Society: The Teacher of Helplessness

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything due to being busy with work, a lack of general motivation, and not having any material I feel is suitable or worthy for this blog. But this post I feel is worthy to share.

This post will highlight what “Learned Helplessness” is, define it to some extent, and put it in context of real life. It will attempt to translate research into how society contributes to people learning to be helpless.

I recently was reading a psychology book and came across the concept of “learned helplessness”, and have been thinking about this. Learned helplessness is defined as “Repeated exposure to aversive events that are unpredictable and out of the individual’s control”, which can cause the “expectation that their behavior has little effect on their environment” (Mazur, 2006). In short, a person that is in a situation which they cannot control can cause the person to believe that they are helpless to change any, or many things, in their life. They learn that they are helpless.

Learned helplessness has been shown in animal models (Solomon & Wynne, 1953) as well as humans (Hiroto & Selignman, 1975). Solomon and Wynne, in their experiment, harnessed a dog so that it could not move and repeatedly administered shocks. When they unharnessed the dog and put it in box it could easily escape from and then administered shocks in that box, it would not escape the shocks. In Hiroto and Seligman’s human study, one group of participants were exposed to a series of loud noises they could not escape from (helpless to escape), then asked to solve a series of anagrams. A second control group did not receive the loud noises. The students that were exposed to the loud noises did poorer and gave up sooner than those who were in the control group and were not exposed to the inescapable loud noises. In both experiments each experimental group was exposed to negative stimuli that they could not escape from (helpless) so they learned that they have little power over their environment -learned helplessness.


In the human study, the participants were exposed to a negative situation different from the one they were actually helpless on, and the helplessness transferred to the new situation. They were helpless to escape the loud noises, but were not helpless to overcome the anagrams. But they learned that they had little control over one thing, which bled over into another.

Unfortunately, life often presents us with situations out of our control. We have laws we must obey, voting can sometimes seem to have very little effect, we seem to have little to no impact on things which are important to us. Life is a rule-driven and systematic environment where we conform or perish. We can be forced to go to school and be bullied there, some must go to a job they hate, and we must follow governmental rule. Society is the way it is and most of us have little power to change it (at least not without large amounts of energy input). Some of us have large families that we must follow the house rule and that is the way it is. Our superiors control us.

If we translate the helpless situations over from the experiments conducted that had outcomes of learned helplessness, than we might say many of us may have some form of learned helplessness. We are all trapped in situations we cannot control in one way or another due to the way society works, so we learn to be helpless. We must get a job, conform to society’s norms and rules, or perish. This would certainly cause a form of learned helplessness.

(Abramson, Seligman, & Teasdale, 1978) describe three dimensions of helplessness. Helplessness can become global as well as specific. If there are several situations out of our control, we might acquire global helplessness. Or we might have success in one area, but less in another area, thus feel helpless in that domain only. A good one I can think of is dating. A female might try to find a man who loves here for her, but only finds men interested in sexual endeavors. So they learn that they are helpless when it comes to love.

Helplessness can also be attributed to internal (I’m the problem)  or external factors (I would have passed the course with a better professor). It can also be viewed as long-term (my life is helpless) or short-term (when I lose weight I will be more capable). Each differentiation has different effects and consequences and can be harder or easier to overcome.

Feeling helpless can have many negative side effects both physical and mental. A helpless person can develop depression, lethargy, apathy, and physical ailments like stomach ulcers. Helpless rats have acquired stomach ulcers, helpless cats ate less, and humans develop high blood pressure (Maier & Seligman, 1976) and rats have developed trouble learning (Jackson, Alexander, & Maier, 1980). Learned helplessness is a mental condition that propagate many symptoms and conditions.

It’s can be difficult to overcome helplessness since those feeling helpless might lack the motivation to do so. Helplessness for one situation that has come from a different source situation might cause the person to believe they are helpless in this second situation as well. Especially if they attempt once and fail, it would certainty validate their expectations. It can be hard to know when the helplessness is valid or invalid.

This writing is to enlighten the readers to the concept of learned helplessness in a world that tends to teach people they are helpless. To understand the concept allows a person to have more clarity on their life situation and might give hope and motivate people to tackle situations that they feel helpless to change. Just because we feel helpless in one situation, it might be a completely invalid helplessness that transferred over from another situation. Children who grew up in very constrained and had a series of uncontrollable situations might have a long-term internal sense of helplessness about life and develop all kinds of mental and physical ailments, further sending them down the helpless rabbit hole. Some people are under chronic depression and it could be a side-effect of learned helplessness. Depression is the most prevalent psychological condition and 300 million people worldwide have been diagnosed with the condition (WHO). Not everyone is helpless, and some people are born with the right set of circumstances that don’t contribute much to them learning to be helpless. But in the current state of society learning to be helpless is around every corner and I believe almost everyone has had moments of helplessness in their lives.

God is the creator of all and has full rule in everything and by trusting in him we never need to feel helpless.


Works Cited
  1. Mazur, J. E. (2006). Learned Helplessness. Learning and Behavior Sixth Edition (181-182). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
  2. Solomon, R. L., & Wynne, L. C. (1953). Traumatic avoidance learning: Acquisition in normal dogs. Psychological Monographs, 67, 354.
  3. Hiroto, D. S., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Generality of learned helplessness in man. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 311-327.
  4. Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E. P., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87, 49-74.
  5. Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. P. (1976). Learned helplessness: Theory and evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 105, 3-46.
  6. Jackson, R. L., Alexander, J. H., & Maier, S. F. (1980). Learned helplessness, inactivity, and associative deficits: Effects of inescapable shock on response choice escape learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 6, 1-20.
  7. WHO. (2018, March 22). Depression. Retrieved from

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