Sunday, May 31, 2009

Learned Helplessness

Dogs were given a harmless but uncomfortable shock. After several of these they quickly learned ways to avoid any more shocks. A few dogs were put into situations in which they could never do anything to stop the shocks. Eventually, they just stopped trying to avoid the discomfort — even when their situation changed and they were given the opportunity to avoid the shocks. These dogs just sat there while getting shocked even though it would have been easy for them to avoid the discomfort. They had been taught to be helpless. They had learned that nothing they did mattered. They had just given up.

As psychologists began to conduct similar research with humans they found similar results. People who learn to be helpless have an outlook on life that is pessimistic. Optimistic people are convinced they have options and choices in all of life's situations.

So, the concept of Learned Helplessness came into existence in the mid 1960s. Until this time, most psychologists believed one of two concepts: either humans acted the way they did solely because of rewards and punishments or emotional problems were the result of deep, mysterious unresolved conflicts (mostly sexual in nature). By doing carefully designed experiments, psychologists began to recognize the importance of thought processes for determining our behavior.

Several professionals began to discover that helping to change people's thoughts brought about a change in emotions and behavior. Albert Ellis, a New York psychologist, became disillusioned with psychoanalysis and discovered that his clients would get better when he could help them change the way they thought about themselves and the world. Aaron Beck was a psychiatrist who also found that psychoanalysis was not a very helpful treatment for people with problems. Martin Selgiman, a psychologist who was later to become a president of the American Psychologial Association, joined Dr. Beck in the quest for finding out how to find better ways to help people change their destructive thinking.

The researchers had one situation they couldn't explain, however. Namely, not all people who were taught to be helpless in the laboratory actually became helpless. Some people never adopted helplessness as a result of the experiments. As Dr. Seligman pondered this, he recognized that the results depended on the beliefs each research subject brought to the experiments. Those who could be taught to become helpless had a more pessimistic view of life, while those who did not become helpless were more optimistic in their outlook.

This difference in how optimists and pessimists see the world is called "explanatory style." Pessimists explain and understand their lives in three predictable ways. They see misfortune as personal, permanent, and pervasive.

When bad things happen to pessimists they believe they are the cause. This can even happen at an early age. One mother brought her 7-year-old son to me because every time he heard about something bad happening in the world, even on the other side of the planet, he believed that he was somehow at fault. As with many parts of our being, we often learn certain traits at an early age.

Pessimists also believe that troubles will never go away (troubles are permanent). So many of my clients that I see in my private practice don't think their life will ever change. They are skeptical that I can help them and are often in my office because it is their last hope. One of the rewards of my job is to have these folks tell me as they leave one of the early sessions, "Doc, I feel so much better because I finally have hope."

Not only do pessimists believe they are the cause of all their problems or that nothing will ever change, they also believe that tribulations are what life is all about. "My entire life is messed up" is a phrase I hear often. Even though we may talk in therapy about other areas of a person's life that are going well, they still believe that every nook and cranny of their life is futile.

This is the exact opposite of how optimists explain personal misfortune. Optimists will look for causes outside themselves for why life just went off track. They see the causes as external not internal. They also believe that bad things are temporary and the exception to life rather than the rule of life. Finally, optimists don't understand misfortunate as being so pervasive. Although they accept the bad situation, they also are well aware of other areas of their lives that are going well.

Let's look an example. Your house is robbed while you are out for the evening. Both pessimists and optimists would agree this is a very bad situation. However, pessimists would take it personally and blame themselves for not checking the locks or thinking it would not have happened if they had stayed home. The optimist would not shrug off the event in a Pollyanna type of response. Acknowledging the robbery as awful, she would realize that there was probably nothing (reasonably) she could have done differently to have avoided the robbery.

The pessimist would also think the situation was permanent: "Every time I go out for the evening, something always bad happens." or "Now I have to live always thinking about when this will happen to me again." The optimist sees this as a rare event but will probably explore any possibilities for trying to minimize a similar event in the future.

Finally, the pessimist will explain the robbery as a pervasive event: "See, things like this always happen to me." or "This robbery just goes to show you that my entire life is one bad event after the other." The optimist will think about all the things in her life that are still going well. She still has a good job, great friends, money in the bank.

Does all this mean that if you have learned to be a pessimist you have to live the rest of your life this way? Not at all. The opposite of learned helplessness is called learned optimism. This will be the subject of next week's article.

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