Learned helplessness

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Also See Epimemetics

Learned helplessness, as a technical term in animal psychology and related human psychology, means a condition of a human being or an animal in which it has learned to behave helplessly, even when the opportunity is restored for it to help itself by avoiding an unpleasant or harmful circumstance to which it has been subjected.

The American psychologist Martin Seligman's foundational experiments and theory of learned helplessness began at University of Pennsylvania in 1967, as an extension of his interest in depression. Quite by accident, Seligman and colleagues discovered that the conditioning of dogs led to outcomes that opposed the predictions of B.F. Skinner's behaviorism, then a leading psychological theory.

In part one of Seligman and Steve Maier's experiment, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses. Group One dogs were simply put in the harnesses for a period of time and later released. Groups Two and Three consisted of "yoked pairs." A dog in Group 2 would be intentionally subjected to pain by being given electric shocks, which the dog could end by pressing a lever. A Group 3 dog was wired in parallel with a Group 2 dog, receiving shocks of identical intensity and duration, but his lever didn't stop the electric shocks. To a dog in Group 3, it seemed that the shock ended at random, because it was his paired dog in Group 2 that was causing it to stop. For Group 3 dogs, the shock was apparently "inescapable." Group 1 and Group 2 dogs quickly recovered from the experience, but Group 3 dogs learned to be helpless, and exhibited symptoms similar to chronic clinical depression.

In part two of the Seligman and Maier experiment, these three groups of dogs were tested in a shuttle-box apparatus, in which the dogs could escape electric shocks by jumping over a low partition. For the most part, the Group 3 dogs, who had previously "learned" that nothing they did had any effect on the shocks, simply lay down passively and whined. Even though they could have easily escaped the shocks, the dogs didn't try.

In a second experiment later that year, Overmier and Seligman ruled out the possibility that the Group 3 dogs learned some behavior in part one of the experiment, while they were struggling in the harnesses against the "inescapable shocks," that somehow interfered with what would have been their normal, successful behavior of escaping from the shocks in part two. The Group 3 dogs were immobilized with a paralyzing drug (Curare), and underwent a procedure similar to that in part one of the Seligman and Maier experiment. A similar part two in the shuttle-box was also undertaken in this experiment, and the Group 3 dogs exhibited the same "helpless" response.

However, not all of the dogs in Seligman's experiments became helpless. Of the roughly 150 dogs in experiments in the latter half of the 1960s, about one-third did not become helpless, but instead managed to find a way out of the unpleasant situation despite their past experience with it. The corresponding characteristic in humans has been found to correlate highly with optimism; however, not a naïve Polyannaish optimism, but an explanatory style that views the situation as other than personal, pervasive, or permanent. This distinction between people who adapt and those who break down under long-term psychological pressure was also studied in the 1950s in the context of Brain washing.

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