I've been researching learned helplessness lately, an idea that seems to be responsible for much of the negative behavior observed in humans. Basically, the idea is that once repeatedly exposed to an inescapable pain, a subject learns to accept the pain even when it becomes avoidable.

This was first described by Martin Seligman who observed such behavior in dogs, who, upon being placed in a box that would shock them at random times and then moved to a box where the shock could be escaped by jumping over a barrier, refuse to even attempt to jump the barrier to escape, whereas dogs that could stop the shock in the first box with a lever would easily jump the barrier.

In all my research, however, it seems that the "learned helplessness" could only be unlearned by manually moving the dogs' legs to simulate the behavior to overcome the obstacle. However, in humans, such helplessness situations are often very abstract, for example the idea that no matter how hard one works they will never be able to escape debt, or pay their taxes. In such cases, "manually moving people's legs" is anywhere from extremely impractical to impossible. Does this mean that human learned helplessness is most cases is insurmountable?

How in the case of abstract helplessness conditions can human learned helplessness be escaped?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Can you provide references and links to the research you have made to come up with what you have in your question? This way we can not double up on what you might have read so far $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 22:50
  • $\begingroup$ 1. Challenge all or nothing thinking, and attitudes that tend towards giving up quickly; 2. Add new learning that lends to the view that an action will result in a predictable outcome.. $\endgroup$
    – faustus
    Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 17:12

1 Answer 1



Martin E. P. Seligman, has written extensively on the nature, etiology, and significance of learned helplessness, and in 1975, he broadened the scope of learned helplessness from animal behaviour to a wide variety of human behaviours, including reactive depression, stomach ulcers, voodoo deaths, and child development, then in 1978, he criticised and reformulated his hypothesis.

The old hypothesis, when applied to learned helplessness in humans, has two major problems: (a) It does not distinguish between cases in which outcomes are uncontrollable for all people and cases in which they are uncontrollable only for some people (universal vs. personal helplessness), and (b) it does not explain when helplessness is general and when specific, or when chronic and when acute. A reformulation based on a revision of attribution theory is proposed to resolve these inadequacies. (Seligman, 1978)

Seligman then went on to rectify these deficiencies.

Problem (a): universal vs. personal helplessness

Universal Helplessness

Suppose a child contracts leukemia and the father bends all his resources to save the child's life. Nothing he does, however, improves the child's health. Eventually he comes to believe there is nothing he can do. Nor is there anything anyone else can do since leukemia is incurable. He subsequently gives up trying to save the child's life and exhibits signs of behavioral helplessness as well as depressed affect. This example fits the specifications of the old learned helplessness hypothesis. The parent believed the course of the child's disease was independent of all of his responses as well as the responses of other people. We term this situation universal helplessness (Seligman, 1978).

In the same paper, Seligman considered universal helplessness to be externally attributed. Situations where people believe that neither they nor relevant others can solve the problem are instances of universal helplessness according to the 1978 hypothesis.

Personal helplessness

Suppose a person tries very hard in school. He studies endlessly, takes remedial courses, hires tutors. But he fails anyway. The person comes to believe he is stupid and gives up trying to pass. This is not a clear case of uncontrollability according to the old model, since the person believed there existed responses that would contingently produce passing grades although he did not possess them. Regardless of any voluntary response the person made, however, the probability of his obtaining good grades was not altered. We term this situation personal helplessness (Seligman, 1978).

In the same paper, Seligman considered personal helplessness to be internally attributed. Situations in which people believe they cannot solve solvable problems are instances of personal helplessness according to the 1978 hypothesis.

Flow of events leading to helplessness

The 5 steps towards helplessness was outlined in Seligman's 1978 paper (Page 52 - bold emphasis mine).

  1. Objective non-contingency
  2. Perception of present and past non-contingency
  3. Attribution for present or past non-contingency
  4. Expectation of future non-contingency
  5. Symptoms of helplessness

Objective noncontingency is predicted to lead to symptoms of helplessness only if the expectation of noncontingency is present (Seligman, 1975 & 1978).

Pre-1978, Seligman's model was vague in specifying how perception that events are non-contingent (past or present) was transformed into an expectation that events will be non-contingent in the future.

Our reformulation regards the attribution the individual makes for noncontingency between his acts and outcomes in the here and now as a determinant of his subsequent expectations for future noncontingency. These expectations, in turn, determine the generality, chronicity, and type of his helplessness symptoms. In the context of this general account of the role of attribution in the production of symptoms, the distinction between universal and personal helplessness can now be clarified.


Cognitive and motivational deficits occur in both personal and universal helplessness. Abramson (1977) has demonstrated this empirically while showing that lowered self-esteem occurs only in personal helplessness (Seligman, 1978).

Problem (b): general vs. specific helplessness, and chronic vs. acute helplessness

When helplessness deficits occur in a broad range of situations, they are called them global or general helplessness; when the deficits occur in a narrow range of situations, they are called specific helplessness.

Some helplessness deficits may last only minutes and others may last years. Helplessness is considered to be chronic when it is either long-lived or recurrent and transient or acute when short-lived and non-recurrent (Seligman, 1978).

Your Question - How can human learned helplessness be escaped?

Seligman, in his 1978 paper touched on this in a number of ways.

The subject is presented with an unsolvable problem, tested on a second solvable task, and finally debriefed. The subject is told that the first problem was actually unsolvable and therefore no one could have solved it. Experimenters in human helplessness studies seem to believe that telling a subject that no one could solve the problem will cause helplessness deficits to go away. The prior discussion suggests that convincing a subject that his helplessness is universal rather than personal will remove self-esteem deficits suffered in the experiment (Seligman, 1978).

He also outlined some general observations.

  • Those who typically attribute their failures to general, stable, and internal factors will be more prone to general and chronic helplessness depressions with low self-esteem.

  • Beck (1967) argued similarly that the pre-morbid depressive is an individual who makes logical errors in interpreting reality. For example, the depression-prone individual overgeneralises; a student regards his poor performance in a single class on one particular day as final proof of his stupidity.

  • Boys and girls have been found to differ in attribution styles, with girls attributing helplessness to lack of ability (global, stable) and boys to lack of effort (specific, unstable) (Dweck, 1976).

Therefore, the therapeutic implications of the reformulated hypothesis can now be schematized.

Seligman went on to state that depression is most far reaching when

  1. the estimated probability of a positive outcome is low or the estimated probability of an aversive outcome is high,

    Change the estimated probability of the outcome. Change the environment by reducing the likelihood of aversive outcomes and increasing the likelihood of desired outcomes.

  2. the outcome is highly positive or aversive,

    Make the highly preferred outcomes less preferred by reducing the aversiveness of unrelievable outcomes or the desirability of unobtainable outcomes.

  3. the outcome is expected to be uncontrollable,

    Change the expectation from uncontrollability to controllability when the outcomes are attainable. When the responses are not yet in the individual's repertoire but can be, train the appropriate skills. When the responses are already in the individual's repertoire but cannot be made because of distorted expectation of response-outcome independence, modify the distorted expectation. When the outcomes are unattainable, this does not apply.

  4. the attribution for this uncontrollability is to a general, stable, internal factor.

    Change unrealistic attributions for failure toward external, unstable, specific factors, and change unrealistic attributions for success toward internal, stable, global factors. The model predicts that depression will be most far-reaching and produce the most symptoms when a failure is attributed to stable, global, and internal factors, since the patient now expects that many future outcomes will be noncontingently related to his responses. Getting the patient to make an external, unstable, and specific attribution for failure should reduce the depression in cases in which the original attribution is unrealistic. The logic, of course, is that an external attribution for failure raises self-esteem, an unstable one cuts the deficits short, and a specific one makes the deficits less general

In 1983, learned helplessness was also proposed as a model for the emotional numbing and maladaptive passivity sometimes following victimisation. Victims may learn during the victimisation episode that responding is futile

If this learning is represented as a general expectation of helplessness, then subsequent deficits may occur in situations unrelated to the original situation in which the victimization occurred. The victim’s causal interpretation of the victimization episode may partly determine the chronicity and generality of these deficits, and the involvement of self-esteem. (Peterson & Seligman, 1983).

Based on Seligman's findings, Cognitive Therapy might be beneficial as:

Therapy may consist of testing the assumptions which one makes and looking for new information that could help shift the assumptions in a way that leads to different emotional or behavioral reactions. Change may begin by targeting thoughts (to change emotion and behavior), behavior (to change feelings and thoughts), or the individual's goals (by identifying thoughts, feelings or behavior that conflict with the goals).


Abramson, L. (1977). Universal versus personal helplessness: An experimental test of the reformulated theory of learned helplessness and depression. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.

Beck, A. T. (1967) Depression: Clinical, experimental and theoretical aspects. New York: Hoeber.

Dweck, C. (1976). Children's interpretation of evaluative feedback: The effect of social cues on learned helplessness. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly of Behavior and Development, 22(2), 105-109.
Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23083956

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (1983). Learned helplessness and victimization. Journal of Social Issues, 39(2), 103—116.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-4560.1983.tb00143.x

Seligman, M. E. P., & Maier, S. F. (1967). Failure to escape traumatic shock. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74(1), 1—9.
DOI: 10.1037/h0024514

Seligman, M. E. P., Maier, S. F., & Geer, J. H. (1968). The alleviation of learned helplessness in the dog. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 73(3, Pt.1), 256—262.
DOI: 10.1037/h0025831

Seligman, M. E. P., & Groves, D. (1970). Non-transient learned helplessness. Psychonomic Science, 19(3), 191—192.
DOI: 10.3758/BF03335546

Seligman, M. E. (1972). Learned helplessness. Annual review of medicine, 23(1), 407—412.
DOI: 10.1146/annurev.me.23.020172.002203 PMID: 4566487

Seligman, M. E. P. (1974). Depression and learned helplessness. In R. J. Friedman & M. M. Katz (Eds.), The psychology of depression: Contemporary theory and research. Oxford, England: John Wiley & Sons.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness: On depression, development, and death. San Francisco: Freeman

Seligman, M. E. P., Abramson, L. Y., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned Helplessness in Humans: Critique and Reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87(1), 49—74
DOI: 10.1037/0021-843X.87.1.49 Retrievable from: Semantic Scholar

  • $\begingroup$ This is a very good answer. I'm planning on writing a paper on the topic of learned helplessness, and I'm curious if there's an external place I can look for more experiments beyond the original that provide data towards this theory? I can find examples but my thinking is there has to be a repository of experiments listed somewhere, I would think anyway. $\endgroup$
    – zfrisch
    Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 20:03
  • $\begingroup$ @zfrisch Did you ever write that paper? I'd be interested in reading it $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 29, 2019 at 22:43
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry @zfrisch I did not see your message. I know of no repository as such. I just look on journal sites and Google Scholar for anything of interest. There may be others here who know of one of two but seeing as there has been no response I am not sure. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 29, 2019 at 23:43
  • $\begingroup$ @TheEnvironmentalist I know it's not finished but believe I got far enough along for a draft, but I would have to take a look as it's been a while. $\endgroup$
    – zfrisch
    Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 22:11
  • $\begingroup$ @zfrisch I'd love to read a copy if you've got one :) $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 10, 2021 at 19:11

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