Learned Helplessness is “Just” a Way of Thinking

learned helplessness

Thoughts are just thoughts.

Learned helplessness happens when people expect that bad events will happen and that there is nothing they can do to prevent them from happening (Holt et al., 2012). Learned helplessness has been demonstrated in a number of experimental studies. This helplessness represents a certain kind of thinking.

Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale (1978) argue that people may attribute failures, or success for that matter, to different causes. The authors label these as attribution styles, i.e. ways of thinking.

Attribution styles can either be stable or unstable, global or specific, internal or external. If people have “learned to be helpless” in certain situations, they may adopt a negative attribution style.

A negative attribution style may look like this: Failures are internal (“It’s all my fault”), stable (“I’ll always be this way” – notice how this statement is linked to learned helplessness), and global (“I’m a total loser”). Their sense of helplessness places them at a greater risk for developing depression (Holt et al., 2012).

In contrast, a person with a positive attribution style may think like this: Failures are external (“it’s their fault”), unstable (“this only happens because of the circumstances”) and specific (“I would have succeeding under other circumstances”).

It is clear that this attribution style contributes to better mental health or resilience. Personality traits are likely to influence people’s cognitive styles or attribution styles. For example,  people who are pessimistic tend to catastrophize.

People may have very different experiences, regarding their failures and successes, as a consequence of their unique attribution styles or ways of thinking. This means that learned helplessness is a product of one’s perception.

The good thing about this is that perceptions may change. They partly do so on the basis of experience, but some cognitive strategies may help improve negative or catastrophic thinking as well.

The fact that perceptions and reality are two very different phenomena cannot be emphasized enough. The following quote illustrates this point:

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.” – Buddha

Image: Airik Lopez
  • great article, laid out the learned helplessness theory in clear, easy to follow principles… thanks !

  • Helen

    I agree what you say but what if you aren’t of a learned helplessness but seem surrounded by it who is going to come to your rescue. One person can do nothing unless they have exceptional influence. People often highlight that sort of thing and it sinks in a sea of apathy and learned helplessness.

    • Hi, Helen. I am not sure I fully understand your question, but I’ll try to give an answer anyway. You say that a person can do nothing unless they have exceptional influence. You are right about the fact that things can be difficult to change and that it takes a great effort sometimes. I do not agree that people need to have exceptional influence to make a change. In my view, all people are capable of making changes. However, some people may have learned through experience that when they try to do so, they are likely to fail. This is what learned helplessness is about. My point is that even though experience contributes to the ways we think, we still have the capacity to change or improve it. After all, thoughts are just thoughts. Of course, it might not be an easy task to do so, but it is worth investing one’s energy in since it is a way of regaining a sense of personal control, which is so important with respect to mental health. Regards, Simon.

  • Pingback: Do You Have a Fixed or a Growth Mindset? Begin to Focus on Growth and Achieve Success | Reflectd()