Perspectives on Learned Helplessness

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Learned helplessness is primarily linked with the work of Martin E. P. Seligman's theory of learned helplessness (LHT). Seligman identified LHT to occur when a person; or animal believes that outcomes are independent of their actions'. In other words, individuals or animals feel that they are powerless in a given situation, and don't have the power to make a difference.

Although this theory was initially tested on dogs, Seligman argued that LHT is an important feature of human experience, especially for those who are socially, economically and politically disadvantaged. It may be for example that learning to be helpless can be closely related to the phenomenon of institutionalisation, whereby people who have been in long-stay hospitals and residential units appear to lose their individuality and the capacity for self-direction. This may occur because a majority of people in institutions have very limited ability to control their own lives. Whatever they do, however they are, their life is still pretty much determined by the routines and demands of the institution.'

As it can be seen, personal control will be a critical factor in the well-being of an individual facing long-term care. If they feel that whatever they do will have little effect on what happens to them, they may eventually give up and diminish their sense of personal control, hence learn to be helpless. The effect of this for example could be an elderly person ending up in a residential or nursing care setting, and as a result others within those institutions may place themselves in the position where they will feel it is their duty to make decisions on that elderly persons behalf. As a result of this loss of personal control, an elderly person's physical and mental health may decrease at a faster pace than it would if they had retained their sense of control.

Although Seligman's theory coincides with the institutionalisation effect discussed above, it must be noted here that LHT is not just applicable in nursing and residential settings; it can also apply in any given scenario where an individual may feel socially, economically or politically disadvantaged. This makes LHT very much subjective in nature, and regardless of whether or not that individual is at a disadvantage, they may learn to be helpless based on their internal perception.

Seligman goes on to consider LHT in relation to depression, which he considered to be a state characterised by a lack of affect and feeling.' He felt that depressed people became that way because they learned to be helpless, and felt that whatever they did, they would remain depressed. Furthermore, during the course of their lives, they would learn that they have no control.

As it can be seen, learned helplessness can be used as an explanation for a number of things, however years later after Seligman's theory; 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 bad events in more pessimistic ways than a non-depressed person. He called this an explanatory style' of thinking. For example a depressed/ pessimistic person who lost a 100m sprint would explain them losing it by considering factors such as they were slow', unlucky', that they didn't have time to prepare for the race'. As can be seen, these types of individuals base failure around themselves being at the centre, e.g. I failed'. On the other hand an individual who is more optimistic would base any potential failure on someone or something else. For example, they would use explanations such as the other runners false started', or the race was fixed as the other runners had been training with professional athletes and coaches'. Furthermore, this negative thinking also applies when considering the outcome of a good event, where depressive would say I was lucky during the race', discounting their ability. The optimist on the other hand would say something more encouraging such as I was the fastest', the best'.

These explanatory styles', are often learnt from those close to us through observing their behaviour, and as an individual can learn to be helpless, they can also learn to be optimistic. This can overcome depression by learning new explanatory styles'. Cognitive therapy can assist with challenging pessimism, as it can challenge the client's beliefs and explanations of certain life's events. If you feel depressed because you lost a race, or failed your driving test, or anything else, potential negative thoughts can be disputed and challenged so that a more optimistic and positive way of thinking can be learned.

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