A theory put forward by
based largely on some pretty nasty animal experiments, that
the experience of being put in a position in which there is
no possibility of escape from harm or pain can lead to an overall
fatalism and resignation, in which it is believed that there
is no point in trying to improve the situation. More generally,
can describe a belief in one's own powerlessness, which renders
futile any attempt to learn.
Typical experiments include the demonstration that dogs,
confined in a cage where they have no possibility of escaping
shocks from an electrified floor, no longer attempt to escape
such shocks when the opportunity is presented (this bears a
resemblance to the
learning experiment): and that rats, which normally swim
for 48 hours before drowning in a tank, only manage eight hours
after having been held tightly and long enough to cease struggling
before being put in the tank.
Learned helplessness, although explored largely within the
behavioral paradigm, is a form of meta-learning, or what Bateson
would call learning II (or even III).
It sets out a general orientation towards learning rather than
an account of how a specific item of knowledge or skill is learned
Its particular relevance has been explored to various forms
of depressive illness, but it also provides an elegant account
of disaffection among students, who have "given up"
on the formal educational process as a way of learning anything.
They have lost (or never gained) any sense of the connection
between their efforts in school or college and any meaningful
achievement, and therefore (from the educational standpoint)
the major task for them is to re-establish
this link. On a wider front, the principle can be associated
with the "culture of poverty" and the idea of a
Although the models could hardly be more different,
there is a link with Mezirow's notion of "transformative
learning": participants in adult basic education, for
example, need to re-evaluate their whole position about their
capabilities to learn, in order to be able to benefit from what
Seligman has since turned his attention to strategies
for overcoming learned helplessness.
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