Maybe, if you’re not a psychologist, psychiatrist, sociologist, researcher or student, you’ve never heard of “learned helplessness”. Don’t worry, because you are in the right place and time.

Our mind is a super reactive computer, so it reacts (we react) to all environments, circumstances, events, energy and external information, ie, reacts to the stimulus’. These external stimuli provoke certain reactions, through our perception, and trigger different psychological phenomena in response either to solve, flee, fight or defend. Yes, that’s the life on the Earth.

Psychological phenomena are groups of certain reactions to these stimuli, resulting in a behavior. When a person something happens, whether good or bad, it’s usually detected in his/her behavior.

Learned helplessness is just a psychological phenomenon which presents the following behavior:

Passive behavior in situations, environments, or adverse circumstances in life although there are real opportunities to change these situations or problems; avoiding unpleasant circumstances , or obtaining positive rewards. Learned helplessness translates into an absolutely evasive behavior against complications, because the subject flees problems, evade, interposing a shield of excuses, which have often victim nature.

This psychological phenomenon can be easily induced, or simply caused by stressful and negative situations  for a long time.

SELIGMAN, in 1967, made the “Theory of learned helplessnessfrom the study in dogs, the effects of a series of INEVITABLE electric shocks, with no possibility of escape, and then another series of AVOIDABLE electrical shocks, with the possibility of escape. The result? Dogs failed to learn to escape and avoid shocks. The author showed that the reason for this phenomenon was due to uncontrollability of the original shocks using an experimental design called triadic design”, based on 2 stages. This design allows isolating the effects of uncontrollable consequences of the effects of controllability, this is precisely the trick.

In the experiment there are 3 groups of subjects:

a. Escapable

b. Inescapable

c. Control

The phases are:

1. Pretreatment: the escapable group is exposed to aversive consequences that can be controlled by the subjects (contingent reinforcement). The Inescapable group is exposed to the same aversive consequences but has no possibility to control (non-contingent reinforcement). Control group undergoes this phase.

2. Proof: all subjects are exposed to a test task in which the tests are related contingently with some response of subjects, so the consequences are CONTROLLABLE for ALL subjects.

Then, learned helplessness is verified whether subjects of INESCAPABLE group show a DEFICIT in the response (reaction) ESCAPE-AVOIDANCE in the testing phase, compared to the other two groups. The learned helplessness theory posits that organisms exposed to a situation of uncontrollability show later deficits in learning success responses (solutions) .

“I can’t”

Learned helplessness has been studied deeply,

 and has determined that it’s manifested through three deficits:

A) Motivational: delay in the initiation of voluntary responses, ie, the subject doesn’t believe that their responses affect the consequences, so it stops issuing them.

B) Cognitive: belief in the ineffectiveness of their responses to control the consequences that hinders the learning of later success.

C) Emotional *: a series of characteristic behavioral and physiological disorders, in a state of anxiety and fear followed by depression, occur when the consequences in the pretreatment are sufficiently aversive.

The emotional deficit is the most serious because it’s the most harmful in the psyche, emotional integrity is paramount in good mental health.

There are other effects following exposure to uncontrollable shocks worth mentioning here:

– Reduction of aggressiveness and competitiveness

– Conditioning of high levels of fear neutral stimuli rigged to shock

– Increased stress symptoms (for example: ulcers)

– Changes in the levels of cortisol and neurotransmitters like norepinephrine

In short, learned helplessness is a person experiencing the consequences and his/her behavior are independent, ie, uncontrollable , so he/she forms an expectation that there will be no contingency response-consequence in the future.

When a person perceives that the situations are uncontrollable, makes a causal attribution, ie the reason for this uncontrollability. The causal attribution has 3 areas:

1. Internal-External: causes of self or circumstances. If the cause is attributed to self, self-esteem is destroyed.

2. Stable-Unstable: constant or time varying causes. If adverse situations are persistent, learned helplessness becomes chronic.

3. Global-Specific: General causes in different situations, or a particular situation.

In addition helplessness can be:

Universal: a person who believes that their responses are not contingent with the desired effect and that no other subject has these responses, ie, believes the solution is simply “impossible”. This person attributes the cause to external, specific and unstable factors. The helplessness does not generalize.

Personal: a person who believes he has the answers but others have them, ie, believes that “can not”. The person attributes the cause to internal, stable and global factors. The helplessness is chronic and widespread.

The theory of learned helplessness has been proposed as an explanatory model of human depression because the symptoms can be induced by treatment with helplessness.


The good news is that learned helplessness can be overridden. This is done by first submitting the subject to a successful escape learning with which he/she can escape a shock through an escape response. This equates to immunize against defenseless.

The learned helplessness model postulates that emotion and motivation are shaped by the environment, so directly affects education. The cause of learned helplessness are past experiences, so it is important the infant stage of a person, because that is what will set your mind. If a child in his/her environment, others do not stop tell him/her he/she is worthless, silly and they assault him/her, that’s how he/she will feel to the world and in the future. However, if the others support the child, and they say him/her that he/she is valuable, and he/she is good and can do everything he/she porposes successfully , this child will be brave, motivated, optimistic and confident. It’s simple.

The attitude of a child or an adult to his own helplessness or ability domain is based on child development. For learning domain, is essential that the mother act so responsive, because the absence of the mother, deprivation and unresponsive stimulate maternal behavior contribute to the learning of uncontrollability.

Finally, if you have ever felt that way, or you feel that way now, you should know that there is a SOLUTION. You are not alone! Stop thinking so, and stop believing that you are a victim, because in reality you are a human being with rights, and secondly, you’re a survivor.



– “Efectos de la exposición a estimulación aversiva incontrolable: indefensión aprendida”

“Indefensión aprendida”

“Teoría de la indefensión aprendida de Seligman”



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