learned helplessness

Did I get your attention? Most people already know about learned helplessness. Some people have been on the receiving end for decades! It’s not exclusively a relationship problem. It’s the most common cause of long-term frustration that there is! They just didn’t know there was a phrase for it.

Learned helplessness has been studied extensively on lab rats and dogs. Please try to looks past the cruelty of the tests. To help you to do so, please remember that humans have been going through these ‘tests’ for centuries. The only difference is that the lab animals go through physical pain, whereas human go through emotional pain. The results are still the same. They ‘learn’ that nothing that they do will change the situation, therefore they give up trying!

Below is an extract from Wikipedia

Learned helplessness is behavior typical of a human or non-human animal and occurs where an animal endures repeatedly painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which it is unable to escape or avoid. After such experience, the organism often fails to learn or accept “escape” or “avoidance” in new situations where such behavior would likely be effective. In other words, the organism learned that it is helpless in situations where there is a presence of aversive stimuli and has accepted that it has lost control, and thus gives up trying. Such an organism is said to have acquired learned helplessness. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from such real or perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.

Learned Helplessness was discovered in 1967. Since then, this test has been repeated thousands of times worldwide. These tests differ slightly but all reach a similar outcome. A description of one of these tests is as follows.

Dogs called Group ‘A’ were locked in a cage. A bell was rung followed by electric shock. (the floor was electrified) The dogs were conditioned to learn that when the bell would ring, there was no escaping the electric shock that followed.

After this conditioning, they were placed in a cage that was divided into two rooms. A low wall that the dogs could easily jump over divided these rooms. Again, the bell was rung and again the floor was electrified but in ONE ROOM ONLY. The dogs could have easily escaped their fate. However, they didn’t try. They simply accepted what they thought was inevitable. These dogs simply laid down and allowed the electric shock to hurt them!

The second group of dogs (group B) was also locked into this room. They all quickly learned that they can escape the electric shock by jumping into the other room. They did this because they were not ‘taught’ that electric shock was inevitable and there was nothing they could do to escape it. They did not learn to be helpless the way that group A dogs were taught to be.

Again, please try to look past the cruelty. Instead of focusing on the physical pain of electric shock of the learned helplessness tests, (in the past) think about the emotional pain that is currently happening. Many of these common events ‘trap’ people in the same way as the learned helplessness tests. This trapped feeling is the main cause of depression that can lead to suicide!

Learned Helplessness is interesting. However, that’s not the main point of this article. In order to explain what I really want to talk about, I’ll first repeat what I said before.

Most people already know about a bit about learned helplessness. Some people have been on the receiving end for decades! However, they could be on the ‘dishing out’ end without even realizing it! They could be actually ‘teaching’ their spouse, children, or employees to NOT try to please them! During this time, their frustration builds. Therefore they try harder to get their spouse, children, …etc to please them. What they actually do is to strengthen their (spouse’s) belief that trying to please them is futile! THEREFORE THEY STOP TRYING!¬†They do the same thing as the dog. they ‘lay’ down and accept the inevitable!

Example 1

Sam and Mary have been unhappily married for 10 years. Sam has learned that 80% of the time that he talks to Marry, it results are a criticism against Sam. Mary has also learned that there is very little that she could do to please Sam. Both have given up trying.

Sam and Mary are so focused that they’re on the receiving end that they believe to be justified at ‘dishing it out’.

“Perhaps I am dishing it out. However, I’m not doing it ANYWHERE NEAR as much as she’s doing it to me”. THEREFORE SHE’S MAKING ME REACT THIS WAY!

The problem with this attitude is that our vision isn’t accurate. Whatever we’re receiving looks magnified (to us) and what we’re dishing out looks much smaller than what it is.

Example 2

Steve is exasperated at his son John. John is so lethargic. He seems to be uncaring about anything and everything! John walks around in a daze like a zombie. John has learned that there is NOTHING that he could do that will get any approval from his dad.

Unless you understand about learned helplessness, you may be very good at motivating people to give up! You may be doing the complete opposite of what you’re trying to do!


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