scenario and failing to do so.
If you encounter repeated failures or witness others failing at a task, you believe that cannot control the result no matter what actions you take. You tell yourself, “Nothing will change no matter how hard I try. So why bother?”
Once such belief is engraved in your brain, you don’t make an attempt ever again. Even when circumstances change and you can influence the result, the limiting belief in your head prevents you from trying.
Real-life examples of learned helplessness
You’ve heard the saying, “Try and try until you succeed”. Though it sounds motivational, failures lead to disappointments and repeated defeats result in an altered mindset. You stop trying not because you don’t want to take the trouble of putting in the effort, but because you genuinely believe that you’re not cut for it.
Here are real-life examples where you and I are vulnerable to such a thought process:
1. In the workplace
In every organization, you’ll find employees unhappy about their job. They curse their manager, their role, or the poor hikes offered.
“I will never manage to have a successful career”, they whine. But, isn’t quitting the job and finding a better role an option?
2. Dating and introverts
Consider a young introvert whose first attempt to woo a girl was met with rejection due to his nervousness and inability to strike a conversation. If a few other girls reject him too, he starts believing that he cannot impress women. Soon enough, he stops trying.
10 years later, though the same person has developed confidence in life and grown more attractive, the previous belief stops him from trying.
3. In education
Every year students appear for various entrance tests. Consider the students who fail at the first attempt. Do all of them appear the second time? That depends. A handful want to crack the test badly, so they spend another year preparing. For the majority, spending a second year isn’t feasible.
Among those who try again, a few manage to ace the test, whereas the others fail a second time. Now, how many students will try a third time? Almost none.
Though circumstances are the primary reason why students move on, if you’d ask them what do they feel about the test, they’d reply, “It’s not my cup of tea.”
4. Physical abuse
Have you watched a movie where the boy abuses his girlfriend repeatedly, yet, she lives with him? Guess what? That happens in real life too.
People undergoing abuse stay back primarily because they have an emotional attachment like a child or due to dependency, like money. But if you look beyond those factors, it’s also because their prior attempts to break free failed. If they were caught in their attempt to flee, they went through worser abuse. When that repeats a few times, the abusee believes that escaping the circumstances is impossible. Therefore, even if the door is wide open with the abuser nowhere in sight, the abusee makes no attempt to leave.
- A smoker – “This nicotine addiction is impossible to get rid of. I won’t be able to quit smoking” [Justifying continued smoking]
- A 30-year-old employee – “I haven’t studied a new subject in ages. I have grown old and I can no longer digest material like I used to before.” [An excuse to procrastinate]
- An obese person – “I gain weight due to my genetics. Even if I work out or eat a healthy diet it wouldn’t matter.” [A reason to remain in the comfort zone by avoiding exercise and diet]
- A citizen of the country – “I won’t vote because a single vote makes no difference.”
The research on learned helplessness was first conducted by Martin Seligman in 1967 at the University of Pennsylvania. His interest in the topic of depression prompted an experiment with dogs.
The setup involved 3 groups of dogs put through two different circumstances,
The experiment began by harnessing the dogs in all three groups.
- For the first group of dogs, the harness was released after a short while.
- The dogs in group 2 received an electric shock at random times, but they could escape by pressing a lever
- The third group of dogs received an electric shock at random times too, but they had no way to escape from it
The dogs in group 2 quickly learned to break free by pressing a lever, whereas those in group 3 tried helplessly a few times before giving up.
The same dogs were later placed in a different setup. This time each dog was placed in a box that had two compartments separated by a barrier that was only a few inches high. Researchers administered mild shocks on one side of the box. To escape, the dogs had to jump past the low barrier into the other compartment.
Dogs in groups 1 and 2 figured out the solution in no time while the dogs in group 3 endured the shock without trying. The earlier experiment had caused learned helplessness in them where they believed that escaping from the shock was beyond their control.
Further experiments performed on human beings using loud noise showed similar results too.
Learned helplessness in children
Research has shown that children develop learned helplessness early. Preliminary results demonstrated that such behavior can arise due to upbringing.
Children brought up in institutions have shown higher symptoms of learned helplessness. Since such institutions have a large number of children, the staff cannot attend to every need of every child. When a cry for help or a request for assistance goes unanswered, children start believing that nothing can change their fate. By the time they grow into adults, the belief is strongly ingrained in their personality itself.
What behavior does learned helplessness lead to?
Every person is vulnerable to learned helplessness, some more than others. Listed below are the set of characteristics exhibited due to the phenomenon. Different people portray them to a different extent.
- Giving up
- Lack of motivation
- Poor self-esteem
- Low self-confidence
- Lack of effort
The research conducted on children showed that these characteristics originate during childhood itself. Failure to break free from them even leads to clinical depression.
How to overcome learned helplessness:
Learned helplessness is one of our unconscious behaviors which is hard to combat. Cognitive biases can be avoided by awareness, but an attribute that is a part of your personality doesn’t allow you to break free from it easily.
Here are a few tips that can help:
1. The sooner the better:
The faster you can spot learned helplessness, the easier it is to change your thinking. Unfortunately, realizing that you’re under the influence of the effect isn’t straightforward. Therefore the process of freeing yourself from learned helplessness works like a paradox.
If you manage to spot the tendency, you should attempt to change yourself at the earliest. Consider the effect like concrete. Early changes are easy, but once the mixture solidifies, breaking it down takes a whole lot of effort.
If you spot learned helplessness in children, try to change that belief as soon as possible. If not, it can snowball into other areas of life and hinder the overall wellbeing of that person in the years to come.
2. Question your lack of effort
Every time you give up on a goal that you’re interested in, ask yourself why did you do so? Reflections can induce powerful insights if you take the time to sit down and think with brutal honesty.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself which can help you identify learned helplessness in yourself:
- Did I try first or assume it was impossible?
- Did I try with an intention to succeed or to reinforce my existing belief that it’s impossible?
- Did I try enough to succeed or give up too early?
- Is there a different way to achieve what I want?
- Is the goal too tough or am I unwilling to step out of my comfort zone?
3. Have patience
Long-term learned helplessness isn’t gonna go away in a short span of time. You need to wait it out until the new mindset instills within you.
That said, one significant event which provokes your thoughts can change your mindset immediately too. Here is a hypothetical story from the book The Science of Motivation by Brian Tracy.
A young man was born in a family of laborers. Every night on the dinner table, his father used to mention, “We’ve always been laborers and we will always remain laborers.” Though the young man went to college and earned his degree, as soon as he finished his studies, he took up a laborer’s job because he believed he wasn’t good enough for anything else.
One day, when he was working on the road, a car slowed down and stopped next to him. The door opened and out stepped a person who seemed familiar. After a few moments, he noticed that it was James, one of his classmates from college. James had recognized him and had stopped to say hi. He mentioned he was working as an investment banker and earning well. After exchanging a few pleasantries, James drove off.
That’s when the young man realized that James was no better than he was in college. They both had similar levels of intelligence and scored comparable grades. He was struck by a bolt of lightning that he was limiting himself due to his mindset. Right at that moment, he dropped his shovel, quit his job without any notice, and never looked back.
Even if you possess a mindset barrier for years, an eye-opening event can change that in an instant if you’re willing to break free from the shackles you’ve bound yourself with.
Science recommends therapy for those suffering from severe long-term learned helplessness. A branch of psychology called cognitive behavioral therapy is targeted towards eliminating negative thoughts or any other limiting beliefs your mind has set for you.
As per research, exercise has the ability to overcome learned helplessness. The study performed on animals produced promising results, however, the extension to human beings hasn’t been conclusive yet.
6. Use the ABC method
This method was first devised by psychologist Dr. Albert Elles and later adapted by Dr. Martin Seligman.
The technique’s primary focus is to combat stress, but you can use it to overcome learned helplessness too.
ABC stands for:
- Adversity – The difficulties we encounter
- Beliefs – The beliefs created by the adversity
- Consequences – The consequences of such beliefs on your actions, thoughts, and behavior
The difficulties we encounter can create beliefs within us, which determine how we react to similar situations in the future.
Let’s take the example of Mr. Decker, a retired 60 year old employee who decides to invest his hard-earned money in the stock market for the first time. He reads the best investment techniques and does his due diligence. Unfortunately, weeks after he invests money, the market crashes, and he incurs severe losses.
His first experience leaves a bitter taste in his mouth and Mr. Decker believes that stocks are a bad investment platform. Therefore, he decides to invest only in real estate and safe bonds.
In Mr. Decker’s case, the ABC model worked as follows:
- Adversity – Loss due to stock market crash
- Beliefs – Investing in the stock market is a bad idea
- Consequences – Stopping investments in the stock market altogether
The ABC method recommends countering such behavior using a fourth step called disputation.
In the next step, you ask yourself two questions:
- Do I have reasons to dispute the reaction?
- What can my emotions lead to? What benefits am I missing by not pursuing further?
When we face adversity, we tend to only look at the negative effect it had on us. Our belief prompts us to avoid such mistakes in the future. We forget to evaluate if our belief prevents us from relishing possible benefits. If you ponder over your limiting beliefs, you can spot the opportunities you’d miss.
Let’s return to Mr. Decker who had decided not to invest in the stock market due to the losses he incurred. He can apply disputation by answering the two questions:
- Do I have reasons to dispute the reaction?
- Yes, many people invest in the stock market and make good returns. Various investment advisors suggest stocks as a necessary part of a balanced investment portfolio.
- What can my emotions lead to? What benefits am I missing by not pursuing further?
- Staying away from stock investment implies losing out on a potential opportunity to grow wealth.
Yes, adversity instilled fear in Mr. Decker’s min, but if he evaluates the cost of his belief he can prevent himself from making a bad decision.
The final step of the ABC method is Energization. Once you assess the cost of your limiting beliefs, observe if you managed to break free or if you stuck to your original emotion by making a reason. If you did overcome your mental barrier, focus on the feelings you experienced. Reinforcing those feelings helps your brain avoid similar limiting beliefs in the future.
David Goggins, the man who ran a 100-mile ultra-marathon without running a 25-mile marathon ever before, devised the cookie jar method. His technique involves recalling a past victory or a situation where you overcame an obstacle.
By instinct, we tend to recall all our failures first when we face adversity. The cookie jar reverses that approach by reminding yourself of your victories instead. When you look at your prior wins, no matter how small, your brain starts thinking, “OK, I can do this. I’m not that bad.”
For example, if you are on a trek and cannot muster the energy to proceed, you have to recall a past challenge you successfully completed. Such a thought will motivate you to push your body to the limits.
A small dose of confidence is all that you need to overcome the barrier in your head.
Learned helplessness is one of your unconscious behaviors which is hard to deal with.
- Firstly, spotting it in yourself takes mindfulness and self-awareness. If you’re in denial of your emotions, you’ll fail to notice how much damage it’s causing you.
- Second, even if you spot it in yourself, accepting that your limiting beliefs are holding you back takes humility. Many people deny that their ability to achieve results is due to their mindset. They justify their inability to reach their goals using one external fact or another.
- Third, even if you spot and accept learned helplessness in yourself, fixing the root cause isn’t straightforward. You will need to have the discipline to change your formed habits and the patience to wait for the results to show.
All in all, breaking the shackles of learned helplessness takes mental fortitude. Will you set yourself free or will you allow learned helplessness to tell you that you cannot solve learned helplessness?
Greenwood, B. N., & Fleshner, M. (2008, February 26). Exercise, Learned Helplessness, and the Stress-Resistant Brain. NeuroMolecular Medicine. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12017-008-8029-y.
3 methods to overcome learned helplessness and boost optimism. Psychology Compass. (2020, September 17). https://psychologycompass.com/blog/overcoming-learned-helplessness/.
Forgeard, M. J. C., Haigh, E. A. P., Beck, A. T., Davidson, R. J., Henn, F. A., Maier, S. F., … Seligman, M. E. P. (2011, December). Beyond Depression: Towards a Process-Based Approach to Research, Diagnosis, and Treatment. Clinical psychology : a publication of the Division of Clinical Psychology of the American Psychological Association. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3325764/.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.