Learned helplessness is a maladaptive behavior in which the inability to avoid past negative stimuli results in future inability to act or react to additional negative stimuli, even if such stimuli are avoidable. This behavioral reaction can be observed in humans and animals, and also can be bred as a trait in laboratory test subjects. An example of animal LH would be a rat that refused to climb onto a platform to escape being submerged in water following having to swim in a beaker of water with slippery glass sides for intervals of twenty minutes (this example was used because the “forced swim test“ can often be found in the lab).
An example of human LH would be an individual who applied to a series of colleges and got rejection letters to all of them, and instead decided to join the labor force rather than take remedial courses or apply to an open enrollment community college. Strategies for overcoming learned helplessness and the relevance of animal research is discussed below.
The theory of LH was first demonstrated during animal testing at the University of Pennsylvania by Seligman and Maier (1967). Dogs placed into a “shuttle box” were yoked so they could not escape being given an electric shock, whereas they had displayed normal escape/avoidance behavior prior to being restrained. The researchers found that the escape/avoidance mechanism broke down after several shocks being yoked, and persisted after seven days of rest after the last session.
Applying these findings to human correlates took place in 1974, when Hiroto exposed college students to loud, sustained noise. The control group was exposed to no noise at all, the “solvable” group was able to terminate the noise by pressing a button four times, and the “unsolvable” group was unable to cease the noise in any way. In the test phase, the results paralleled the findings of Seligman and Maier, with the “unsolvable” group being least able to implement instructions on how to move a handle to cease the noise (Mikulincer 1994).
LH may have a genetic basis as well–Enkel et al. have bred rats that exhibited learned helplessness traits (cLH) based on their response to random foot shocks. Such rats and their offspring would forgo condensed milk (a sweet and rewarding treat) in the presence of sustained stressors such as being forced to live in isolation in the dark. Such animals live in a state of anhedonia, or the inability to partake and enjoy pleasurable states (2010).
Moreover, Aznar et al. have found that cLH rats have “reduced hippocampus serotonin neurotransmission and brain derived autotrophic factor (BDNF) levels” (2010). Most professional literature concedes that individuals have different susceptibility to both depression and LH with strong family correlates. The neurochemical impact of these experiments on rats and dogs include a decrease in GABA present in hippocampal slices, a decrease in the release of serotonin from both the neocortex and septal slices (and as we know is similar to the neurochemical state in the depressed brain) (Sherman and Petty 1982).
Bibring claimed that helplessness lay at the core of depressive feelings (1953), and it is hardly surprising that being immobilized to the point of inaction can bring on feelings of depression and anhedonia. The symptoms of LH are also similar to that of depression: “alterations in rapid eye movement sleep, reduced body weight, diminished sexual behavior, and altered secretions of stress hormones” (Tarazi and Schetz 2005).
Affected populations include the elderly, who often feel that mild cognitive decline and certain loss of freedoms signal a totality of loss of control over their personal lives and an inevitable decline in their health (Rodin 1986). Another susceptible population are battered women, who constantly are told that they are worthless and threatened with physical violence if they leave. Such women often relinquish their freedom in stages, until they no longer drive their cars or are willing to meet with family and friends. Seligman also identifies vulnerable populations as minorities, those living in prisons, forced labor camps, the disabled, and those who experience extreme poverty and abuse (quoted in Huebner 1995).
One of the beneficial aspects of being human is our ability to adapt and reason our circumstances. Peterson and Vaidya suggest that the tendency of people to generalize situations can lead to or exacerbate learned helplessness. An example would be concluding that you perform poorly in school and that you will continue to fail in any academic pursuit that you undertake, when in reality you may have a treatable learning disorder, a poor teacher, or do not test well (quoted in Coon and Mitterer 2008).
Another way to prevent LH is mastery training, where participants gain proficiency over a challenging or stressful threat or environment. Both animals and humans are less likely to become depressed or give up, even when faced with a truly hopeless situation, if they were able to gain mastery over a stressor in the past (ibid). Tarazi and Schetz point out that rats who exhibited LH symptoms from being suspended by their tails responded to antidepressant medications by renewed struggling after the LH behavior was identified. They also suggest that the effect would be more profound if the antidepressants were continued, since in human subjects positive results continue to increase for up to a month (2005).
Personal thoughts on LH bring to mind its seeming opposite, the dedication to a Lacanian perseverance even when success is unobtainable. This is also similar to Freud’s assertions in Civilization and its Discontents, where the engines of failure and repression are turned toward productivity in other areas. The theory of mind that serves people so well in terms of empathy and encouragement in the face of the finality of death could probably also serve to insulate people against the effects of LH, which is a benefit most animals do not have the privilege of.