Perspectives on Learned Helplessness

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"Perspectives on Learned Helplessness"
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Learned helplessness affects people in many ways, for many different reasons. In older folks, learned helplessness can be mistaken for many other memory associated diseases consistent with growing old. This is especially true for old folks who are hospitalized. They are not allowed to do much more than feed themselves, and sometimes even that task is done by a "caregiver".

Looking deeply into this scenario, we are not helping the older person, but rather, engraving a sense of unworthiness, uselessness, and social failure. Every task is done for them and they soon feel like they are failing and can't help themselves. The hospital provides an adequate environment in which the patients are uncontrollably dependent on others due to dis-empowering care. Seligman (as cited in Faulkner, 2001) stated, "a patient's development of dependence following exposure to dis-empowering care may best be explained using the substantive psychological theory of learned helplessness: when organisms experience uncontrollable events, they form an expectation that future events will be uncontrollable as well".

This is an interesting perspective on learned helplessness because we generally think we are helping the older folks by doing all that we can for them. It seems that just the opposite affect is true. The old people soon feel inadequate, and worse, the feeling of loosing control. This does not just happen in the situation of being hospitalized. An even bigger "strike" against the old folks occurs when they are no longer allowed to drive vehicles. This is a total loss of control and very devastating to most of them.

A similar situation occurs with battered women. They suffer abuse for such a long time and soon think they have no control over the situation. They sometimes suffer for fear of additional abuse, and in many cases, the assumption that the abuser is still a "good" person. They generally lose control of the situation they are in. "Battered women who are abused repeatedly, unpredictably, and uncontrollably learn to become helpless and to assume that they have no control over their situation" (Palker-Corell and Marcus, 2005).

As can be seen here learned helplessness has many faces. There are no age restrictions, no sex or race discrimination, and no specific reason that stands out as a major cause of this dilemma.


Faulkner, M. (2001). The onset and alleviation of learned helplessness in older hospitalized people. Aging and Mental Health, 5(4), 379-386.

Palker-Corell, A., & Marcus, D.K. (2005). Partner abuse, learned helplessness, and trauma symptoms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23(4), 445-462.

More about this author: William Guilmette

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