University of Pennsylvania: Learned Helplessness Homepage Course
In early 1965, Martin E. P.
Seligman and his collegues, while studying the relationship between
fear and learning, accidentally discovered an unexpected phenomenon while
doing experiments on dogs using Pavlovian (classical conditioning). As you
may observe in yourselves or a dog, when you are presented with food, you
have a tendency to salivate. Pavlov discovered that if a ringing bell or
tone is repeatedly paired with this presentation of food, the dog salivates.
Later, all you have to do is ring the bell and the dog salivates. However,
in Seligman's experiment, instead of pairing the tone with food, he paired
it with a harmless shock, restraining the dog in a hammock during the learning
phase. The idea, then, was that after the dog learned this, the dog would
feel fear on the presentation of a tone, and would then run away or do some
Next, they put the conditioned dog into a shuttlebox, which consists of
a low fence dividing the box into two compartments. The dog can easily see
over the fence, and jump over if it wishes. So they rang the bell. Surprisingly,
nothing happened! (They were expecting the dog to jump over the fence.)
Then, they decided to shock the conditioned dog, and again nothing happened!
The dog just pathetically laid there! Hey, what's going! When they put a
normal dog into the shuttlebox, who never experienced inescapable shock,
the dog, as expected, immediately jumped over the fence to the other side.
Apparently, what the conditioned dog learned in the hammock, was that trying
to escape from the shocks is futile. This dog learned to be helpless! This
result was opposite to that predicted by B.F. Skinner's behaviorism, which
argued that the dog must have been given a positive reward (like a yummy
dog biscuit) to just lie there. (In order to salvage their position, they
even went so far as to suggest that the cessation of pain acted as the reward
for the dog to sit, but this was not a very good argument. One could alternately
argue that when the shock went on while the dog was sitting, it was being
punished for sitting. Reminds me of that old joke, "Q: Why did the
man pound his thumb with a hammer? A: Because it felt so good to stop.)
These observations started a scientific revolution resulting in the displacement
of behaviorism by cognitive psychology. What you are thinking, determines
your behavior (not only the visible rewards or punishments).
The theory of learned helplessness was then extended to human behavior,
providing a model for explaining depression,
a state characterized by a lack of affect and feeling. Depressed people
became that way because they learned to be helpless. Depressed people learned
that whatever they did, is futile. During the course of their lives, depressed
people apparently learned that they have no control.
Learned helplessness explained a lot of things, but then researchers began
to find exceptions, of people who did not get depressed, even after many
bad life experiences. Seligman discovered that a depressed person thought
about the bad event in more pessimistic ways than a nondepressed person.
He called this thinking, "explanatory style," borrowing ideas
For example, lets say you fail a math exam. How do you explain why? You
could think: 1) I am stupid. 2) I'm not good in math. 3) I was unlucky,
it was Friday the 13th. 4) The math teacher is prejudiced. 5) The math teacher
grades hard. 6) I was feeling ill that day. 7) The math teacher gave an
expecially hard test this time. 8) I didn't have time to study. 9) The teacher
grades on a curve. Seligman found that these explanations could be rated
along three dimensions: personalization: internal vs. external, pervasiveness:
specific vs. universal, and permanence: temporary vs. permanent. He found
that the most pessimistic explanatory style is correlated with the most
depression: The statement "I am stupid" is classified as internal
(use of I), universal, and permanent. This response conveys a sense of discouragement,
hopelessness, and despair. On the other hand, a more optimistic person would
blame someone or something else, such as "The math teacher gave an
especially hard test this time." The most optimistic explanatory style
is external, specific and temporary. Conversely, for a good event, the explanatory
style reverses. For example, for a perfect score on the math exam, the depressive
would say: "I was lucky that day," discounting his intelligence.
The optimist would say something much more encouraging,
such as "I am smart." We often learn explanatory styles from our
There are advantages to both optimistic and pessimistic explanatory styles.
Certain jobs call for an optimistic outlook, such as inventing
or sales. Other jobs, such as accounting or quality control, call for a
more pessimistic outlook.
Seligman suggests in his book "Learned Optimism" that one can
overcome depression by learning new explanatory styles. This is the basis
of cognitive therapy. In such therapies, the counselor challenges the client's
beliefs and explanations of life's events. If you feel depressed because
you failed that last exam, then dispute the explanation, and learn or search
for a more optimistic one according to the above criteria. Or read a few
jokes. The whole self-help
movement is based on the optimistic belief that we can change ourselves
for the better.
Bibliography of Martin E. P. Seligman
(Search of the Library of Congress)
1. 95-122881: Seligman, Martin E. P. Helplessness : on depression,
development, and death / New York : W. H. Freeman, c1992. xxxv, 250 p. ;
LC CALL NUMBER: BF575.H4 S44 1992
2. 94-27953: Rosenhan, David L. Abnormal psychology / 3rd ed. New York :
W.W. Norton, c1995. p. cm.
CIP - NOT YET IN LC
3. 94-1043: Explanatory style / Hillsdale, N.J. : L. Erlbaum, 1995. viii,
303 p. ; 24 cm.
LC CALL NUMBER: BF637.C45 E93 1995
4. 93-14757: Seligman, Martin E. P. What you can change and what you can't
the complete guide to successful self-improvement / 1st ed. New York :
Knopf, 1994. x, 317 p. ; 24 cm.
LC CALL NUMBER: BF637.C4 S45 1994
5. 92-21473: Peterson, Christopher. Learned helplessness : a theory for
age of personal control / New York : Oxford University Press, 1993. xi,
359 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.
LC CALL NUMBER: BF575.H4 P48 1993
6. 91-34235: Seligman, Martin E. P. Learned optimism / New York, N.Y. :
Pocket Books, c1990 [i.e. 1992] 319 p. ; 21 cm.
NOT IN LC COLLECTION
7. 90-53075: Seligman, Martin E. P. Learned optimism / New York : A.A. Knopf,
1991. 319 p. ; 25 cm.
LC CALL NUMBER: BJ1477 .S45 1990
8. 88-28908: Rosenhan, David L. Abnormal psychology / 2nd ed. New York :
W.W. Norton, c1989. xxiii, 766 p. : ill. ; 27 cm.
LC CALL NUMBER: RC454 .R578 1989
9. 83-25523: Rosenhan, David L. Abnormal psychology / 1st ed. New York :
Norton, c1984. xxiii, 728 p. : ill. ; 27 cm.
NOT IN LC COLLECTION
10. 79-6773: Human helplessness : theory and applications / New York :
Academic Press, 1980. xvii, 402 p. ; 24 cm.
LC CALL NUMBER: BF575.H4 H85
11. 77-5032: Psychopathology : experimental models / San Francisco : W.
Freeman, c1977. 474 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.
LC CALL NUMBER: RC458 .P78
12. 74-23125: Seligman, Martin E. P. Helplessness : on depression,
development, and death / San Francisco : W. H. Freeman; New York : trade
distributor, Scribner,  xv, 250 p. ; 24 cm.
LC CALL NUMBER: BF575.H4 S44
13. 72-84059: Seligman, Martin E. P., comp. Biological boundaries of learning.
New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts  xi, 480 p. illus. 25 cm.
LC CALL NUMBER: LB1051 .S412
Last updated 22 January 1998
1998 by Duen
Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.
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