Learned Helplessness (LH) and the Need to Promote Hope


Learned helplessness and some psychological disorders

Dogs who experienced repeatedly unavoidable electro shocks learned that they have no control over escaping from such painful events [1], and henceforth developed a cognitive deficit in the form of generalizing the helplessness expectation to other situations [2]. This phenomenon is also considered reduced incentive motivation [3]. Mental patterns of learned helplessness (LH) resemble those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which associate with depression [4]. LH is mentioned as the animal correspondent of depression [5]. Indeed, LH was found to be a primary cause of both PTSD and major depressive disorder (MDD) [6]. Depression includes the symptoms of feeling helplessness, but it is not its (sole) source. Non-depressed people can learn helplessness as well. Interestingly, ‘normal’ people may over-optimistically assess their level of control and therefore less likely notice uncontrollability as more realistically reasoning individuals with depressive tendencies do [7].


For what could appear as inappropriate passivity in refugees who are not seeking help and not filing timely registration from the new government, for example, can be explained by LH theory. Survivors of traumatic persecution have learned that they cannot expect help from their violent or passive government, an uncontrollable fact that caused the learning of helplessness that now is applied to the new country’s government as well [6]. LH is characterized by attributions that are more personalized, constant, and of global nature and is directly associated with more severe PTSD and MDD symptoms. The relative importance of a situation to a person’s identity is further mediating this relationship [8]. This way, LH explains why a persecuted refugee may not display the knowledge of pro-actively managing the required legal administration even in a new context that would, in contrast to the former learned one, offering help to do so [6].

Related theories and hope

Towards the end of the last century, the finding that hopelessness can lead to depression caused researchers like Seligman to re-focus from helplessness to hopelessness and finally to a hope-promoting view that was intended to prevent helplessness and related pathologies of hopelessness depression [2]. For individuals who assume a performance-oriented motivation, prompts of hope and self-esteem are important to let them believe in their ability and become actively engaged, e.g., in learning and other challenging tasks. In contrast, according to goal achievement theory, subjects with a mastery-(learning-)orientation behave actively regardless of their degree of self-confidence. [9]. Models of regulation posit that learners self-regulate (i.e., manage, monitor, and motivate) their resources either towards process or achievement goals [10]. However pronounced and efficient these strategies may be though; the effects of hope finally beat any deficits in self-regulation [9].

Social-cognitive approach

A more positive outlook on relationships reduced the detrimental correlation between PTSD and dysfunctional goal orientation such as performance-avoidance. While mastery development is achieved through social comparison, performance-avoiding students see peer comparison as a threat. Therefore, motivation to get help and to learn can be increased by the adoption of a social-cognitive framework that is supportive of a positive relational outlook fostering help-seeking experiences [11].

Photo credit: Pexels (pixabay.com)

[1] Seligman, M. E., & Weiss, J. M. (1980). Coping behavior: Learned helplessness, physiological change and learned inactivity. Behaviour Research And Therapy, 18(5), 459-512. doi:10.1016/0005-7967(80)90011-X
[2] Nunn, K. P., & Thompson, S. L. (1996). The pervasive refusal syndrome: Learned helplessness and hopelessness. Clinical Child Psychology And Psychiatry, 1(1), 121-132. doi:10.1177/1359104596011011
[3] Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. (1976). Learned helplessness: Theory and evidence. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: General, 105(1), 3-46. doi:10.1037/0096-3445.105.1.3
[4] Bargai, N. )., Shalev, A. )., & Ben-Shakhar, G. ). (2007). Posttraumatic stress disorder and depression in battered women: The mediating role of learned helplessness. Journal Of Family Violence, 22(5), 267-275. doi:10.1007/s10896-007-9078-y
[5] Greenwood, B. N., & Fleshner, M. (2008). Exercise, learned helplessness, and the stress-resistant brain. Neuromolecular Medicine, 10(2), 81-98. doi:10.1007/s12017-008-8029-y
[6] White, B. R. (2016). Using Learned Helplessness to Understand the Effects of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder on Refugees and Explain Why These Disorders Should Qualify as Extraordinary Circumstances Excusing Untimely Asylum Applications. Buffalo Law Review, 64(2), 413-463.
[7] Schwartz, B. (1981). Does helplessness cause depression, or do only depressed people become helpless? Comment on Alloy and Abramson. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: General, 110(3), 429-435. doi:10.1037/0096-3445.110.3.429
[8] Reiland, S. A. (2017). Event Centrality as Mediator Between Attributions and Mental Health Outcomes. Journal Of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 26(6), 574-589. doi:10.1080/10926771.2017.1308981
[9] Sideridis, G. )., & Kaplan, A. ). (2011). Achievement goals and persistence across tasks: The roles of failure and success. Journal Of Experimental Education, 79(4), 429-451. doi:10.1080/00220973.2010.539634
[10] Rezaee, R., & Mosalanejad, L. (2015). The effects of case-based team learning on students’ learning, self regulation and self direction. Global Journal Of Health Science, 7(4), 295-306. doi:10.5539/gjhs.v7n4p295
[11] Ness, B. M., Middleton, M. J., & Hildebrandt, M. J. (2015). Examining the Effects of Self-reported Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms and Positive Relations With Others on Self-regulated Learning for Student Service Members/Veterans. Journal Of American College Health, 63(7), 448-458.

About mathias sager

Independent researcher, artist, social entrepreneur, and leadership and strategy advisor I was born in Zurich in 1975 and grew up in Switzerland. Currently, I’m living in Tokyo. I love open-minded people everywhere and the passion to working relentlessly for developing human potential, which is an overarching theme throughout all his work. I have extensive experience in leadership and management, organizational psychology research, and learning & development practice. I have worked as a teacher, a leadership trainer, as well as a senior manager responsible for client relationships, counseling, and virtual teams around the world. Also, I’m a social entrepreneur and serving as a strategy and leadership advisor in different ways. My goal is to inspire with interdisciplinary, innovative, and cross-cultural approaches to personal and professional development for the people’s individual well-being and common good alike. Continuously learning himself and keen to help, I appreciate any questions or feedback you may have at any time. Please connect here on any social media, as well as per direct email goodthings@mathias-sager.com.
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.