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Learned Helplessness

Martin Seligman is responsible for the Learned Helplessness theory which had a major influence on psychological research into depression in the 1970s. Seligman discovered helplessness by accident whilst studying the effects of inescapable shock on active avoidance learning in dogs.

Seligman restrained dogs in a Pavlovian harness and administered several shocks (UCS) paired with a conditioned stimulus (CS) - this is the conventional CS-UCS pairing procedure used to study Classical Conditioning . Then these dogs were placed in a shuttle-box where they could avoid shock by jumping over a barrier. The shuttle-box was used to study the role of Operant Conditioning in learning. Most of the dogs failed to learn to avoid shock.

Seligman argued that prior exposure to inescapable shock interfered with the ability to learn in a situation where avoidance or escape was possible. Seligman used the term, 'Learned Helplessness', to describe this phenomenon.

It is important to emphasise that helplessness is not an all-or-none phenomenon. Seligman studied the behaviour of about 150 dogs between 1965 and 1969. About 100 (2/3rds) were helpless after the administration of unavoidable electric shock in the Pavlovian situation. The remaining 1/3rd were completely normal and learned to avoid shock in the avoidance learning test. There was no intermediate outcome - dogs either learnt to avoid, or passively accepted shock in the shuttle-box. Furthermore, about 5% of naive dogs that had never received inescapable shock, exhibited helplessness when first exposed to shock in the Operant learning situation.

The central idea in the
Learned Helplessness theory is the notion that all animals (including humans) are able to learn that reinforcers are uncontrollable. This marks a sharp change in direction from previous studies of learning which had focussed on learning in controllable situations (Seligman,1992).

It is important to appreciate that although cognition is at the heart of Seligman's theory, learned helplessness affects other psychological processes:-

Learned Helplessness and Human Depression

Seligman argues that there are similarities between the symptoms of Depression in humans and helplessness...

Symptoms of Depression

Corresponding symptom in Learned Helplessness

depressed mood


lack of interest in, and pleasure from, almost all activities

cognitive representation of uncontrollability

decreased appetite leading to weight loss

helpless animals eat less and loose weight

insomnia or hypersomnia

I know of no study on this point

psychomotor agitation or retardation

helpless animals are passive in face of shock

feeling without energy

lack of response initiation

feelings of worthlessness and guilt

perception that individual cannot control their environment

inability to think clearly or concentrate effectively, indecisiveness

cognitive representation of uncontrollability

thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts

helpless animals may die in traumatic situations


Paul Kenyon

This is an extract from the page, ‘Depression & Learned Helplessness’, by Dr Paul Kenyon from his Studying & Learning Materials Online (SALMON) web site which he writes and maintains on behalf of the University of Plymouth Department of Psychology.

Copyright © 2006 Paul Kenyon