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Learned Helplessness Theory


Explanations > Theories > Learned Helplessness Theory

Description | Research | Example | So What? | See also | References 



How we attribute the events that occur in our lives has a significant effect on our attitudes and efforts in improving our lot. In particular there are three types of belief affect us:

  • Stable or unstable cause: If we believe that events are caused by factors which do not change, we assume that it is not worth us trying to change them. So if I believe my success is based on an unchangeable ability, it will seem that it is not worth my trying to improve myself.
  • Internal or External cause: We can believe that events are caused by ourselves or something outside of ourselves. If I assume a serious car crash was my fault, I will be less likely to drive again than if I attribute it to a greasy road.
  • Global or Specific cause: If we believe that events are caused by a large number of factors then we feel we can do less to change things than if we see few and specific causes.


Seligman rang a bell whilst shocking a restrained dog. He then allowed it to move out of the way and rang the bell again. The dog did not move! What it had learned was not that ringing a bell means pain, but that it is futile trying to get away from shocks. 


If a poor test result is attributed to a lack of intrinsic capability as evidenced by many past failures, then we are likely to reduce our efforts, be more depressed and view ourselves in an ever-fading light.

So what?

Using it

To build influence, make and encourage attributions about other people so they learn helplessness and become dependent on you.

To help people become less helpless, show them what is happening. Help them make attributions that lead to positive actions and 'learned confidence'.


Positively seek unstable, external and specific causes that mean you can change your world. Guard against friends and others who push you into dependence.

See also

Attribution Theory, Classical Conditioning

Barmecidal feasts, Emperor's clothes, social rules and leadership




Abramson, Seligman and Teasdale (1978), Seligman (1992)


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