Theory of Learned Helplessness and the experiment by Martin Seligman

In this article, I would like to share with you a theory of learned helplessness and the experiment that is associated with it. This experiment was conducted by Martin Seligman, the American psychologist, in 1967. The theory of learned helplessness is based on this experiment. Let’s review the details!

Theory of Learned HelplessnessThe Experiment

Part 1

This experiment involved three groups of dogs and consisted of two parts. In part one, the first group of dogs was simply held in the cage and later released. Next, group two and three were paired in separate cages. These cages, even though seemingly similar, had one distinct difference. The lever that was installed inside of each cage could stop the electric shock for the group two dogs, but not for the group three. In other words, when the group three dog pressed the lever, it did absolutely nothing. However, when the group two dog pressed its lever, the electric shock would stop for both group two and group three dogs. Therefore, it seemed to the group three dog that the electric shocks came and stopped at random and there was absolutely nothing it could do.

Part 2

Later, the part two of the experiment was conducted. The part two of the experiment involved the same three groups of dogs. The dogs were placed in the cage, where they were electrocuted again, but had a chance to escape by jumping over the low barrier into the other side of the cage, where the floors were not electrocuted. Both groups one and two learned the escape strategy almost instantaneously. Group three, however, demonstrated a, what was called, the learned helplessness phenomena. While electrocuted, these dogs simply continued to lie down and whine without even trying to escape, even though the escape was simple and obvious.

Learned helplessness and humans

The reason I am sharing this information with you, is because, humans who suffer from mental distress like depression, too, have learned helplessness phenomena present. It is this unwillingness to act, that keeps us down, in a chronic state of failure. Because everything seems out of our control, this is also known as sense of mastery. In a constant state of stress, it might seem like there is no way out of it, while the escape might be so simple and obvious and all we have to do, is just jump on the other side of the barrier.

I also would like to point out the word “learned” here. Because something that was learned, can be unlearned, right? Imagine if the experimenters in the above mentioned experiment did a part three. In that part three, they showed the dogs from group three that they actually could escape electric shock this time. These group three dogs would no longer have learned helplessness.


Farukh Abdullayev – –

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References and Bibliography:

Seligman, M. E. P. (1972). “Learned helplessness”. Annual Review of Medicine. pp 407–412.

Hiroto, D.S.; Seligman, M.E.P. (1975). “Generality of learned helplessness in man”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  pp 311–27.

Chang, E.C.; Sanna, L.J. (2007). “Affectivity and psychological adjustment across two adult generations: Does pessimistic explanatory style still matter?”. Personality and Individual Differences. pp 1149–59.

Henry, P.C. (2005). “Life stress, explanatory style, hopelessness, and occupational stress”. International Journal of Stress Management. pp 241–56.

Encyclopedia Britannica – Learned Helplessness – – retrieved December 2017.