Learned Helplessness

As Seligman, Maier, and Overmier discovered, exposure to uncontrollable aversive events can have profound impacts on future learning, a phenomenon called "learned helplessness." In learned helplessness, an organism that has been exposed to uncontrollable aversive events later has an impaired ability to learn to escape from aversive situations and even to learn new, unrelated behaviors. The phenomenon was accidentally discovered in laboratory research with dogs. Seligman and his colleagues found that dogs that were exposed to electrical shocks in a harness, with no possibility of es cape, later could not learn to escape shocks in a shuttle box in which they had only to jump to the other side. Disturbingly, they would lie down and whimper, not even trying to get away from the completely avoidable shocks. Dogs that had not been exposed to the uncontrollable shocks learned to escape in the shuttle box rapidly. More important, dogs exposed to the same number and pattern of shocks, but with the ability to turn them off, also had no trouble learning to escape in the shuttle box. In other words, it was the exposure to uncontrollable shocks, not just shocks, that produced the later deficit in escape learning. Moreover, the dogs that had been exposed to uncontrollable aversive events also had difficulties learning other, unrelated, tasks. This basic result has since been found many times with many different types of situations, species, and types of aversive events. For example, learned helplessness has been shown to occur in dogs, cats, mice, rats, ger-bils, goldfish, cockroaches, and even slugs. Humans show the learned helplessness phenomenon in laboratory studies as well. For example, people exposed to an uncontrollable loud static noise later solved fewer anagrams (word puzzles) than people exposed to the same amount and pattern of noise but who could turn it off.

Learned helplessness has major implications for the understanding and treatment of human depression. Although certainly the case with people is more complex, animals that have developed learned helplessness in the laboratory show similarities to depressed people. For example, they have generalized reduced behavioral output. Similarly, researchers discovered early on that learned helplessness in rats could be prevented by treatment with anti-depressant medication. Furthermore, exposure to uncontrollable aversive events produces deficiencies in immune system function, resulting in greater physical ailments, in both animals and people. In people, serial combinations of uncontrollable aversive events, such as sudden and unexpected loss of a spouse or child, being laid off from a job, or losing a home to fire, can result in the feeling that one is powerless and doomed. These feelings of helplessness can then produce changes, such as decreased interest in life and increased illness, which further compound the situation. Fortunately, there are effective treatments for learned helplessness. One solution already mentioned is antidepressant medication, which may work in part because it overcomes the physiological changes produced by the helpless experience. Additionally, therapy to teach effective coping and successful learning experiences can reverse learned helplessness in people and laboratory animals.

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