Learned helplessness is a relatively new concept in psychology. However, because of its importance in diseases as common as depression, it is being cited more and more often. But what is learned helplessness? Well, it is indeed a learning process during which you convince yourself that you do not have the resources to defend yourself. Those who are ruled by the helplessness that has been learned in relation to one area of life or globally understands that they do not have the necessary tools to act competently.
We have just moved from “defending” to “being competent”, although they are not the same. Indeed, we can understand the perceived ability to defend ourselves to be one of the many perceived competencies we may have. Then why did we talk about defense? Because it is the context in which learned helplessness is best explored.
Let’s see how this investigation started. Bruce Overmier and Martin Seligman were the first to describe this concept. Her studies focused on examining the relationship between classical conditioning and aversive instrumental conditioning. Through their experiments, they discovered that dogs were unable to learn a simple avoidance response after a specific condition. This condition was nothing more than being subjected to electrical shocks that they could not escape.
In the first phase of the experiment, for example, the dogs had learned that they had no control over the discharges, which is why they had turned their focus on other elements: why should they keep trying to flee if they had already found out they couldn’t? could? Jorge Bucay takes up the same idea in one of his most famous stories: how past insights influence our present and future behavior.
The learned helplessness in man
The learned helplessness has the advantage – if we start from the point of view of the examiner – that it can be inoculated into people relatively easily, in the context of experiments that are ethically justifiable. This has enabled scientists from around the world to study them in a controlled context. So we know today that when we hand over lists of letters to two groups of test persons in order to form meaningful words, they perform very differently, if one of the groups previously had the same task and could not solve a list due to its difficulty.
In this case there is no electric shock, there is no aversive stimulus, but we continue to see how a previous experience can rob us of our problem-solving ability in the face of a future challenge that we could overcome without this previous learning experience. To come back to our example: people who have tried for half an hour to find a word on different lists learn that they are facing a challenge that they cannot handle. You then start saving resources to invest in later tasks.
So they will not be in this position the minimum investment of resources to be able to cope with the easily detachable lists. In fact, they are unable to move for a while, in a position of helplessness. Just like the dogs that did not try to escape the discharges.
On the other hand, we see how we can help out the drooping group when we get them out of this position of helplessness. But how? By telling the test subjects, for example, that the difficulty of the exercises has decreased. We can also tell them that we saw that other groups were also slow to find words. From this more favorable position, they will then try to regain control.
The learned helplessness related to depression
Regardless of the differences, in many cases of depression something similar happens. The person concerned stopped looking for work after months behind closed doors. He stopped going out with friends after having several negative experiences in a social context. He stopped … because he saw, learned, that he can’t change the situation. He understood that the result of work and effort is the same as that of standing still and doing nothing.
This learning has damaged his self-concept. Because the person concerned sees that what happens to him is always the same, he finally convinces himself that his ineffectiveness has to do with his own (inner) characteristic: lack of intelligence, lack of attractiveness, lack of value. Then, besides not taking any action to change the situation, he starts feeling very bad. In other words, his self-esteem has also started to suffer.
From that moment on, he is no longer looking for solutions, for supplies. He doesn’t feel in the mood to do anything. He feels that the weight he is carrying is too great and the lights are going out. He feels that there is only one way out, and that is to accept the condition. The problem with this is that she leads an internal dialogue that pulls her further and further towards the bottom of the well.
As we can see, learned helplessness is not what drops us, what robs us of our freedom. No, it is the poison that attacks our mental foundation, breaks it down and sinks it as a result. It is precisely because of the complexity of the factors and the special behavior of each individual affected that it is advisable to seek the help of a specialist if depression is suspected.