Learned Helplessness: Definition, Causes, Impacts & Overcoming It

Stuck in a loop of defeat, even when escape is possible? This puzzling behavior is the realm of learned helplessness, a phenomenon that reveals much about the human psyche. Dive in to unravel its mysteries!

Key Takeaways

  • Learned helplessness is a psychological state that can lead to emotional and behavioral symptoms.
  • The concept has been applied to various contexts, including children, domestic violence, and animal behavior.
  • Understanding the factors contributing to learned helplessness can help in developing coping strategies and interventions to overcome it.

What is Learned Helplessness?

Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon where you believe that you have no control over a situation, leading to feelings of helplessness and depression.

This can occur after experiencing repeated failures or uncontrollable events. In this section, we will explore different aspects of learned helplessness to help you better understand this concept.

When you experience learned helplessness, your motivation to change the situation decreases. This happens because you perceive your efforts as futile and develop negative expectations of future outcomes. This state may cause some behavioral changes that hinder learning, adapting, and problem-solving.

Historical Background

Seligman’s Theory

It’s the late 1960s, and psychologist Martin Seligman is delving into the world of behavior. He proposes that animals can learn to become helpless.

Specifically, when they experience events beyond their control, they start to believe that they have no power to change the situation, even if that’s not the case.

Seligman’s theory hinges on the notion that it’s not just the unpleasant events themselves that cause this feeling but the perceived lack of control. When you repeatedly face challenging situations and see no way out, you might start to believe you’re powerless. That’s learned helplessness.

Experiments on Dogs

To test his theory, Seligman and his team conducted experiments on dogs. They placed these dogs in harnesses and subjected them to harmless shocks. Some dogs had the ability to stop these shocks using a lever, while others didn’t.

The dogs that couldn’t control the shocks eventually stopped trying, even when later placed in a situation where they could easily escape. They had, in essence, learned to be helpless.

It’s crucial to remember that this experiment had significant ethical considerations, but it provided valuable insights into behavior and the effects of uncontrollable events.

Steven F. Maier

Steven F. Maier, an influential researcher in the field, expanded our understanding of learned helplessness by showing that the brain plays a crucial role in this phenomenon.

Maier’s research demonstrated that certain brain structures, such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, contribute to an individual’s ability to learn helplessness.

Maier’s worked alongside Seligman to establish the neural basis of learned helplessness, highlighting the importance of both environmental factors and individual brain processes in shaping this response.

Their research has contributed significantly to the understanding of how people and animals respond to repeated, uncontrollable adverse events and has later been applied to the study of depression and other mental health disorders.

Psychological Theories and Mechanisms

Role of Attribution Theory

When you face negative events, the way you explain them to yourself plays a significant role in how you feel and react. The Attribution Theory delves into how you make sense of these events. If you consistently see bad events as permanent, pervasive, and personal, you’re more likely to experience learned helplessness.

For instance, if you believe that failing a test means you’re unintelligent (permanent), bad at all subjects (pervasive), and that it’s entirely your fault (personal), then you’re applying a negative attribution style.

Over time, if you consistently apply this style, you might stop trying to succeed because you feel nothing will change.

Conversely, if you interpret the failure as due to lack of study for that particular test (temporary), specific to one subject (specific), and influenced by external factors like distractions (external), then you have a more adaptive attribution style. This style can shield you from developing learned helplessness.

Role of Cognitive Appraisal

Your mental evaluation or interpretation of situations, known as cognitive appraisal, greatly influences your emotional and behavioral responses. There are two main stages: primary appraisal and secondary appraisal.

In the primary appraisal, you assess the significance of an event. You determine if it’s a threat, a challenge, or irrelevant to you. If you consistently see events as threats or harmful, this can pave the way for feelings of helplessness.

Secondary appraisal involves evaluating your coping resources and options. If you often feel that you lack the tools or skills to handle a situation, learned helplessness can set in.

For example, if faced with a difficult task, and you believe there’s nothing in your arsenal to tackle it, you might give up even before trying.

Causes and Triggers of Learned Helplessness

Negative Experiences and Traumatic Events

Imagine you’re constantly exposed to situations where no matter how hard you try, you can’t change the outcome. Over time, you might start to believe that you have no control over any situation. That’s what happens with learned helplessness.

Repeated negative experiences and traumatic events play a significant role in this. For example:

  • Continuous Failure: If you face repeated failures and setbacks, even when you put in effort, you might start to think that success is out of reach for you.
  • Unpredictable Environments: Growing up or living in an environment where things change suddenly and without any predictability can make you feel you have no control over your surroundings.
  • Traumatic Situations: Experiencing traumatic events, like accidents or abuse, can often make you feel powerless, leading to learned helplessness.

Developmental Stages and Susceptibility

Your age and the stage of life you’re in can also determine how susceptible you are to learned helplessness. Here’s how:

  • Early Childhood: Children who face neglect, inconsistent discipline, or a lack of encouragement can develop a belief that they’re powerless. This feeling can stick with them as they grow up, affecting their mindset and behavior in adulthood.
  • Adolescence: This is a critical period where self-esteem and self-worth are often in flux. Teenagers exposed to continuous criticism or a lack of support can easily develop feelings of helplessness.
  • Adulthood: Even as adults, if you’re consistently put down or face insurmountable challenges without support, you might begin to feel you lack the power to change things.

Learned Helplessness in Children

As a parent or caregiver, it’s essential to understand learned helplessness in children. This phenomenon occurs when a child feels unable to change a negative situation, despite having the ability to do so. It can result from overparenting, childhood neglect, or other factors.

Ways to Help Children Cope With Learned Helplessness

  1. Recognize Signs: Watch for avoidance, easy surrender, or frustration during challenges. Address these early to protect their mental well-being.
  2. Promote Independence: Allow children to make decisions and bear consequences. Limit overparenting and let them handle issues on their own, building their problem-solving skills.
  3. Value Effort Over Outcome: Praise their hard work and process rather than just outcomes. Teach them to see mistakes as learning moments, fostering a growth mindset.
  4. Provide Support: Offer guidance when needed, suggesting tips or examples, but let them lead in problem-solving.
Remember: As a parent or caregiver, playing an active role in recognizing and addressing learned helplessness in children is critical for promoting their well-being. 

Connection to Domestic Violence

In the context of domestic violence, learned helplessness plays a significant role in a victim’s experience and response to abuse. When you’re continuously exposed to harmful behaviors like emotional, physical, or verbal abuse in a relationship, you might try to resist, stand up for yourself, or seek assistance.

But if every attempt is met with more threats or escalated aggression, over time, you might start to believe there’s no way out.

Often, this perception isn’t a reflection of reality but is the result of continuous suppression and manipulation by the abuser. By constantly stifling any attempt you make to change or improve your situation, the abuser deepens your belief that escape or change is unattainable.

This mindset can become a self-imposed barrier, making it challenging to recognize opportunities for escape or intervention.

Recognizing the link between learned helplessness and domestic violence provides valuable insight. It offers context to friends, family, and professionals, emphasizing the importance of external support.

It’s not just about a victim wanting to leave or change their situation; they might genuinely feel trapped. With the right assistance and understanding, breaking free from this cycle and reclaiming one’s life becomes achievable.

Concept of Learned Optimism

As the name suggests, learned optimism is a concept introduced by Martin Seligman where individuals learn to cultivate an optimistic attitude for better hope and self-efficacy.

This theory contrasts with learned helplessness, where individuals believe they have no control over their circumstances and succumb to feelings of powerlessness.

To develop learned optimism, consider these tips:

  1. Reframe negative thoughts: When you face challenges, try to reframe your thought process by focusing on the positive aspects and finding solutions instead of dwelling on the negative side of things.
  2. Embrace self-compassion: Be kind to yourself when things don’t go as planned. Accept your mistakes and move forward with the lessons learned.
  3. Set realistic goals: Break down your goals into smaller, achievable steps to foster a sense of accomplishment and motivation.
Practical Example: Imagine you're working on a project that doesn't meet the deadline. Instead of letting pessimistic thoughts overwhelm you, analyze the situation, identify the problems, and come up with concrete steps to improve your approach in the future.

Impacts of Learned Helplessness

Psychological Impact

  1. Depression: A pervasive feeling of hopelessness and despair stemming from the belief that one’s actions cannot bring about positive change.
  2. Low Self-Esteem: A decreased sense of self-worth and self-confidence due to repeated failures or perceived lack of control.
  3. Anxiety: Heightened feelings of nervousness or worry, especially in situations reminiscent of past uncontrollable events.
  4. Reduced Motivation: A decline in the drive to take action stemming from the belief that efforts won’t result in positive outcomes.
  5. Passivity: Avoidance of taking action, even in situations where action might be beneficial, due to a deeply ingrained belief of powerlessness.
  6. Cognitive Impairment: Difficulties in learning or a tendency to generalize feelings of helplessness across different scenarios, even when control is possible.
  7. Decreased Achievement and Performance: Reduced performance in academic, professional, or other settings due to the belief that one’s efforts won’t change outcomes.

Behavioral Impact

  1. Decreased Problem-Solving Ability: Those experiencing learned helplessness often have difficulty recognizing solutions even when they are apparent.
  2. Avoidance Behavior: Individuals may avoid situations or tasks where they anticipate failure, even if they haven’t attempted them before.
  3. Reduced Effort and Motivation: People might not try as hard to change a situation because they believe their efforts won’t make a difference.
  4. Passivity: They might passively endure negative situations without attempting to escape or change them.
  5. Decreased Emotional Well-being: Learned helplessness can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
  6. Cognitive Consequences: There can be a persistent negative attributional style where individuals attribute failures to personal, global, and permanent causes.
  7. Impaired Social Functioning: They might withdraw from social situations or relationships due to fear of repeated failure or the belief that they cannot affect outcomes.

Overcoming Learned Helplessness

Building Resilience

To overcome learned helplessness, it is essential to develop resilience. This allows you to bounce back from setbacks and face challenges with confidence. Some ways to build resilience include:

  • Practicing Self-Care: Taking care of your physical and emotional needs will help maintain your well-being and provide a foundation for overcoming challenges.
  • Developing Independence: Learn to rely on yourself and trust your abilities, gaining self-confidence in the process.

Move From Passivity to Action

Transitioning from a passive to an active mindset is a crucial step in overcoming learned helplessness. Try the following strategies:

  • Set Attainable Goals: Break down larger objectives into smaller, manageable tasks, celebrating your accomplishments along the way.
  • Focus on What You Can Control: Instead of dwelling on things beyond your control, shift your attention to areas where you can make a difference.

Seeking Professional Help

If you’re struggling to overcome learned helplessness on your own, consider seeking professional help from a therapist or counselor. They can provide guidance and resources to help you:

  • Identify and Change Negative Thought Patterns: A therapist can help you recognize and reframe negative thoughts that contribute to learned helplessness.
  • Develop Coping Strategies: A professional can provide techniques to cope with stressors and enhance your problem-solving skills.

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

As you found this post useful...

Share it on social media!

We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!

Let us improve this post!

Tell us how we can improve this post?


Talkspace is an innovative online therapy platform that connects you with licensed therapists, offering accessible mental health support right from your device. With flexible scheduling and a user-friendly interface, it empowers you to manage your well-being anytime, anywhere.


Photo of author

Brenda Calisaan is a psychology graduate who strongly desires to impact society positively. She aspires to spread awareness and knowledge about mental health, its importance, and its impact on individuals and society.

She also has a passion for working with children and hopes to dedicate her career to positively impacting their lives.

Outside of work, Brenda is an avid traveler and enjoys exploring new experiences. She is also a music enthusiast and loves to listen to a variety of genres. When she's not on the road or working, Brenda can often be found watching interesting YouTube videos, such as Ted-Ed content.