While discussing some work related issues the other day a colleague used the phrase:
Cultural change isn’t easy – especially when we’re operating in an environment where learned helplessness appears to be prevalent
He pointed to this link on Wikipedia.
That got me thinking: What is learned helplessness? Is it really prevalent in the context that we were talking about?
The first question took me on a journey of discovery, this is what I found:
First, a definition from the Wikipedia article:
Learned helplessness is the condition of a human or animal that has learned to behave helplessly, failing to respond even though there are opportunities for it to help itself by avoiding unpleasant circumstances or by gaining positive rewards
To bring it closer to our normal experience, it’s the choice not to respond when we see the opportunity to do something for a third, or forth time having failed on all previous attempts. Or the choice to avoid something because of a previous traumatic experience even though that thing might be very good for us.
Thinking about my life, I know that there are certain things that I don’t do because of previous poor experiences. Some of these experiences happened a long time ago and I’m a different person now, but I still haven’t returned to give it another go.
So from purely personal experience it would appear that learned helplessness is a real phenomenon, and there also appear to be quite a lot of evidential support for it too. The Wikipedia article is quite well referenced including 42 different items and there are numerous articles on reputable sites across the Internet.
Like all concepts and many theories though it isn’t a 100% cause-and-effect explanation, the initial experiment that was undertaken by Martin E.P. Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania on a number of dogs only resulted in learned helplessness in two-thirds of the animals involved. Some animals and some people respond in a different way. He also went on to link learned helplessness with clinical depression and other related mental illnesses.
The opposite of helplessness is, apparently, optimism, which Seligman later researched and wrote about, coining the phrase learned optimism. This involved the challenging of negative self-talk and numerous other positive psychology techniques. Seligman is still around and talking about a new era of positive psychology, but that’s a set of thoughts for another day.
Here’s my conclusion. Some people, in some situations, will behave with learned helplessness and that has serious consequences. We need to think very seriously about the situations that we create that induce helpless feelings. We also need to think seriously about the tools that we give people to help them respond to these helplessness situations as they inevitably occur.
I’m not going to answer the second question because that would need me to talk too much about the context. It is suffice to say that my colleague’s insight was quite revealing.
A couple of really interesting videos about Learned Helplessness to finish with: