Learned Helplessness

Learned Helplessness

Learned Helplessness is a condition in which a human/animal has learnt to behave helplessly, failing to remove themselves from an unpleasant circumstance, or to seek reward.

Learned Helplessness Theory of depression is the view that clinical depression is caused by people learning that they have no control over the negative events in their life.

Controllability Experiment

Seligman, 1975, placed two groups of dogs into electric-floor boxes:

  • Group 1: Controllable shock, escapable by pressing a lever
  • Group 2: Uncontrollable shock, nothing they could do

He then tested the dogs by placing them in another box, this time with a partition they could jump to escape:

  • Group 1: Learned to jump the partition
  • Group 2: Gave up and lay down, without trying

The symptoms of the group 2 (depressed) dogs mimicked a major depressive episode (passivity, loss of pleasure, weight loss, etc).

Symptoms of LH can be rectified with antidepressants (evidence for theory of learned helplessness).

LH and Cognitive Theory

Not all dogs exposed to uncontrollable shock developed LH. Perhaps because of the belief aspect - without irrational maladaptive thought processes, depression will not develop.