I was said that because the experiment of Seligman that gave birth the theory of learned helplessness was an expansion of Pavlov's experiment, hence the word "learned" in the term should be understood as conditioning, not learning in general. So perhaps it's better termed as "conditioned helplessness"?

According to Learning - Wikipedia:

Learning is the process of acquiring new understanding, knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, attitudes, and preferences.

It's clear that people with learned/conditioned helplessness acquiring new behaviors, but do they acquire new understanding, knowledge, skills, values, attitudes, and preferences?

What is the difference between conditioning and learning?
How does one escape learned helplessness?
Are association, conditioning, and symbolic learning the same thing?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The Wikipedia article really should say "or" instead of "and"; ie, acquiring any of those things (not necessarily all of them) constitutes learning. As behavior is one of the items listed, "learned helplessness" is correct, as learning does take place. However, you are right that "conditioned helplessness" would be a more specific term to use. $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Feb 3, 2021 at 19:17
  • $\begingroup$ @ArnonWeinberg I wonder if being conditioned would lead to acquire new understanding, knowledge, skills, values, attitudes, or preferences? $\endgroup$
    – Ooker
    Feb 4, 2021 at 6:02

2 Answers 2


Wikipedia explains that there's not one theory of learned helplessness but several, some more encompassing than others with respect to what is learned:

Research has found that a human's reaction to feeling a lack of control differs both between individuals and between situations, i.e. learned helplessness sometimes remains specific to one situation but at other times generalizes across situations.[7][9][10] Such variations are not explained by the original theory of learned helplessness, and an influential view is that such variations depend on an individual's attributional or explanatory style.[11] According to this view, how someone interprets or explains adverse events affects their likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness and subsequent depression.[12] For example, people with pessimistic explanatory style tend to see negative events as permanent ("it will never change"), personal ("it's my fault"), and pervasive ("I can't do anything correctly"), and are likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression.[13]

(Aside: contra to the somewhat one-sided way in which Wikipedia discusses this, the expanded theories were not that easy to demonstrate reliably, at least not with a sizeable effect.)

  • $\begingroup$ so is it correct to say that the original theory is about "conditioned helplessness", while current theories are more about "learned helplessness"? $\endgroup$
    – Ooker
    Feb 8, 2021 at 6:18
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Ooker: yes it is. But the original model is still used e.g. in pre-clinical trials for anti-depressants. $\endgroup$ Feb 8, 2021 at 6:25
  • $\begingroup$ Is it correct to say that animals can only have conditioned helplessness, while humans can have learned helplessness? I suppose this question is essentially asking "do animals have beliefs, values, understandings, attitudes, etc?" $\endgroup$
    – Ooker
    Feb 11, 2021 at 3:08

In 1967 Maier and Seligman first proposed the concept of learned helplessness in their paper Failure to escape traumatic shock. 50 years later they published another paper Learned Helplessness at Fifty: Insights from Neuroscience. Here is what they says (emphasis mine):

We theorized that helplessness was cognitive and that it was learned. The animal must “detect” the lack of contingency as defined above and so must have “expected” that in the future shock would be independent of its responses. This was a radical suggestion for the 1960s. The learning theories of that era held that organisms could only learn associations or pairings, for example a response paired with shock strengthened this association (acquisition) or a response paired with no shock weakened this association (extinction). The rationale for the narrow associationistic view stemmed from behaviorists' shunning cognitions in animals and it seemed that the integration of two conditional probabilities—the probability of shock given a response integrated with the probability of shock in the absence of that response and then generalized across all responses—must be highly cognitive. Importantly we called the theory “learned” helplessness, rather than “conditioned” helplessness, because integrating these two conditional probabilities did not seem compatible with the associationistic premise that both Pavlovian conditioning and instrumental learning held dear. Emblematic of the tension between learning theory and cognitive theory was an encounter at the Princeton conference in which we first laid the theory out to the major learning theorists (Maier, Seligman & Solomon, 1969): Richard Herrnstein, a prominent Harvard Skinnerian, retorted, “You are proposing that animals learn that responding is ineffective. Animals learn responses; they don't learn that anything.”

FYI: What does this sentence of Richard Herrnstein regarding learned helplessness theory mean?


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