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Learned Helplessness


Imagine yourself doing a piece of work. You give it everything you have. And then you submit it to the boss. The boss looks at it and gives you a lashing. “It’s absolutely terrible”, the boss bellows. You are asked to revise it. You go back, find new information, and revise your work. You resubmit it.

Same reaction. The boss flies into a rage. “This is not good enough!”. This process repeats itself a third, fourth, and fifth time. Finally, it is the end of the day. Your boss passes the work on to another colleague.


The next day, the boss gives you another piece of work. You give it everything you have. But the process repeats itself. You try to do what you can. You get constantly scolded. And the day ends.


On the third day, you are again given a piece of work. What would your reaction be? Would you still believe that you can do it well?


Even though the work on day 3 is completely different from days 1 and 2, you might have been scarred by what happened. And you might give up, you might no longer try as hard, and merely brace yourself to be scolded. You no longer believe that whatever you do can change the outcome.


This is one version of what we term learned helplessness, coined by Martin Seligman from UPenn, from an experiment he did with dogs in 1967. Seligman found out that when dogs were conditioned to believe that they had no control over the outcome, these dogs would give up and bear through pain. This is despite the belief not being true - the pain these dogs go through could have been avoided by a simple action. 

The crux of the experiment is elaborated in the pictures below


When we believe that there is nothing we can do to change an outcome, it becomes debilitating. Not only might we give up on trying in that area, we might extrapolate this into other parts of our lives. We might feel inadequate, lose confidence, and are more inclined to view our experiences negatively, where more of our lives feel like defeat.

There are several ways in which we can overcome learned helplessness. These range from examining our experiences and re-wiring our interpretations, changing thinking patterns, engaging in other activities to build confidence, pleasure, and satisfaction, therapy combined with pharmacology, involving drugs that rebalances neuromodulators in our brain.

All of these methods deserve a chapter by themselves.

But it is also important to recognise how challenging it is for someone who has reached a stage of learned helplessness to really snap out of it by themselves.

To examine this, we go back to Seligman’s experiment with the dogs. Eventually, Seligman managed to help the majority of dogs to snap out of learned helplessness.



He did so by helping and guiding these helpless dogs to go through the correct action that would save them from pain. After several runs of Seligman literally directing the dog through the right sequence of steps, the previously dogs eventually managed to help themselves.

Sometimes, we need that initial helping hand, to save us from drowning. But once we have gotten out of state of completely giving up, we are then in a much better position to help ourselves.

Sometimes, that little helping hand we give truly changes a life.


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