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