How we learn to be helpless—and unlearn it
Learned helplessness keeps people in bad jobs, poor health, terrible relationships, and awful circumstances despite how easy it may be to escape. Learn how to defeat this psychological trap, thanks to the work of Martin Seligman.
In the late 1960s, psychologist Martin Seligman was a graduate student working on an unexplored aspect of behaviorism.
Psychology had already tapped into the power of rewards and punishments to shape behavior, and conditioning as a whole was coming into sharp focus, but Seligman and his colleagues wondered if learning in this way could be sped up through preparation.
You’ve likely seen this idea portrayed in movies. In the Karate Kid, for instance, our hero spends weeks sanding the floors and waxing the car of his sensei thinking it is all some kind of endurance and frustration test to see if is willing to stick around and learn sweet martial arts moves. When Mr. Miyagi finally started teaching him how to block punches and kicks, Daniel-san was able to learn those techniques rapidly because all that boring, repetitive busywork had prepared his body to make similar motions.
Seligman wondered if an animal could be prepared to learn something before it actually experienced the learning process. The hypothesis was that if you prepared an animal ahead of time, it would learn faster than if you had not. To explore this, his team did a sort of Pavlovian exercise in which they played a tone and then shocked dogs with electricity so that those animals would learn to connect the tone to the experience. The idea was that in the future those dogs could be conditioned more easily than dogs that had never been taught to fear electric shocks after hearing a sound. This is, of course, not something that would happen in a modern lab. Psychology is a lot less cruel and creepy now. But be warned, the next stage was even more more cruel and more creepy.
The scientists then set up an enclosure called a shuttle box. The floor on both sides of a shuttle box can become electrified independently, and between the two sides there is a short wall. Normally, when a trainer plays a sound or turns on a light or shouts a command and then turns on the floor underneath an animal, that animal quickly figures out it can jump over the wall to the safe side of the box. Then the trainer produces another signal, shocks the other side, and the animal jumps back over. After just a few of these trials, most animals catch on and can be taught to jump over the wall on command without the shocks.
Seligman and his colleagues figured that dogs who had learned to expect an electric shock would learn at a faster pace than what they called “naive” dogs who had received no preparation, but that’s not what happened.
When his team put control dogs in the box, the ones that had never been trained or prepared in any way, they scrambled around frantically once the floor was turned on, and they eventually discovered that the other side of the room was always the place to go, and those dogs, after a few trials, easily learned to jump the wall. In fact, those dogs learned to wait patiently at the edge of the wall and immediately leap over the second they heard the signal. The other dogs, the ones that had already been conditioned by receiving electric shocks after a tone, didn’t learn faster as predicted – in fact, they didn’t learn at all. They didn’t even try to jump the wall. They just lay down, curled up on the floor, whined and took it. After hundreds of trials, 95 percent of the naive control dogs learned to jump the wall compared to just a quarter of the prepared ones.
Seligman and his team coined the term learned helplessness to explain what was happening; the prepared dogs couldn’t learn to escape a bad situation because there was previous knowledge in their heads blocking their brain’s path to that epiphany – they had learned to be helpless.
To be sure, Seligman’s team then designed a second set of experiments just to explore this newly discovered behavioral phenomenon. In the new experiment they prepared three groups of dogs. One group was placed in a harness for a little while, and then allowed to go free. That was the control group. The second group was placed in a harness in front of a lever. Those dogs then received electric shocks but eventually learned they could press the lever with their noses to end them. And the third group was placed in harness in front a lever, but the lever didn’t do anything at all. Instead, they were wired up to the second group of dogs, so whenever the second group got shocked, so did the third group. The third group had no control over when the shocks ended. Instead, they had to wait on the second group to figure it out. They not only learned the shocks came and went at random, but that the lever was a waste of time.
When Seligman put those three groups in the room with the electric floors and wall, groups one and two quickly learned to jump over the wall when the tone alerted them to incoming shocks. The third group did not. Instead, they curled up on the floor and whimpered. The previous experiment had taught them there was no point in trying to figure out a pattern. It was as if they thought bad things just happen sometimes, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Even though they could have escaped the pain, they didn’t even try.
In this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, we explore the implications of Seligman’s work when it comes to human behavior and the insights gained by psychology concerning learned helplessness in the decades since. Stuck in a bad situation, even when the prison doors are left wide open, we sometimes refuse to attempt escape. The evidence suggests that learned helplessness in people is connected to the pessimistic attributional style. In this episode, you’ll learn how it keeps people in bad jobs, poor health, terrible relationships, and awful circumstances despite how easy it might be to escape any one of those scenarios.
Best of all, you’ll learn how to defeat this psychological trap with advice from psychologists Jennifer Welbourne, who studies attributional styles in the workplace, and Kym Bennett who studies the effects of pessimism on health.
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