Learned helplessness was discovered by Martin Seligman at the university of Pennsylvania. Seligman was conducting behaviourist style experiments on dogs, when he discovered that dogs placed in a position of helplessness learn about their helplessness and then give up all hope.
What is learned helplessness?
“The realisation or belief of helplessness such that the organism afflicted gives up all attempts to combat the adverse stimuli.”
Seligman wanted to see what would happen if dogs were put in a position where some of the dogs could learn to escape and some of them could not.
Part one of Seligman’s experiment included 3 groups of dogs.
Group 1 was a control group were the dogs were simply placed in a harness and then later removed.
Group 2 had control over the electric shocks they received, they could learn to press the lever to stop the shocks.
Group 3 did not have control of the electric shocks they received. Group 3 was connected to group 2, when group 2 received a shock, so did group 3, thus when a dog in group 2 stopped the electric shock by pressing the level group 3 also stopped being shocked.
Group 3 were the only group to display symptoms like clinical depression, which is indicative of learned helplessness.
Examples of Learned Helplessness:
Depression is perhaps the most common place where learned helplessness can be found. People diagnosed with depression can often develop such symptoms as Anhedonia and alongside their depression they can also develop learned helplessness, they feel that there is nothing they can do to cure their feelings of hopelessness, so they just give up.
People who have been kidnapped often develop learned helplessness as they believe that they cannot escape, and thus give up.
Students often develop learned helplessness, especially if they have tried really hard to achieve high grades, but then they only achieve low grade. If the student has developed learned helplessness they may claim to not be smart enough as they did everything they needed to do, but in the end failed, so they therefore feel that they will always fail.
Video of Learned Helplessness: