Learned Helplessness

Learned Helplessness – Martin Seligman

In 1974, Martin Seligman suggested ‘learned helplessness theory’ to explain the cognitive explanation of depression. According to this theory, depression occurs when the person’s attempts to escape from negative situation fail. So, person remains passive toward negative situation and tries to endure to this situation.

Seligman structured his theory with making experiment on dogs. Dogs in the experiment were seperated into 3 groups. At the first stage of experiment, he gave shock to first dog group and he inhibited the dogs to escape. He gave shock to second dog group too, but in this group dogs had a chance to escape from shock when they push the button. And second group of dogs escaped from the shock. He did not give shock to third group of dogs.

At the second part of the experiment, he gave shock to all dogs and he also gave a chance to escape from shock to all dogs. Dogs which were not exposed to shock at the first stage of experiment, learned to escape from shock at this part. In addition that dogs which could escape from shock in the first part of the experiment also achieved to escape. But, the first group of dogs, which could not escape from the shock in the first part of the experiment, started to run when shock was given to them and finally they gave up to escape. They lay down and continued to expose to shock. As a result, dogs who experienced learned helplessness, learned that escape attempt was useless. So, reducing in learning capacity when uncontrollable or nettlesome events appear is called as learned helplessness.

Examples of Learned Helplessness

Some situations in daily life of human can be explained with learned helplessness. In a research on students, unsolvable problems were given to the students first and then easy problems were given. Students strove to solve unsolvable problems and they could not solve them. Finally they gave up to strive and when easy problems were given, they did not strive to solve easy problems too. Because they believed that even though they strive to solve problems, they can not.

In addition that there is an effect of learned helplessness on depression. For example, people with depression feels hopeless when they do someting but can not get a good results. Then, they become passive about it and they give up.


Powell, R; Symbaluk, D. G., Honey, P. L. (2009). Introduction to Learning and Behavior

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