What Is Learned Helplessness and Why It Matters

The Journey Continues

This is part four of my series on locus of control. So far, I've discussed what locus of control is and how it manifests in your life, the biological basis of your need for control, and the effect that your perceived locus of control has on your physical and emotional well-being. Exploring the concept of locus of control a little further, today I’m going to talk to you about what happens in situations where control is taken away from you, which can result in something called learned helplessness.

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At the opposite end of the spectrum from being empowered to take control of your circumstances are situations where control is ruthlessly taken from you. When human beings are continuously exposed to situations where they have little to no control over anything, it often results in learned helplessness. That term was coined by University of Pennsylvania professor Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D. in the 1970s. His research on this topic has since spawned an entire branch of psychological research, and he has come to be known as the father of positive psychology. He has focused his entire career on researching, writing and speaking about the idea of positive psychology, resilience, learned helplessness and it’s corollary, learned optimism.

Some terrible examples of learned helplessness

A couple of real-world examples of learned helplessness are when people are taken as prisoners of war or placed in concentration camps. Those unfortunate people are almost always stripped of their dignity, and basic needs like adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical care are often withheld from them, not to mention the physical abuse and even torture that many have endured. They are also usually denied something just as essential to the mental and physical well being of all humans: autonomy. Unfortunately, there are many examples from history where people were denied the ability to make even the simplest decisions for themselves, like when to sleep or go to the bathroom, or whether they could even speak.

Prolonged exposure to that kind of environment exacts a huge physical and psychological toll. As a result, many eventually either suffer irreparable psychological trauma or lose the will to live. For every story of the triumph of the human spirit like Viktor Frankl, John McCain or Louis Zamperini, there are hundreds of others who succumb to their circumstances and die a slow, miserable death.

Viktor Frankl is a prime example of someone who transcended his circumstances to reject learned helplessness
John McCain is a prime example of someone who transcended his circumstances to reject learned helplessness
Louis Zamperini is a prime example of someone who transcended his circumstances to reject learned helplessness

When subjected to the evils of imprisonment, internment, neglect and abuse, people will do just about anything to feel like they have some control over their situation. As we’ve seen from the research discussed previously, this isn’t just something people want or that’s nice to have, it seems to be a fundamental biological need.

Can you avoid learned helplessness?

Making choices, however arbitrary or seemingly insignificant, is one small way you can convince yourself that you have some level of control over a situation, and therefore avoid the malaise of learned helplessness. For those held in concentration or POW camps, those choices were sometimes visible to and in direct rebellion against their captors, such as refusing to get up or perform work as instructed. Unfortunately, that self-sabotaging type of choice, while often effective at communicating hope and solidarity to others who share the same plight, usually elicits severe punishment or even death.

Not everyone in captivity resorts to such extreme attempts to exert control, however. Some resilient individuals find simple ways to make choices that go unnoticed by their captors, such as devising silent methods of communication or even creating mental routines or games to occupy their minds. Those tactics are psychological defense mechanisms that allow people to satisfy their basic psychological and biological need for control, thereby avoiding learned helplessness.

How does this apply to me?

In less extreme circumstances that you and I are familiar with, people use routines, both mental and physical, to make sense of and bring about feelings of order and normalcy to their lives. This behavior is a coping strategy to combat stress and feelings of overwhelm. The more challenging and unpredictable the situation, the more we seek to exert control by employing familiar routines. Rituals and routines give you a feeling of control because they are often initiated by you and because you know how the story ends, so to speak. This knowledge gives you the perception of control, because you made a choice that brought about a desired outcome. In a sea of uncertainty, routines can create an island of control, however small, to which your mind can cling.

An example that illustrates this point even better is people with cognitive disabilities. Many disabled people crave patterns and routines even more so than non-disabled people. Because they don't understand how the world works in the same way that you or I do, they can’t always recognize contextual cues and use inductive or deductive reasoning to figure out what’s likely to happen in different situations. As a result, the world is, in general, a more unpredictable place to them. Recognizable patterns, therefore, provide solace from the stress that unpredictability creates.

Another example of using routines or rituals to create a feeling of control is religion. Religion, by its very definition, is a way for humans to answer existential questions. When you face a particularly challenging or difficult situation for which there doesn’t seem to be a good reason or which seems unfair, religion can help you frame those situations within a broader context and reveal a sense of order to the world. Prayer, offerings and other religious rituals provide the human brain the feeling that our actions have the ability to influence an otherwise chaotic world. I’m not making a judgment about religion of any kind here. I’m simply pointing out the utility of religious beliefs. This interpretation is true whether you believe in the being or higher power who provides that order or not.

As you can see, the human mind does not react favorably to situations where control is stripped away from it. People go to extreme lengths to exert even the tiniest, seemingly insignificant level of control, in order to avoid the feeling that you can’t do anything to affect the circumstances or outcomes in your life. In my next post, we’ll see why, in non-extreme circumstances, that desire for control is not always rational.

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