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10 Things We Can Learn From Martin Seligman's "Learned Helplessness" Study (1967)

Concerning Seligman, who has produced excellent work over the years in positive psychology - and who recently did a fine interview on The James Altucher Show - there is no way to view this study other than grossly unethical.

Nonetheless, it did yield interesting results that can allow us to make broad generalizations about learned helplessness. We do need to view the study through the prism of the period and understand that such studies were accepted and approved at the time.

The study conducted by Seligman and colleagues can be separated into two parts.

In Part I, three groups of dogs were placed in harnesses.

The first group was harnessed for some time and then released.

The second group was given random electric shocks which the dogs could stop by pressing a lever.

The third group was paired with a dog in the second group and also received shocks; however, these dogs could not stop the shock by pressing a lever.

In Part II, the dogs were placed in a chamber with two compartments separated by a barrier a few inches tall.

Again, the dogs were shocked. Any dog from any group could escape being shocked by jumping over the small barrier to the other side of the box.

The first and second groups of dogs learned how to escape the shocks relatively quickly by jumping to the other compartment.

The majority of the third group of dogs laid down, whined, and passively accepted their situation.

Subsequent studies were conducted on humans using loud, unpleasant noises in lieu of shocks, and the results were similar.

    1. One can be taught via external incentives to believe there are no options in a difficult situation.

    2. When one experiences learned helplessness, one may find it difficult to understand the range of options available to escape a difficult situation.

    3. People who experience learned helplessness may have a bias toward passivity rather than action.

    4. The results of this study may be supported by the behavior of many Nazi concentration camp prisoners.

    Many prisoners of Nazi concentration camps exhibited learned helplessness after being tortured and forced into slavery for long periods of time with virtually no opportunity for escape. Even when they were rescued by Allied forces, many sat seemingly paralyzed and may not have left without the assistance and encouragement of those forces.

    5. Having a sense of agency is critical to one being able to change perceptions of a negative situation.

    One must feel like one is in control of their situation in order to change.

    6. Learned helplessness may create a loop of negative self-talk, which supports the belief that one is helpless, which in turn generates more negative self-talk.

    This was one of the results of Seligman's studies with humans. Common negative self-talk phrases included, "There is nothing I can do," and "I always lose."

    7. Learned helplessness can be used to explain a wide variety of mental disorders, including depression, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

    8. People who experience learned helplessness may believe there is no end to their negative situation.

    9. Seligman proposed a model of internal dialogue called "Learned Optimism."

    This self-talk process is a way to explain events to one's self in a positive and constructive manner, thus breaking the negative self-talk cycle of helplessness.

    10. Other methods for combating learned helplessness are the cultivation of resilience, practicing self-compassion, and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

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