Learned Helplessness and Depression

In the 1970s, Martin Seligman and his colleagues conducted research into the relationship between learned helplessness and depression. Learned helplessness describes how, when we learn that we’re helpless in one area of our lives, we can carry this helplessness over into other areas of our lives.

Learned helplessness is a type of pessimism. We’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that, no matter what we do, things are never going to work out. And learned helplessness resembles depression. So understanding how learned helplessness works helps us understand depression. And then we can use this knowledge to figure out ways to make it less likely we become depressed.

Learned Helplessness and Depression

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

Learned helplessness occurs when we find ourselves in some sort of negative aversive situation or set of circumstances that we don’t have control over. We can’t escape from them or solve them, so we learn that we’re helpless in these situations and we give up even trying to do anything about them. And often this feeling of helplessness carries over into other areas of our lives. So when we find ourselves in different challenging or unpleasant situations that we do have some control over, we don’t even bother trying to do anything about them. We act as if we’re helpless in these areas as well.

And this experience of feeling we’re so helpless that we find it difficult to perform in many areas of our lives resembles a lot of the symptoms and behaviors associated with depression. So if we can learn how learned helplessness works, then we can apply this knowledge to our understanding of depression, in order to figure out ways to prevent depression, and come up with new ways of treating depression.

So in this video we’re going to look at Martin Seligman’s research into learned helplessness, which led him to come up with a way of explaining the differences between how pessimists and optimists think that can help us learn to be more optimistic, and as a result more resilient and less susceptible to things like depression.

Now the original and most well-known studies into learned helplessness involve dogs, but Iā€™m not going to talk about those here. But then there was research conducted with human subjects that we’re going to look at now.

So the experiments involve two phases. In the first phase, one group of subjects was placed in an unpleasant situation that they couldn’t escape from no matter what they tried. An annoying tone was played through headphones at a loud volume and they were told that there was something they could do to stop the tone, and there was a button in front of them, but no matter how many times they pressed the button the tone didn’t stop. So in this phase of the experiment they were actually helpless. There was nothing they could do to escape the tone. And then in another group subjects also had this annoying tone played through their headphones, but they did have control over the situation. And if they press the button four times the tone would stop.

And then in the second phase of the experiment, both groups plus a control group were played this annoying tone through their headphones and once again given the task of trying to make it stop. And this time every group had control over the situation and could make the tone stop by moving a knob along a lever. And the research found that the group that was helpless in the first phase acted as if they were still helpless in this second phase. And some of them didn’t even bother trying to turn off the tone, and the ones that did took significantly longer to do it than the subjects in either of the other two groups. So that’s an example of learned helplessness. We experience helplessness in one situation, and that helplessness carries over into another situation and we continue to act as if we’re helpless even though now we have control over this situation.

So let’s look at a real life example of this. Let’s say things haven’t been going well at work. We’re sick of our jobs. We hate our bosses. Our co-workers are annoying. And on top of that we’ve been passed over a couple of times for promotions and we didn’t get a raise we’d been promised. We know it’s not going to get any better here nothing’s going to change we feel helpless about our job situation.

So we decide we need to look for a new job. And there are a lot of things we could do to help us find a new job, but we feel so helpless because of what’s going on in our current jobs, that our helplessness carries over into our attempts to find something new. It took us forever to update our resumes. We can barely get ourselves to look at job listings. And when we do it feels too hard to even apply.

So can you think of a time when you were in a really unpleasant ongoing situation that you had little or no control over and couldn’t really do anything about and you started to feel helpless?

And if so did that helplessness carry over into any other situations in which maybe you did have some control but you found it really difficult to do anything because even though you were not helpless in this situation you still felt helpless due to how helpless you were in the other situation? And if you want you can pause the video and take a moment to think about that.

Now back to the research. So then they did another experiment where, in addition to the tasks from phase one and phase two of the previous experiment, a second type of task was added: solving a series of cognitive problems. So in the first phase of the experiment one group of subjects was given a series of unsolvable cognitive problems so no matter what they did there was no way for them to find the solution.

And then the second phase of the experiment involved another type of cognitive problem, solving anagrams. So in phase two the group that had been given the unsolvable cognitive problems in phase one, plus a group that had been given a set of solvable cognitive problems in phase one, plus a control group we’re all given the same series of anagrams to solve. And all of the anagrams were solvable.

And the group that had been given the unsolvable cognitive problems in the first phase of the experiment did significantly worse in solving the anagrams than either of the other two groups. And so this showed a second domain in which helplessness could be learned. The first domain was escaping the unpleasant situation. And now the second domain was solving a cognitive problem.

And they also mixed the two domains. So in the first phase people were given the annoying tone that they needed to try to escape or turn off. And then in the second phase they were given the anagrams to solve. And the group that was unable to turn off the tone no matter what they tried in the first phase did significantly worse solving the anagrams than the other two groups. And so the helplessness they had learned in one domain carried over into a second domain and affected their ability to complete the cognitive task of solving the anagrams.

And similarly the group that was given the unsolvable cognitive problems in phase one saw their helplessness carry over into the second domain of being able to escape the unpleasant situation, where they performed significantly worse than the other two groups in being able to turn off the annoying tone. So this demonstrated that helplessness that was learned in one domain didn’t just carry over into similar tasks in the same domain, but could also make us helpless in another domain.

Now in the last real life example, helplessness in one area of the work domain of our lives carried over into another area of the work domain, but learned helplessness from the work domain can carry over into other domains as well for example the relationship domain.

We feel helpless about our job situation, so when we hit a rough patch in our relationships, we find it hard to put any effort into fixing our relationships. We’ve resigned ourselves to things just not going well in our lives, there’s nothing we can do about it. Work is terrible, our relationships are terrible, and we feel helpless. Nothing’s going to fix either one maybe we should just break up.

And last time i asked if you could recall a time when you’d felt helpless in one area of your life and it carried over into another if you did have an example were both areas in which you felt helpless in the same domain or were they in different domains. Once our learned helplessness starts to cross over into most or all domains of our lives then this starts to look a lot like depression.

So based on this research Seligman came up with a theory of learned helplessness. But some colleagues pointed out that his theory failed to account for the fact that a third of the subjects in the experiments failed to develop learned helplessness. And some subjects only developed helplessness in tasks within the same domain and this helplessness didn’t carry over into other domains.

So now he and his colleagues set out to come up with an explanation for why. And this is important, because since learned helplessness resembles depression, if we can figure out why some people never developed learned helplessness, we could apply this to treatments for depression and make it less likely that we develop depression, in the same way that some people didn’t develop learned helplessness.

So Seligman along with his colleagues developed a model for what they called our explanatory style, that accounts for why some people don’t develop learned helplessness, and explains differences between how pessimists and optimists think, that can help us learn to be more optimistic and as a result more resilient and less susceptible to things like depression. And we’re going to learn all about this explanatory style in the next video.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1972). Learned Helplessness. Annual Review of Medicine, 23, 407-412. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.me.23.020172.002203

Hiroto, D. S. (1974). Locus of control and learned helplessness. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 102(2), 187ā€“193. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0035910

Hiroto, D. S., & Seligman, M. E. (1975). Generality of learned helplessness in man. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(2), 311ā€“327. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0076270

Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87(1), 49ā€“74. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.87.1.49

Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York: Knopf. ISBN 978-0-671-01911-2.