Posts Tagged ‘learned helplessness’

Are you feeling helpless?

by Vijay Peduru on February 15, 2010

Many times in our life, we feel stuck or helpless when we encounter a situation.  We would have encountered this same situation before but when we tried to control it, we couldn’t, so we accepted that it cannot be controlled.  When the situation occurs again we think we are helpless and are resigned about it. This is called “Learned Helplessness” i.e we have learnt to be helpless and we get depressed. As grim this might sound, there is a silver lining to it – Since we have learnt to be helpless we can also unlearn it and come out of it.


Martin Seligson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of several books including “Learned Optimism” did some interesting experiments on Learned Helplessness. They took a few dogs and divided them into two separate groups. The first group was given a electric shock and if they pressed a lever the shock stopped.  The second group was wired parallel to the first group. i.e when the shock was given it goes to both the groups at the same time,  but for the second group their lever didn’t stop the electric shock. It stopped when the first group pressed the lever.  For the second group, the shocks appeared to start and end at random and they  learnt that they cannot do anything to control the shocks and learnt to be helpless.
They took the same set of dogs and this time placed them in a different setting, This time, instead of a lever, they put a low partition in front of them, so they can jump out. When they gave the shocks the second group which learnt to be helpless simply lay down passively and whined even though their escape was just in front of them.
This is the same with humans. We can be trained to be in “Learned Helplessness” mode… How do we get out of this?


There are 2 ways.


1. Recognize this mindset: Whenever you are feeling helpless, remember that this may be “Learned Helplessness”. Many times we are not aware of this at all. It all happens unconsciously. Now you know what “Learned Helplessness” is , you can recognize this in yourself when you encounter it.
2. Be Optimistic : Once you notice “learned Helplessness” in yourself, the way to come out of this is learn to be optimistic. Martin Seligson in his experiments found that in the second set of dogs, Some dogs did not become helpless, but instead managed to find a way out of the unpleasant situation despite their past experience with it. This characteristic was found to correlate highly with the human character .. optimism.


Recheck your attitude and be optimistic..