Learned helplessness & explanatory style
Recently, we devoted much time and attention to cognitive distortions – our tendency to think in irrational and frequently self-defeating ways (see Blog #16 & #17).
Related to this idea is that of learned helplessness. Whether you have heard the phrase before or not, you will most likely be familiar with what it refers to, either from first-hand experience or observing it in others.
Learned helplessness is the term psychologists use when referring to the tendency for individuals to accept a painful or unpleasant fate without attempting to remove themselves from that situation. This perceived helplessness emerges when individuals feel powerless and no longer believe that they are capable of being an active agent in some area of their life. It can come about if someone feels like they are on ‘a bad run’, when no matter what they do or how hard they try, they cannot seem to make headway on a particular problem or set of circumstances. In essence, people stop trying because they no longer believe that they are capable of solving the problem or tackling the situation.
The theory of learned helplessness was first proposed in the 1960s, arising from laboratory experiments conducted involving dogs. In these studies, dogs were placed in a cage and exposed to electric shocks coming up through the floor. With one group, there was a wall in the cage, creating two sides. When the shocks were activated, dogs were able to escape the shocks by jumping over the wall. Then, another group of dogs were placed in the cage and were strapped into a hammock, meaning that they could not escape the shocks, no matter what their efforts were and most, over time, eventually stopped trying to jump and instead accepted the shocks. The third and key element of the experiment was then to remove these dogs from the hammock and place them in the cage again. Now, when the shocks came they would have the ability to jump over the wall and escape the unpleasant/painful sensation. However, the authors of the original study – one of whom was Martin Seligman – reported that most of these dogs did not jump the wall when the shocks began. Instead, they cowered down and accepted them without trying to escape. The take home message from this was that they had learned to become helpless. They believed that they could not escape the shocks and therefore stopped trying to do so, even when placed in a situation where efforts to escape would be rewarded with success.
While this was regarded as an important breakthrough at the time, it soon came to be accepted that the theory needed further development if it was going to be directly applicable to humans, who are more complex than animals, as it relates to our cognitive processes. Arising from that realisation came the explanatory style model, which seeks to identify patterns in individual reactions to positive and negative events and occurrences in their lives.
The logic of the model goes along these lines – when an individual finds themselves in a situation in which something has either gone right or gone wrong, they will ask why. The answers we tend to give when asking ourselves that kind of question will dictate whether we default to an optimistic or pessimistic explanatory style.
For example, when a negative event occurs, if we think the cause of the event is stable or long-lasting (as opposed to temporary), then that may encourage chronic helplessness. If we think that the cause of the negative event will impact other areas of our life (as opposed to strictly relating to the issue at hand), then we may be vulnerable to widespread helplessness. Also, if we decide that we are to ‘blame’ for what has happened, i.e., ascribing an internal as opposed to external cause, then that can have negative implications for self-esteem.
An important point to emphasise here, as stressed by Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson when writing on this topic, is that our explanatory style will tend to follow a pattern. That means you will tend to respond to positive and negative events in consistent, habitual ways. This may be highly advantageous to individual well-being if you happen to default to an optimistic explanatory style, but it can be extremely problematic for individuals who skew the other way, with learned helplessness and a pessimistic explanatory style linked with the development of depression in individuals.
The markers of an optimistic explanatory style are like a mirror version of those that signal the pessimistic counterpart. For example, while the pessimistic style can view negative circumstances as something that will persist and positive occurrences as temporary, the optimistic style tends to view negative circumstances as temporary and expects positive occurrences to persist. Also, while the negative style tends to lead to self-blame when things go wrong and crediting external factors when things go right, the positive style leads to individuals crediting themselves when things go right and identifying external factors as key when things go wrong.
While it is obviously more desirable to possess an optimistic explanatory style, as with most things there is an element of moderation required. For example, with regard to the tendency referred to above, if any individual defaults to always blaming others or circumstances when things go wrong and is always quick to pat themselves on the back when things go right, then that, while meeting the criteria for the optimistic style, might constitute a problem in of itself!
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.