What is Learned Helplessness?

What is Learned Helplessness?

Learned Helplessness – is it an epidemic?

Back in the sixties, Dr Martin Seligman and a group of psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a pioneering series of experiments to help to better understand why some people seem unable to pick themselves up when the going gets tough.

Their results were revolutionary!

This is an over-simplification of Seligman’s work but captures the principles from it.

The scientists placed a group of dogs in individual cages from which they could not escape. Once in their cage, the dogs were subjected to a series of uncomfortable electric shocks through the wire mesh floor. Eventually they gave up struggling to escape from their cage and just put up with the shocks.

Later the dogs were placed in a different cage from which they could very easily escape and were again subjected to the same series of electric shocks. Quite unexpectedly, most of the dogs did not move; even though they could now escape, they remained passively in the cage and resigned themselves to even more shocks. Seligman called this state of inertia, even in the face of pain, ‘learned helplessness’.

Seligman later tested this concept of learned helplessness on people. Thoughtfully, he substituted a loud noise for the electric shocks, and instead of imprisonment, he substituted a dummy switch that did not turn off the noise. Once again he found that even when a genuine switch which did control the noise was available, most of the people ignored it.

Now, it is easy for all of us to believe that we would simply have flicked the switch and turned off the horrible noise, but the majority of Seligman’s subjects did not. In fact, they were almost exactly the same proportion as his helpless dogs. Somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of people and dogs learned to be helpless when a significant degree of control of their environment was removed.

What both groups have done is transfer a negative experience into other situations which if consistently repeated reinforces a state of helplessness – hence learned helplessness is a fitting term.

Back in the real world

Like the experimental subjects, the major problem for helpless people is that their present and future actions are based on what they have learnt from the past. Seligman’s work helps us to understand that their life experiences, probably from an early age, will have shaped their understanding of ‘how it is in their world’ and how they use this understanding to live in the here and now, and predict their futures.

Helpless people come to perceive the world in general as a bad place where most things go wrong, most of the time. This state of affairs is further aggravated by the conviction that they are part of the problem. They believe that the dreadful state of the world that they inhabit is largely their fault because there is nothing they can do to put it right. They make statements such as “I can’t do that” or “Everything I touch goes wrong” and, “I used to be confident but I’ve lost it. I can’t remember things. I’m useless”. This toxic trinity of beliefs where the world is a bad place, where everything goes wrong and it’s my fault can lock them into a state of paralysis, condemning them to a life of victimhood. Their focus is turned inwards and it is inevitably on the ‘I’.

Learned helplessness, like every other state, is self-sustaining. It works like this. A lot of us believe we have real or imagined weaknesses. How often do you hear people saying, ‘I can’t use computers’, or ‘I’m no good at presentations’? A lot of people will do something about these weaknesses. They will sign up for a course on IT skills, or deliberately develop their presentation skills. However, people who are feeling helpless tend not to address their weaknesses. Instead they develop, often unconsciously, tools and techniques to avoid exposing themselves to any threat of failure.

This is a disastrous policy. This avoidance means they are removing things they could actually control from their own agenda, and the outcome is that they learn to become even more helpless. This is how people spiral down into deep levels of learned helplessness, all on their own.

Helpless people reinforce their beliefs by hanging around with like-minded people. Have you ever come across a group of people around the water-cooler who ‘moan’ constantly, who only see the negative side of life? The talk is all about the fact that nothing positive ever happens around here and if it does it is just luck. They become stuck in a shared view of a life where nothing is right. And crucially, they fail to run any robust reality checks. The ‘evidence’ for their beliefs is all around them, from headlines in newspapers to constant change at work; but only because they cherry-pick the evidence to suit their own views.

Today, in a world of economic collapse, unpredictability and uncertain future, the state of learned helplessness is being identified in many organisations across the world rendering them incapable of adapting to the changes that are needed not just to survive but more importantly, grow. Some feel that learned helplessness has reached epidemic status.

How to recognise signs of learned helplessness at work

If you feel you are in a negative spiral at work, and that you are incapable of coping with new and stressful situations, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you feel that bad past experiences still affect the way you think, feel and behave today?
  • Do you feel that most of the control over your working life lies with your manager or other people?
  • Do you find you have to stick to a fairly rigid ‘script’ or ways of doing things?
  • Does your level of commitment to your organisation feel low?

Remember it is learned helplessness, so you can unlearn it.

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