What Is Learned Helplessness and How It Explains Why People Give Up on Life

Published by
Janey Davies, B.A. (Hons)

Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon whereby humans and animals who believe they have no control over a situation will give up.

The term learned helplessness was first coined in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s by psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier. They were continuing work first carried out by Ivan Pavlov regarding avoidance-conditioning in dogs. Their experiments involved testing dogs’ responses to electrical shocks.

Seligman and Maier’s Tests on Learned Helplessness

It has to be said that the experiments were particularly cruel and certainly wouldn’t be allowed today, but here’s what took place:

Dogs were placed in a box with two floors divided by a low barrier. One of the floors was electrified and the other was not. Some dogs received electric shocks that they could not predict or control and others did not.

The experimenters began to notice something rather strange. Some dogs didn’t even bother to try and jump over the low barrier to safety when the electrified floor was turned on. Those that didn’t were the ones who had been shocked with no way of escaping. The dogs who did jump had not received any shocks.

This was investigated further with groups of dogs being strapped into harnesses.

There was:

  • A control group
  • One group receiving shocks that they could avoid by pressing a panel
  • The other receiving shocks with no way of avoiding them

After this second round of experiments, all the groups were then separately placed back into the box with two floors and again given electric shocks. The dogs from the first two groups were quick to figure out that all they had to do was jump over the low barrier. Then they would escape the shocks.

However, most of the dogs from the last group didn’t even attempt to jump the barrier. They had already learnt there was nothing they could do to avoid being shocked in the previous experiments. In effect, they gave up. They learned to be helpless.

Learned Helplessness in Humans

Although these extreme experiments have not been replicated on humans, similar ones have produced the same outcomes. It appears that when animals or humans believe they have no control over their situation, they act in a helpless manner.

This is known as learned helplessness and it is a learned trait, no one is born feeling helpless. A person with learned helplessness has been conditioned through repeated experiences. They have come to believe they have no control.

Subjecting a person to a situation in which they have no control results in a decrease in:

  1. Motivation
  2. Cognition
  3. Emotion

A person will feel much less motivated when it comes to finding a way out of their situation. They will believe there is nothing they can do and furthermore they’ll feel depressed about the whole thing.

This is particularly important because there are two types of depression associated with learned helplessness. This might help explain why people give up on life.

Learned Helplessness and Depression

Seligman and his colleagues recognised the two types of depression associated with learned helplessness are:

  1. Universal helplessness
  2. Personal helplessness

Universal helplessness is the sense whereby a person believes there is nothing they can to do help the situation they are in.

For example:

A child has cancer and the mother tries everything she can to save her child’s life, but the cancer is incurable. She realises there is nothing that can be done to help her child and as there was nothing anyone could do.

This situation is an example of universal helplessness. Seligman considered universal helplessness to have external attributes.

Personal helplessness is where a person feels they could have done something themselves.

For example:

A student studies hard for a course, they revise and have no social life, spending all their time in school. They fail the course anyway. This person would feel a sense of personal helplessness.

They would believe that by studying hard they would have been able to pass their course. Seligman believed that personal helplessness has internal attributes.

It is true that both of these types of learned helplessness can lead to depression. There is a difference, however, between the depth and quality of the type of depression.

Learned helplessness and universal helplessness

People that have a sense of universal helplessness, and therefore, attribute external reasons for any of their problems, also have more control over a situation. This is because they are more likely to blame outside factors for problems or failures in their lives.

Learned helplessness and personal helplessness

In contrast, those who have a personal sense of helplessness tend to blame themselves or find internal reasons for failures in their lives. These people will tend to believe they have no control over what is happening.

One study looked at how depression was linked to universal helplessness or personal helplessness. This particular study took 50 elderly women, some depressed and some not, and asked them to complete a simple guessing game.

The depressed women cited a lack of ability for their failure of the game, but any success was attributed to luck. Those women who were not depressed did the opposite. They attributed failure to bad luck and success to ability.

The test showed that the depressed women viewed themselves as personally helpless. The women who were not depressed saw themselves as universally helpless (in other words everyone would fail the task).

So what does this mean when it comes to explaining why people with learned helplessness give up on life?

People with learned helplessness are more likely to feel personally helpless and this leads to feelings of:

The great thing about learned helplessness is that it can be unlearned. The first factor to recognise is that you have control over your future and your actions. You can start to focus on the things in your life that you do have control over, and stop worrying about what you can’t change.

Research has shown that by viewing situations in a more positive way can help to reverse learned helplessness. It can even prevent it in the first place. So simply being optimistic can improve your feelings about the situation you’re in.

Being optimistic can also increase your energy, and more energy leads to more productivity, which is likely to produce better results.

So the next time you are faced with what appears to be an impossible situation and you feel helpless again, think:

  • I have the free will to change this.
  • This is just temporary things will get better.
  • I can do something about this.

You’ll find learned helplessness soon becomes a thing of the past.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  2. https://psychology.stackexchange.com
Published by
Janey Davies, B.A. (Hons)