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Learned helplessness is a mental state in which an organism forced to endure aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are escapable, presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation. Organisms that have been ineffective and less sensitive in determining the consequences of their behaviour are defined as having acquired learned helplessness.
The US psychologist Martin Seligman's painful animal experiments and theory of learned helplessness began at the University of Pennsylvania in 1967, as an extension of his interest in depression. Quite by accident, Seligman and colleagues discovered that the conditioning of dogs led to outcomes that opposed the predictions of B.F. Skinner's behaviorism, then a leading psychological theory.
In learned helplessness studies, an animal is repeatedly exposed to an aversive stimulus which it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal stops trying to avoid the stimulus and behaves as if it is helpless to change the situation. When opportunities to escape become available, learned helplessness means the animal does not take any action.
In Part 1 of Seligman and Steve Maier's experiment, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses. Group 1 dogs were simply put in the harnesses for a period of time and later released. Groups 2 and 3 consisted of "yoked pairs." A dog in Group 2 would be intentionally subjected to pain by being given electric shocks, which the dog could end by pressing a lever. A Group 3 dog was wired in series with a Group 2 dog, receiving shocks of identical intensity and duration, but his lever did not stop the electric shocks. To a dog in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was his paired dog in Group 2 that was causing it to stop. For Group 3 dogs, the shock was apparently "inescapable." Group 1 and Group 2 dogs quickly recovered from the experience, but Group 3 dogs learned to be helpless, and exhibited symptoms similar to chronic clinical depression.
In Part 2 of the Seligman and Maier experiment, these three groups of dogs were tested in a shuttle-box apparatus, in which the dogs could escape electric shocks by jumping over a low partition. For the most part, the Group 3 dogs, who had previously learned that nothing they did had any effect on the shocks, simply lay down passively and whined. Even though they could have easily escaped the shocks, the dogs didn't try. Their lack of attempt was due to an effect called retardation of learning. Learning that response and shock are independent made it more difficult to learn that a response does produce relief by terminating shock. The emotional stress that the dogs experience when learning that the trauma is uncontrollable produced failure to escape.
In a second experiment later that year, Overmier and Seligman ruled out the possibility that the Group 3 dogs learned some behavior in Part 1 of the experiment, while they were struggling in the harnesses against the "inescapable shocks," that somehow interfered with what would have been their normal, successful behavior of escaping from the shocks in Part 2. The Group 3 dogs were immobilized with a paralyzing drug (Curare), and underwent a procedure similar to that in Part 1 of the Seligman and Maier experiment. A similar Part 2 in the shuttle-box was also undertaken in this experiment, and the Group 3 dogs exhibited the same "helpless" response.
There seems to be only one cure for the helplessness in dogs. By Seligman's hypothesis, the dogs do not try to escape because they expect that no instrumental response will produce shock termination. To change their expectation and to recover the dogs from helplessness, experimenters had to physically pick up the dogs and move the legs in a close replication of the physical actions the dogs needed to take to remove themselves from the electrified grid. This had to be replicated at least 2 times before the dogs would exhibit the functional response of jumping over the barrier to get away from the electrified grid. Threats, rewards, and observed demonstrations had no observed effect in helping the dogs to independently move away from the shocks.
Other experiments were performed with different animals with similar results. In all cases, the strongest predictor of a depressive response was lack of control over the aversive stimulus. One such later experiment, presented by Watson & Ramey (1969), consisted of two groups of human babies. One group was placed into a crib with a sensory pillow, designed so that the movement of the baby's head could control the rotation of a mobile. The other group had no control over the movement of the mobile and could only enjoy looking at it. Later, both groups of babies were tested in cribs that allowed the babies to control the mobile. Although all the babies now had the power to control the mobile, only the group that had already learned about the sensory pillow attempted to use it.
A similar experiment was done with people who performed mental tasks in the presence of distracting noise. People who could use a switch to turn off the noise had improved performance, even though they rarely bothered to do so. Simply being aware of this option was enough to substantially counteract its distracting effect. In 2011, an animal study found that animals with control over stress exhibited changes in the excitability of specific neurons within the prefrontal cortex, and modeled this phenomenon in a conductance-based neural simulation. Animals that lacked control failed to exhibit an increase in excitability and showed signs consistent with learned helplessness and social anxiety.
Later research discovered that the original theory of learned helplessness failed to account for people's varying reactions to situations that can cause learned helplessness. Learned helplessness sometimes remains specific to one situation, but at other times generalizes across situations.
An individual's attributional style or explanatory style is the key to understanding why people respond differently to adverse events. Although a group of people may experience the same or similar negative events, how each person privately interprets or explains the event will affect the likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness and subsequent depression.
People with pessimistic explanatory style—which sees negative events as permanent ("it will never change"), personal ("it's my fault"), and pervasive ("I can't do anything correctly")—are most likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression. Cognitive behavioral therapy, heavily endorsed by Seligman, can often help people to learn more realistic explanatory styles, and can help ease depression.
Bernard Weiner's attribution theory (1979, 1985, 1986) concerns the way that people attribute a cause or explanation to an unpleasant event. Attribution theory includes the dimensions of globality/specificity, stability/instability, and internality/externality. A global attribution occurs when the individual believes that the cause of negative events is consistent across different contexts. A specific attribution occurs when the individual believes that the cause of a negative event is unique to a particular situation. A stable attribution occurs when the individual believes the cause to be consistent across time. Unstable attribution occurs when the individual thinks that the cause is specific to one point in time. An external attribution assigns causality to situational or external factors, while an internal attribution assigns causality to factors within the person.
There are several aspects of human helplessness that have no counterpart among animals. One of the most intriguing aspects is "vicarious learning (or modelling)": that people can learn to be helpless through observing another person encountering uncontrollable events.
Apart from the shared depression symptoms between human and other animals such as passivity, introjected hostility, weight loss, appetite loss, social and sexual deficits, some of the diagnostic symptoms of learned helplessness—including depressed mood, feelings of worthlessness, and suicidal ideation—can be found and observed in human beings but not necessarily in other animals. In non-human animal models, control over stress conveys resilience to future uncontrolled stressors and induces changes in the function of specific neurons within the prefrontal cortex.
Research has shown that increased 5-HT (serotonin) activity in the dorsal raphe nucleus plays a critical role in learned helplessness (commonly referred to as conditioned defeat). Other key brain regions that are involved with the expression of helpless behavior include the basolateral amygdala, central nucleus of the amygdala and bed nucleus of the stria terminalis.
Additional sources have concluded that activity in medial prefrontal cortex, dorsal hippocampus, septum and hypothalamus were observed during states of helplessness.
In the article, "Exercise, Learned Helplessness, and the Stress-Resistant Brain", Benjamin N. Greenwood and Monika Fleshner mention how exercise and neurobiology relate in the facet that it can prevent anxiety-related disorders such as depression. Greenwood and Fleshner state, "The underlying neurobiological mechanisms of this effect, however, remain unknown. Identifying the mechanisms by which exercise prevents learned helplessness could shed light on the complex neurobiology of depression and anxiety and potentially lead to novel strategies for the prevention of stress-related mood disorders".
In a fast paced world, especially for college students, stress can eventually alter one's mood or emotions. In the abstract, the authors state the following focuses:
This article also mentions "laboratory rodents" as prime subjects for wheel running and how the specific animal deals with anxiety and depression. "Treadmill training increases muscle enzymatic capacity". What this wheel running does is relieve stress, but time spent on training may not be as important as how specific or intense the training was. It was proven that wheel running did prevent anxiety and stress-related diseases and/or consequences in Greenwood and Fleshner's study. Again, the focus was to determine if or if not wheel running can prevent the onset of depression and "anxiety-like behaviours" in the laboratory rodents.
Regardless of origin, people who see uncontrollable events reliably suffer disruption of emotions, aggressions, physiology, and have difficulties with problem-solving tasks. These helpless experiences can associate with passivity, uncontrollability and poor cognition in people, ultimately threatening their physical and mental well-being.
Learned helplessness can contribute to poor health when people neglect diet, exercise, and medical treatment, falsely believing they have no power to change. The more people perceive events as uncontrollable and unpredictable, the more stress they experience, and the less hope they feel about making changes in their lives.
Stressor controllability is one factor that contributes to physical health when it comes to learned helplessness. Learned helplessness occurs when an animal or human is exposed to stressors that they cannot control. If these stressors are controlled, the phenomenon of learned helplessness does not occur.
Young adults and middle-aged parents with a pessimistic explanatory style are often more likely to suffer from depression. People with a pessimistic explanatory style tend to be poor at problem-solving and cognitive restructuring, and also tend to demonstrate poor job satisfaction and interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Those with a pessimistic explanatory style also tend to have weakened immune systems, and not only have increased vulnerability to minor ailments (e.g., cold, fever) and major illness (e.g., heart attack, cancers), but also have a less effective recovery from health problems.
Someone facing inescapable prejudice (e.g., abuse) may develop learned helplessness and depression as a result. "Helplessness born in the face of inescapable prejudice matches the helplessness born in the face of inescapable shocks."
Abnormal and cognitive psychologists have looked at the correlation of depression and anxiety with learned helplessness over the years. It has been shown that the symptoms shown with learned helplessness have corresponding symptoms in depression. The symptoms most feel when depressed give the feeling of helplessness and uncontrollability that have been correlated with learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness can also be a motivational problem. Individuals who have failed at tasks in the past conclude erroneously that they are incapable of improving their performance. This might set children behind in academic subjects and dampen their social skills.
Children with learned helplessness typically fail academic subjects, and are less intrinsically motivated than others. In turn, the student will give up trying to gain respect or advancement through academic performance.
Child abuse by neglect can be a manifestation of learned helplessness: when parents believe they are incapable of stopping an infant's crying, they may simply give up trying to do anything for the child.
Another example of learned helplessness in social settings involves loneliness and shyness. Those who are extremely shy, passive, anxious and depressed may learn helplessness to offer stable explanations for unpleasant social experiences. However, Gotlib and Beatty (1985) found that people who cite helplessness in social settings may be viewed poorly by others, resulting in a situation that reinforces the problematic thinking. A third example is aging, when some older people may respond to the deaths of friends and family members, the loss of jobs and income, and the development of age-related health problems by neglecting their medical care needs.
Social problems resulting from learned helplessness may seem unavoidable; however, when induced in experimental settings learned helplessness resolves with the passage of time. Learned helplessness in response to experiences can be prevented or minimized by "immunization" and, when present, may be reversed by therapy. People can be immunized against the perception that events are uncontrollable by increasing their awareness of previous experiences, when they were able to effect a desired outcome. Therapy can instruct people in the fact of contingency and bolster people's self esteem.
Cognitive scientist and usability engineer Donald Norman used learned helplessness to explain why people blame themselves when they have a difficult time using simple objects in their environment.
The US sociologist Harrison White has suggested in his book Identity and Control that the notion of learned helplessness can be extended beyond psychology into the realm of social action. When a culture or political identity fails to achieve desired goals, perceptions of collective ability suffer.