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Two New Views of Learned Helplessness

written by Dwayne Thomas 28 June 2017

Dwayne Allen Thomas, MAPP '16, is an attorney and a 2016 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Master of Applied Positive Psychology program. He was awarded the Chris Peterson Memorial Fellowship by the MAPP Alumni Association. See his Facebook page for information about his writing. His writing also appears on his LinkedIn profile and on his Equal Results web site. Dwayne's articles for Positive Psychology News can be found here.


Fifty years ago, Steven Maier and Martin Seligman introduced learned helplessness, theorizing that animals could learn that their actions do not affect outcomes. Once they learned that nothing they did mattered, animals stopped trying to escape. This held true even when escape was possible.

The Theory was Backwards

Today, Maier and Seligman say they got it backwards. Animals do not learn to be passive. Rather, passivity is an unlearned, default response to extended aversive events. Animals overcome this passivity by learning control, and the expectation of control mediates future responses to aversive events.

Their revised opinion results from neuro-scientific research. In the 1990s, Maier, now a neuroscientist, noted that helplessness deficits expressed themselves as either inhibited fight or flight, or exaggerated fear and anxiety responses. Starting there, he and his colleagues began to investigate some of the neural circuitry that regulates our fight/flight and fear/anxiety responses.

Maier and colleagues learned that both escapable and inescapable shocks activate the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN), a part of the brain connected to both fight/flight and fear/anxiety circuitry. However, when the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), a part of the brain associated with risk processing, detects escapable shocks, it inhibits the DRN and turns off the effects of the shock. Maier and Seligman dubbed the circuit created between the DRN and vmPFC the hope circuit, noting that hope is likely the best defense against helplessness. Hope is defined in attribution theory as the expectation that future bad events will be temporary, local, and controllable.

There is, of course, more work to be done, but Maier and Seligman are hopeful that these new insights will prove useful to researchers and practitioners.

The Theory was Incomplete

Meanwhile, the summer Maier and Seligman published their findings, I was writing my capstone. There, I theorized that Abramson, Seligman, and Teasdale’s attribution theory was incomplete. Attribution theory considers helplessness in humans. It posits that when we humans realize we are helpless, we try to ascribe it to a cause. Our automatic answers determine whether we experience helplessness deficits, how strong they are, and how long they last.

I posited that at least some of these answers are not automatic. Instead they are learned through cultural transmission. To anthropologists, culture is information acquired consciously and unconsciously from others that can affect our behavior. We learn this information through teaching, imitation, and other forms of social transmission. Over time, learned behavior becomes automatic as it passes into our long-term memory. This allows us to behave more easily in ways valued by our society.

I contend that at least some of our attribution explanations are not automatic but instead learned through this mechanism. Thus significant portions of a population are likely to experience helplessness deficits if subjected to aversive stimuli that do not cause similar deficits in others. These findings hold interesting possibilities for the future of helplessness research. Expectation of control is a key ingredient in whether a person experiences helplessness deficits.

Various populations, such as those experiencing poverty, are marked by expectations that they do not control their futures. Helping people in these populations to see they have more control than they believe may be the first step in helping them achieve better outcomes.


Maier, S. F., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2016). Learned helplessness at fifty: Insights from neuroscience. Psychological Review, 123(4), 349-367. doi: 10.1037/rev0000033

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.

Thomas, D. (2016). Channeling the River: Using Positive Psychology to Prevent Cultural Helplessness, as Applied to African-American Law Students. MAPP Capstone.

Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons license
Brain courtesy of A Health Blog

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