Learned helplessness



5 minutes


Shane Parrish of Farnam Street wrote about learned helplessness and, as most of his articles would, it made me reflect on the topic.

If you are unfamiliar with learned helplessness, it is a behaviour in which an organism experienced negative stimuli, and becomes so numb to it that they will not avoid it subsequently even if they have the option to.

The experiments

Martin Seligman and Steve Maier conducted the most well-known study on this behaviour. I quote the summarised version from Farnam. Check Wikipedia for a detailed account of their experiments.

Seligman and Maier divided the dogs into three groups. The dogs in the first group were placed in a harness and administered an electric shock but were also given a lever they could press to make the shock stop. The dogs in the second group were placed in an identical harness and were given the same lever, and the same shock, with one catch: the lever didn’t work, rendering the dog powerless to do anything about the electric shock. The third group of dogs were simply placed in the harness and not given any shocks.

Afterwards, each dog was placed in a large box with a low divider across the center. One side of the box produced an electric shock; the other did not. Then something interesting happened. The dogs that either had been able to stop the shock or had not been shocked at all in the earlier part of the experiment quickly learned to step over the divider to the side without shocks. But the dogs that had been powerless in the last part of the experiment did not. These dogs didn’t adapt or adjust. They did nothing to try to avoid getting shocked. Why? They didn’t know they had any choice other than to take the shocks. They had learned helplessness.

How it manifests

A very common example is how a student becomes discouraged to work hard after repeated failures, such as a mathematically challenged child. They will start to think what is the point of studying hard if they will end up doing badly anyway?

People decide not to vote because their previous votes did not amount to significant changes or improvements. They have come to accept that their vote would not make a difference and surrender to their sense of helplessness. A person might fail at asking someone they like out on a date a few times. Eventually they give up and think that they are unlikeable.

Sometimes the seeds are planted in our childhood. We fare badly in our tests and exams compared to our classmates, and our parents tell us that our classmates are smarter and we are stupid. Such self doubt grow with time as we encounter more failures in similar circumstances. In time, we surrender and think of ourselves as being less intelligent.

I have encountered people who would regard graduates highly because they did not manage to gain entrance to university for one reason or another. They perceive graduates as an upper class by virtue of having a higher qualification, and think of themselves as being at a lower level. They were unable to progress academically and surrender to the education system, and become resigned to taking on jobs that their qualifications, or rather the lack of, allow them to.

Compare these to people who are not restrained by their qualifications. People like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of school but built their tech empires because they had a vision.

“That’s my life. It’s my fate. Nothing I can do about it.”

Some attribute the sense of helplessness to fate. They are fated not to be able to do what they want to pursue. While some situations are completely out of our hands, most of the time the limiting factor is a lack of willpower on our part. It all boils down to how badly do you want something and what are you willing to sacrifice for your goal.

Learned helplessness can also play a more subtle role in our social interaction. Inter-religion or inter-racial relationships and marriages are frowned upon because of perceived taboo. People exhibit learned helplessness when they love someone but force themselves to end the relationship because of religious reasons. They find themselves helpless victims of circumstances and allow themselves to be constrained by perceived barriers.

We forget that we have a choice. We are so used to thinking that we have no alternatives available to us that we blindly work within the imaginary boundaries that we perceive. Just like the dogs in the experiment, we forget that we can choose not to do something if we dislike it.

How to deal with it

Fear plays a big part in learned helplessness. Fear of being different. Fear of the forbidden. Our fears become a cage that traps us. Yet, if we open our eyes and look, we would see that the door of the cage is open, waiting for us to walk out.

The first step out of the cage that learned helplessness put us in, is to open our eyes. Be aware of learned helplessness and reflect upon our response to it. Awareness lets you recognise the cage and helps you find the open door.

Work to overcome learned helplessness. You forgot that you had a choice. Remembering that you get to choose helps break you out of the cage. Weight the options and then make the best choice.

In the face of adversity, we need to be strong and not give up because we lose hope. Be stubborn and persist, and you might just find success.

That said, we need to know when to be flexible too. Kenny Rogers summed it up:

“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away, know when to run.”—Kenny Rogers

Take some time to reflect upon yourself. Have you had situations where you displayed learned helplessness? I know I have. Are there any current aspects of your life that is due to learned helplessness? Spot these and find a way to get yourself out of the cage.

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